Decade Review 2009

A time to loot and plunder

Aided by fat bats, flat pitches and the absence of menacing bowlers, batsmen made merry in the 2000s, setting new records and devaluing Test run-making in the process

Peter Roebuck

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The scoreboard shows Matthew Hayden's world-record score of 380, Australia v Zimbabwe, first Test, Perth, October 10, 2003
Hayden's 380 against Zimbabwe epitomises how cheap runs were in the last decade © Getty Images
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It has been a rich decade for batsmen. Not since the heady days of the 1920s have they enjoyed such sweet domination. And in those days the long-suffering flingers could still hope for a wet pitch or a drunken groundsman; an opportunity to wreak havoc, secure a measure of revenge for all those long, hard days spent trying to remove Bill Ponsford.

Once in a while, too, they might get the chance to ruffle feathers and crack bones, because the game did not go into a tizwazz whenever some poor batsman suffered some minor inconvenience. Nowadays batsmen come wrapped in swaddling clothes and suits of armour. Nowadays matches are called off as soon as some benighted willow-wielder gets a bruise.

Stan McCabe told pals to make sure his mum did not run on the pitch to give Harold Larwood a piece of her mind. Now mothers can relax confident that good care is taken of their boys. Great Scott, hardly anyone retires hurt these days. Thank goodness for Kemar Roach. Long may he last.

Of course modern batsmen are sooks. Of course, they run the game. Of course it was ridiculous to cancel the contest in Delhi: 93 for 5 is supposed to be a crisis? In the years of drying pitches, it was a promising position. And in those days batsmen did not wear helmets. For decades they wore spiky little gloves. Garry Sobers did not bother with a thigh pad. Were any groundsmen sacked during the recent run-feast posing as a Test series between India and Sri Lanka? Were those featherbeds okay? The message to curators is clear: prepare shirtfronts or pay the penalty. Protect the batsmen. Frustrate the bowlers. Not that the DDCA has anything to recommend it. By all accounts it's high time the stables were cleaned.

With every passing year the lot of the batsman improves and the task of the bowler becomes harder. With every shortening of the game, every passed rule, the position of the pampered rises. Meanwhile the bowlers are reminded once again that they are mere hewers of wood and turners of sods. Eventually the flingers will rise up and find a Robespierre to lead them on the march to freedom and domination and seaming pitches. Till then they must content themselves with scowls, glares and whispered conversations. Heck, they cannot even raise a stitch or apply a bit of Murray mint without all and sundry getting into a lather. Jack White, of England and Somerset, used to raise the seam so high that fieldsmen often suffered cut fingers. Bowlers had their ways. Now they are the slaves of the game.

Ordinarily this column does not stoop to statistics. Life is too short. Moreover, they are a little too inclined to have views of their own. No sooner has a fellow developed a perfectly good theory than some confounded mathematician demolishes it under a bombardment of numbers whose only merit is that they keep a steady line and length. Once facts are introduced, too, it only tempts critics to produce a few of their own by way of riposte. And then things are inclined to get murky. The battle is not between truth and lies but between truth and half-truth. All the great insights are handed down on tablets. The trick is to recognise them.

On this occasion, though, research supports suspicion and prejudice. Batsmen are indeed running amok. An obliging chap called Ric Finlay down in Tasmania, a man able to scatter to the winds all notions that statisticians are a rum lot obsessed with minutiae, has provided all the evidence anyone could require to back up the argument that cricket has bent over backwards to accommodate batsmen, and that the delicate balance between bat and ball upon which the entire thing depends has been disturbed. And that the position deteriorates with every passing year. Whereas in the 1990s Test wickets fell at an average of 31.64 apiece, now they cost 34.17 each. Furthermore the leading wicket-taker of 2009, Mitchell Johnson, paid nearly 28 runs per scalp, the highest figure for 37 years. Global warming cannot compete with that.

 
 
Eventually the bowlers will rise up and find a Robespierre to lead them on the march to freedom and domination and seaming pitches. Till then they must content themselves with scowls, glares and whispered conversations
 

A study of the top batting averages for the decade reinforces the point. In the 1990s only four batsmen averaged over 50 (among those who played over 20 Tests) - Sachin Tendulkar, Steve Waugh, Brian Lara and Graham Gooch. The 20th batsman on the list, Allan Border, averaged 43 for the decade. Contrastingly, in the last decade, 20 batsmen averaged more than 50 and the 20th man in the rankings, Younis Khan, scored 50.09 per innings.

Inevitably a toll has been taken on the bowlers. To some extent Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Muttiah Muralitharan camouflaged the problem. Cricket has been lucky that the decade included one of the greatest pace bowlers and two of the finest spinners the game has known. Without these fellows, and Anil Kumble, the position might be even more alarming. As it is the list shows that the 20th-best bowler in the 1990s (among those who bowled at least 350 overs), Paul Reiffel, paid 26.96 apiece for his wickets, while Simon Jones, his compromised counterpart in the last decade, paid 28.23 per wicket.

