The Thursday column February 5, 2004

Bring on the fliers

The essence of sport lies in contest and cricket is in danger of limiting itself to the contest of bat against bat

Rahul Dravid struggles to cope with the extra bounce at Perth. How would India have fared in a Test on this pitch?
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At the risk of blasphemy, here's a little confession. Perth did damage to the Indian cause; the last thing the batsmen needed a few days from the VB Series final was a harsh reminder of mortality. Till then, the nightmare had been averted. Barring the first couple of hours of the Melbourne Test, the Indian cricket fan had been spared the sight of batsmen hopping against hot pace and bounce. And if you were an Australian supporter, you had a right to wonder in what wisdom did Cricket Australia ignore Perth as a Test venue. But instead of despairing at India's plight, there was cause to rejoice. At long last, the bowler, that worst condemned of species, had been restored to honour, and for the good health of cricket, it wasn't such a bad thing.

India's tour of Australia has the potential of immortality for it could mark a turn of history. Yet, purely in terms of cricket, it would yield ascendancy to Australia's tour of India in 2001. Even Steve Waugh, despite losing that series, would rank it as his most special. As to why it was better, there is a simple answer: bowlers mattered in that series.

For more than two months now, the batting has been resplendent in Australia. Centuries have rained, records have tumbled and advertising hoardings have been imperilled by the flurry of scorching hits. But spare a thought for the bowlers who have been flayed as if their mere existence was an offence. Conjecture has raged over the absence of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, and to a lesser extent, of Harbhajan Singh after the first Test. The truth could be that it was a mercy for them to be spared. The pitches were so loaded against the bowlers that you had to be Ajit Agarkar not to be able to take advantage.

Throughout cricket history, bowlers have served as the working class to the aristocracy of batsmen. Throughout cricket history, regulations and playing conditions - covered pitches, the front-foot no-ball rule, protective gear, the bouncer rule - have been amended to maintain the sovereignty of the batsman. The sole essence of one-day cricket is to neuter the bowler to a degree that his sole purpose is to suffer abuse and indignation. The modern concept of good cricket is an obscene orgy of runs, and since television revenue drives the game now, curators are gently encouraged to make pitches that ensure maximum television time. And ever since the Australians, and Waugh in particular, have seduced the world with the idea that attacking batsmanship can be as potent as attacking bowling, the ground has been gradually slipping beneath the bowler's feet.

The rattle of stumps, the odd magic ball from a champion spinner, the wonderful catch, all have retained their appeal, but true entertainment has invariably been linked to spectacular batting. With the quick-scoring batsmen creating more time and opportunities for results in Test cricket, the concept of result-oriented pitches has been changing in a perverse sort of way and a pitch that is generous to bowlers is regarded with suspicion and even scorn.

The essence of sport lies in contest and cricket is in danger of limiting itself to the contest of bat against bat, which reduces the bowler to pray for a mistake from the batsman rather than prey on him. There was justifiable anguish over the pitches provided during India's tour to New Zealand in 2002-03 when batting became an extreme hazard. The same consideration is rarely extended to the bowlers who are made to toil without hope on pitches that reward only batsmen.

Brett Lee enjoys a rare bowler's day in a batsman-dominated season

By the commonly held definition, Perth was not the ideal pitch for one-day cricket. The track had to have too much bounce if it could make Sean Ervine and Andy Blignaut look menacing. But given that there have been enough examples of unworthy batsmen scoring Test hundreds on lifeless wickets, bowlers can hardly be grudged a rare day of bounty. At his pomp, Brett Lee is a breathtaking sight and though it has been suggested that a remodelled action helped him put his game together after repeated maulings at the hands of the Indians, it is improbable that he would have rediscovered his zip without some assistance from the pitch.

Cricket has been, and will remain, a batsman's game. As acknowledged bread winners, batsmen will continue to enjoy preferential treatment. But the game has to guard against further denigration of bowlers. Modern bats now carry even mishits over the fence, but if anything, the seam of ball has been further subdued and alarmingly, these days the ball seams less in England, spins less in India and bounces less in Australia, and cricket is becoming a lesser game for it. For reasons of balance alone, the sight of Lee making the ball rear from a length was a refreshing sight.

The bowlers need the odd day out. We need the odd dodgy pitch, the fliers, and stickies and the turners. Because if pitches offer nothing, we might as well switch over to baseball.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Wisden Asia Cricket and Wisden Cricinfo in India.