Twenty20 to the rescue?

Amit Varma

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Saturday, July 24, 2004

5.25pm IST

I'd asked yesterday, in my first post, if there was a crisis in cricket. Has the balance of the game shifted, with the bat dominating ball, as we enter, in Gideon Haigh's words, 'a batting bull market'? Or is that just alarmism, with bowlers impacting the game as never before, and ensuring that 77% of all Tests end in results?

Quite a few replies, and the odd virus, streamed into my inbox. (I'm afraid that there were too many replies for me to quote everyone, so please do not be offended if I don't cite you here.) As you'd expect from fervent cricket fans, there wasn't nice congenial agreement all around - how boring would that be?

Some of you felt that there was no crisis in the game at all, and that the dominance of bat over ball, if at all it is really happening, is cyclical. "As long as both scoring rates and strike rates are rising, I see little cause for concern," wrote Neil Bostock, "and indeed only a bonus for cricket lovers, most of whom want both a contest and an exhibition."

O Drakes (What does O stand for, O?) felt that a change in the sport was inevitable. He said, "the real problem looks to me to be that the audience has changed. The new crop of spectators are into fast-paced, high-action games such as soccer, baseball and American football. In many instances they are introduced to cricket well after they have experienced these games and thus their expectations of a professional game are already developed." O redefined the crisis in business terms: "The crisis is in providing entertainment for this new generation of supporters, who will finance the game in coming years, while staying true to the old ways."

Well, Twenty20 would appear to be just that. After initial bursts of cynicism when it first appeared in England last year, this new form of the game has steadily won over many of its doubters. "The genius of Twenty20 is that it has tapped into the country's latent love of cricket," wrote Lawrence Booth earlier this week, in his excellent weekly newsletter, The Spin. Vic Marks has the figures on hand to prove it, but Twenty20 is not just good for the audiences, it is also good for the game. Tim de Lisle wrote recently that "the central magic of the game, its ability to ebb and flow, is not lost".

For those who think that the game features just aimless slogging, Andrew Miller points out, "a quick glance at the batting figures will confirm that it has not been the tuppenny-bit sloggers who have been ruling this show. After two matches each, seven batsmen have now reached 100 runs. Four of these have played international cricket for England, a fifth would have done had he not, after much deliberation, declared himself a `fair-dinkum Aussie', and as for the other two - Yorkshire's Matthew Wood and Glamorgan's Ian Thomas - well, who's to say they won't?"

Twenty20 can even play a part in the globalisation of the sport, a concept that draws politically correct noises, but also evokes moans of digust when a minnow is thrashed by a Test side. One of my correspondents, Martijn Steultjens, is "a cricket-lover from Netherlands", who wrote, "the crisis [in cricket] is the self-centredness of the international cricketing community, embodied by the ICC. Now, I have no desire whatsoever to witness a Test match between Australia and Kenya, Scotland or The Netherlands, for that matter. I am accustomed to international soccer World Cup-qualifying matches between The Netherlands and Andorra, and I would not like to see similar ties recreated in cricket, let alone with the orange men in the Andorra role.

"However, I can see no justification in excluding these countries from playing proper, fully accepted limited-overs matches. They will not become world champions overnight, if ever, but they will slowly raise their game, become competitive and make the game more interesting to more people. Dare I mention Twenty20 cricket? It would be ideal for this purpose."

If we let the direction of the game be defined by its audience, and the audience of the game is expanding, then surely the game will change accordingly. And audiences that have never played cricket before will not be used to the longer forms of the game, with the attention-span that they require. Is Twenty20 cricket the key both to revitalising and globalising the game?

The case for pessimism

Quite a few of the people who wrote in to me felt that cricket does, indeed, favour the batsmen. They were not convinced by the counter-argument, that a larger percentage of Tests in this decade have ended in results than in any other decade since the 1910s, and bowling strike-rates are at their highest point in a century. Murali Donthireddy affirms that there are more results today because of:

1. The dominance of Australia over everyone else.
2. Weaker teams being given Test status.
3. Teams being forced to bowl 90 overs a day, making up any shortfalls. I don't have statistics on this, but I am guessing that if you compare the average number of balls bowled per Test, they were effectively playing 4-day matches in the 70s.
4. Fewer rainouts because pitches are covered and grounds drained better. Overnight rain generally doesn't halt play.
5. Batsmen acquiring risky technique from playing ODIs. So you may see more wickets, but that is not because pitches are challenging, but because batsmen take more risks.

Samir Damle makes that last point as well, and says, "it would be interesting to see a comparison over the decades of batsmen getting out because of a poor shot (rather like an 'unforced error' in tennis) rather than the bowler bowling an absolute beauty (a 'winner' in tennis parlance)." Unfortunately, I don't think cricket has ever recorded such statistics.

A call for intervention

I got quite a few emails saying that the ICC should intervene to correct the alleged imbalance between bat and ball. AR Hemant said, "The set of rules that have dictated the game have been in place for decades now with no real amendments being made. Any changes of note have of course, had bowlers around the world crying for their mommies." Indeed, and see what Warnie's mommie did to him.

"This calls for a greater intervention by the ICC," wrote Mithun Hebbar. "Formula 1 has the FIA which brings in measures to curtail the speed of the car to make it safer for the drivers while maintaining the excitement. As far as I know, there isn't a limit on the weight of the bat used by batsmen. There are laws governing the height and the typical width, but nothing concerning the weight." (I'm not sure Mithun would agree with Kiran Hebbar, though, who says, "The bats have become heavier and better, but the ball continues to be 5 1/2 ounces. The ball has not been made smaller." Yeah, right, let's make the ball smaller and see how batsmen like facing Shoaib Akhtar bowling with a golf ball.)

Baseball, a sport similar to cricket in the sense that it is a team sport that is composed of mini-battles between individuals, has had a stable set of rules since the 19th century, but has made occasional modifications to correct perceived skews, in three areas: the height of the pitcher's mound, the size of the strike zone, and the permissable modifications of the bat. In cricket, as well, occasional interventions have taken place, such as the front-foot no-ball rule replacing the back-foot no-ball rule, the restriction on bouncers, and the many changes to the lbw law over the years. So what should be done now?

Kalyan V Ch and Dhaval Brambatt propose a return to uncovered pitches. Rikaz Sheriff does not quite so far, but wants to institutionalise the process of ensuring that pitches created throughout the world are sporting pitches. "Get the curators into the main framework of the ICC," he writes, "with a panel of pitch inspectors made to assess the standards of pitches around the world. Each pitch should be examined and, with the assistance of the local curator, the target should be a pitch which offers the best to batters and bowlers alike. Monetary penalties should be levied on the respective authorities for failing to do so."

Nice thought, Rikaz, but rather idealistic. When the audiences prefer run-fests, it is unlikely that the trend towards batting beauties will stop anytime soon - especially in the subcontinent. What do you think?

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.

More 23 Yards
Is there a crisis in cricket?
Has the balance of the game shifted, with the bat dominating ball, as we enter 'a batting bull market'? Or is that just alarmism, with bowlers impacting the game as never before, and ensuring that 77% of all Tests end in results? More.

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