Not so long ago an average of 50 was regarded as the definition of batting greatness. Only the very finest batsmen the game has known surpassed 50 in Test cricket. Few doubted that the ones who did were the outstanding batsmen of the era, and the only debate concerned their relative merits. Not even wonderful players like Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes made the grade. Indeed, they did not come close. Now batsmen are expected to average 45 and can hope to pass 50.

And yet, how many great batsmen emerged in the noughties? Lara, Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Jacques Kallis, Ricky Ponting, and even Shiv Chanderpaul took guard in the previous decade. Virender Sehwag is the standout, and various other candidates spring to mind as possibilities, including Kumar Sangakkara, Kevin Pietersen and Graeme Smith, but at this stage none has been universally acclaimed by the cognoscenti. Among the Australians, cases can be made for several batsmen, not least Matthew Hayden, but locals are not convinced he faced enough imposing new-ball bowling to prove he was a better batsman even than immediate predecessors such as Mark Taylor and Michael Slater.

All sorts of reasons have been advanced for the domination of the batsmen. Most of them have merit. These things seldom have one father.

Shorter boundaries have helped. Nowadays it is more or less compulsory to wear seat belts, swim between the flags, put on helmets to ride bicycles, and bring ropes in a few yards in case a fieldsmen bangs a head on a fence or board, an event that happens once in a blue moon (meanwhile serious carnage continues elsewhere). Hayden relished the shorter boundaries as he pounded Zimbabwean bowlers all around the WACA ground in Perth.

Although their width has not changed, bats have become thicker and meatier. Batsmen no longer worry about breaking a bat, as they have plenty in their bags. Thicker bats began to emerge as power began to replace finesse in the 1970s, a change encouraged by the advent and growing importance of one-day cricket. At first the bats were heavy as well as thick. Now they can be huge and light, a deadly combination as far as bowlers are concerned.

Virender Sehwag prepares his bat for another onslaught, Nagpur, December 17, 2009
Bats are huge and light these days: that's double trouble for the bowlers © Associated Press
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Meanwhile no effort has been made to reduce the size of the ball. If anything, balls swing less than previously, or so it seems. That brings in another significant factor. The ever-more important part played by one-day cricket in the finances of the game and its players means that bowlers concentrate on defensive as opposed to attacking skills. Anxious to reduce their length and avoid wides, bowlers are tempted to bang the ball in short of a length, at least until the ball is older, whereupon reverse-swing may be tried to tight fields.

Spinners have had a mixed time. In some respects, spin has been revived by success in 20-over cricket, where slower bowling has forced batsmen to make the pace and play shots in front of the wicket. On the other hand, spinners rarely encounter dusty tracks and are frustrated by short boundaries. Batsmen with time on their hands can pick them off.

The introduction of Zimbabwe and Bangladesh to the Test ranks has allowed batsmen to fill their boots against second-rate attacks.

Meanwhile the strongest countries have also run out of high-class bowling. Not so long ago opening batsmen faced all sort of formidable opponents. Pakistan fielded Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram, West Indies had a veritable array of experts, New Zealand were inspired by Richard Hadlee, Australia had plenty of penetration. England was by no means toothless. Now the pace attacks are respectable but they lack venom. Opening batsmen have an easier time. Far more front-foot cricket is played.

But placid pitches are the main problem. Enormous pressure is put on groundsmen to prepare tracks that last five days. The game is fuelled by lucrative television contracts and executives expect to get value for money. Test matches that finish in three days do not serve that purpose. Accordingly the idea of a fresh first-day pitch demanding watchful defence from the top-order batsmen and giving hostile fast bowlers an opportunity to make a mark has mostly been abandoned. Pitch preparation is not an exact science. All sorts of variables are involved. But the aim ought to be clear. Cricket is a battle between bat and ball or it is nothing.

Read S Rajesh's stats analysis of the domination of batsmen in the 2000s here

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

© ESPN EMEA Ltd.

Comments: 56 
Posted by DreamsNeverDie on (January 7, 2010, 5:12 GMT)

Someone pointed out how Lara dominated at home and against lower ranked teams and performed poorly outside the WI. My friend, you forget the 277 in Sydney, and the 600 runs he scored against SL in the early part of the decade after coming back from injury. Please get your facts right before you comment.peace...

Posted by Shams on (January 6, 2010, 2:19 GMT)

@ Mayan005

India has been the best country to bat according to stats over the previous two decades. W. Indies only ranks at #6 of the top 8 test teams with Sri Lanka and S. Africa being the toughest places to bat on average. The trend doesn't change much in the 2000s.

Also the ICC player rankings take various factors into account while rating players - batting friendly conditions, bowler quality, match result, etc. It would be interesting to see the average rating points of Lara, Tendulkar and batsmen from the 2000s. I'd bet Lara would come out on top.

Awaiting your reply :).

helpful link: http://stats.cricinfo.com/ci/engine/stats/index.html?class=1;continent=1;continent=2;continent=3;continent=4;continent=5;filter=advanced;orderby=team_average;spanmin1=01+Jan+1990;spanval1=span;template=results;tournament_type=2;type=aggregate;view=host

Posted by sahajb on (January 6, 2010, 0:54 GMT)

@simple red, Bro i think you have forget that it was shewag who smashed your NZ bowlers all around the ground when indai toured NZ last two times. They your bowlers were hiding for protection. if he is not the best batsmen in the world right now then i think no one is.

