Is there a crisis in cricket?

Amit Varma

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This is the first instalment of 23 Yards, the first blog on Wisden Cricinfo, written by our managing editor in India, Amit Varma. This will be updated a few times a week, sometimes many times a day, and aims to be rather more interactive than your standard online column. It will not merely express the writer's views, but also aim to stimulate discussion and start conversations. So feel free to write in if you have something interesting to contribute to whatever is being discussed.

Write to 23 Yards

Friday, July 23, 2004

11.32am IST

There are two kinds of cricket lovers in this world: those who love the game because it is a contest, and those who enjoy it because it is an exhibition. Well, over the last few years, the game seems to have become less of a contest between bat and ball, and more of an exhibition of batting, where bowlers merely turn up so that they can be tonked all over the park, for the enjoyment of the paying public.

"Only 19 scores of 300 or more have been made in the 127-year history of Tests, and six of them have come since 1997. Four of the game's 19 highest innings totals have come this season alone," pointed out Trevor Marshallsea a few weeks ago, in a piece written after Brian Lara's record 400. Gideon Haigh, in an essay in Wisden Asia Cricket, elaborated:

There is now considerable statistical evidence to support the idea that we are in a batting bull market. Average runs per wicket during the 44 Tests played in 2003 was 36: the highest since 1989. Run-rates are virtually unprecedented: since 2000, every team has been scoring faster than in the 1990s - Australia by the factor of a third (3.83 versus 2.95). Swelled by 14 double-hundreds in 2003, individual batting averages are inflating like share prices during the dotcom boom.

Matthew Engel, in his Notes by the Editor in the latest Wisden Almanack, worries that this trend might threaten the fundamental nature of the game. Writing about cricket in 2003, he says, "the pace of batting, and the dominance of bat over ball, seemed rather like global warming: terrifying when you contemplate what it means for the fragile ecology of cricket, with bowlers potentially being driven to the edge of extinction."

So what are the greenhouse gases here? As Haigh points out, one-day cricket has a lot to do with it. Not only has it changed the manner in which captains and bowlers are forced to appoach the game, with containment rather than wicket-taking being the main focus, it has also changed the expectations of spectators. Television and one-day cricket have together created an entirely new class of spectators who do not care much for the subtleties of the game, but want lots of entertaining biffing and baffing.

As the game has gotten more and more commercialised - to a greater degree in the subcontinent than elsewhere - pitches have also become standardised. As Sambit Bal wrote in a recent editorial of Wisden Asia Cricket: "Among the most pernicious fallacies perpetrated by the television age is the notion that a glut of runs equals good cricket. Even seasoned commentators, mostly ex-cricketers, are willing victims of this malady, where the goodness of a pitch is defined by its potential to yield runs in quantity, not quality."

Like triple-centuries, there is no end to reasons for this supposed Golden Age of Batting. The introduction of helmets and the restrictions on bouncers have taken the sting out of the fast-bowler-v-combative-batsman battles; the crowded schedules these days are especially hard on bowlers as opposed to batsmen; heavier bats have made it unneccessary to even middle the ball (when Matthew Hayden mishits them they stay hit); and so on.

There are many questions raised by this trend. Does this imbalance, if indeed we call it that, need corrective measures? Should it be corrected? If so, what should be done to correct it? And should future imbalances, if they arise, also be corrected? How do we define the ideal equilibrium, and why? Just as the price of a product is determined by market forces, should cricket, which cannot survive as an international sport without the commerce that fuels it, have its equilibrium defined by the lowest common denominator? Or, like the value of a currency, should that equilibrium be open to intervention from central bankers - in this case, the administrators of the game?

But has the balance of the game really shifted?

If batsmen biffed all day and bowlers sweated to no avail, you'd expect Test cricket to be particularly boring, with lots of high-scoring draws. But quite the reverse has been the case over the last few years. As many as 77% of Tests in the 2000s have ended in a result, a higher percentage any other decade since the war-affected 1910s, in which only 29 Tests were played. Bowling strike-rates have been higher in the 2000s than in any other decade since, again, the 1910s, and the top two Test wicket-takers in the game's history are both current players. Australia, in particular, have taken the game the game to a new height. As Tim de Lisle wrote recently:

Test cricket today makes many series of the past, even famous ones such as the 1953 Ashes, look turgid. Batsmen attack, fielders dive and slide, bowlers use reverse swing and mystery balls. And matches usually reach a conclusion. In the 1960s, half of England's Tests ended in a draw; in the 1990s, about a third; in the 2000s, less than a quarter. Australia have drawn only five of their past 49 Tests.

(Note that I quote Tim out of context: his article was a lovely riposte to sentimentalists who decry the modern game and yearn for the good old days.)

Cricketing trends can often be cyclical, of course, and it seemed a few months ago that we were entering, in Haigh's words, 'bowling's dark age'. The game was no longer brimming over with great fast bowlers, as it was in the 1970s and 80s and 90s, and even Shaun Pollock and Glenn McGrath were ageing. But that could be changing: Steve Harmison and Irfan Pathan have both shown this year that they are capable of great things; one has been called the new Curtly Ambrose and the other has evoked comparisons with Wasim Akram. Two of the greatest spinners ever, Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan, are still going strong, with talented young spinners like Harbhajan Singh and Danish Kaneria coming on well.

So, after all that, is there a crisis in cricket? If so, what is it, and what should be done about it? Write in, and I'll put up the most interesting arguments (with attributions, of course).

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.

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