Posted by Mark00 on (January 5, 2010, 18:20 GMT)

Forget about pitch conditions, simply bring back the bouncer and we'll see many of today's 50+ averages at 70+ strike-rates drop faster than you can say "five slips and a gully."

Posted by Mark00 on (January 5, 2010, 18:20 GMT)

Forget about pitch conditions, simply bring back the bouncer and we'll see many of today's 50+ averages at 70+ strike-rates drop faster than you can say "five slips and a gully."

Posted by Mark00 on (January 5, 2010, 18:20 GMT)

The problem has been in fast bowling. The reason is because one of the fast bowler's key weapons, the bouncer, has been virtually removed from his armory. Fast bowlers are forced to bowl a fuller length because accidentally bowling a little too short is heaviliy penalized. This allows a batsman to play as if the bouncer won't be bowled. When it's bowled, they just have to duck it knowing that the rest of the deliveries wont be short. Unlike most of cricket history, batsmen no longer have to adjust from driving through cover off the front foot to hooking a bouncer. As a result, batsmen who can adjust and play bouncers as well as full pitched deliveries, like Rahul Dravid, are unappreciated while one-dimensional hitters like Sehwag are raised up as the second coming of Bradman. Forget about pitch conditions, simply bring back the bouncer and we'll see many of today's 50+ averages at 70+ strike-rates drop faster than you can say "five slips and a gully."

Posted by dpkhbk on (January 5, 2010, 11:26 GMT)

I have said this before but i will repeat it again.2002-06 must be the easiest batting period in the history of the game.a lot of batsmen including every tom dick n hussey plundered runs.the prime eg is ricky ponting b4 2002 when the great bowlers were atleast still there his avg is 44.19 after 2002 when all of them retired or were on their last legs he had stunning average of 72.7! from 2007 after the emergence of steyn morkel ishant englands all round attack revived zaheer roach n aamir now ,his average dips to 42!almost all people have similar stories .the only people who i would rate highly from that list are kallis n dravid but i wouldnt rate them to the quality of sachin n lara as they do not play attacking cricket .steve waugh is overrated batsman as well despite his average

Posted by Mayan005 on (January 5, 2010, 6:00 GMT)

@Maui: I just have one question for you. There is this list of the top 20 bowlers in 90s & the ones from the 2000s. Can you take a look and tell me really honestly that there is even a comparison to be made? Stats are one thing..However, if you have watched a game long enough(i am not talking just about cricket), you should be able to judge certain things purely on based on what you see. There is no doubt in my mind that the bowling attacks have weakened and the pitches have become flatter in the past few years. However, that doesn't mean that the players who score heavily are not great. It's just something that needs to be kept in mind when you are judging a player's ability and particularly when making comparisons across generations.

Posted by Alexk400 on (January 5, 2010, 5:56 GMT)

There are different style of batsman. But you need fighters in the team to win the game. Javed miandad, Aravinda de silva , dravid and Lara. They fight to win.

Sachin, Gavaskar play for themself , they worry about future and think people forget winning but remember statistics. So sachin keep playing for his own stats.

For me who ever play to win or avoid loss and have better average is best players.

Only Rahul Dravid and Kallis are greatest player ever. Sachin and ponting and lara were exploited the situations

Sehwag is gladiator than batsman!. He will bat same way if you give him a small stick. That is his mind. For sehwag scoring fast is bottom line not put up big score. Defending for the sake of making bowler tired is out of the question.

Jayawardene , Sangakarra , sachin , ponting , chanderpaul were beneficieries of light bats. Tiny people need light bat.

Posted by Mayan005 on (January 5, 2010, 3:35 GMT)

@Shams: The tracks in the WI & Pak over the past 2 decades have been the flattest in the world. Not the "sub-continent" as a whole,though they are catching up now. Ind for example had spinning tracks with 3 spinners for most of the 90s. So,leaving out the WI, the record comes to only Sachin having a 50+ avg in the 90s. That's infact a fairier way of judging things than leaving out the spinning Indian conditions from the 90s. btw, Sachin's average goes down to 49.75 outside the subcontinent in 90s mainly due to his avg in Zim(which was 13). Excluding that,he averages 52 in the 90s outside the sub-continent. On the other hand, Lara for his entire career averages above 50 only in SL & Zim(outside home). That's a pretty poor record. He has cashed in on the flat wickets of the WI over the last 2 decades(I believe there was an article which showed the average runs being the highest in the WI over the past 2 decades to back that up as well).Lara,probably is the most overrated player ever.

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Peter RoebuckClose
Peter Roebuck He may not have played Test cricket for England, but Peter Roebuck represented Somerset with distinction, making over 1000 runs nine times in 12 seasons, and captaining the county during a tempestuous period in the 1980s. Roebuck acquired recognition all over the cricket world for his distinctive, perceptive, independent writing. Widely travelled, he divided his time between Australia and South Africa. He died in November 2011
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