December 1, 2009

The ball's too big

Bats have steadily gotten bigger over the years; why has the ball stayed the same size for close to a century?

Last summer I enjoyed three Fifth XI outings on sun-blasted suburban fields with not much grass on them. One of them I enjoyed more than the other two, because this one Sunday afternoon I felt like Victor Trumper. I went in about number seven. And I thumped - and no other word, excepting maybe "butchered", which verges on immodest, sums up the cleanness of the contact so precisely as "thumped" - five fours. A wristy flick off middle stump was my quietly-get-my-eye-in shot. There was a swat off my sneakers, a coruscating late cut, a… I forget. The point is, 20 years earlier, when I was an earnest young cricketer, those five blows would not have squashed a single thirsty tuft on that dishevelled oval. Twenty years ago my five blows wouldn't have made it past the infield. Deep down I knew this, and deeper down it was all a bit of an anti-climax.

It feels sort of hollow, hitting a four you haven't earned. As with anything handed to you in cellophane and a crimson bow when it is not your birthday, you get instantly suspicious. You think, can this really be any good?

Every long-time player and observer at every club of every cricket-playing city knows this: the bats are better. No more is it rock up early and breathe in the soothing scent of raw linseed while discussing the wonders of rubbing an ox's shinbone up and down willow. No. Now it's all carbon and titanium and, here, try some of this Kevlar up your bat handle.

So yes, unquestionably, the bats are better. But does better mean good - good for the game's sake? The answer to that is less straightforward.

While bats have all but sprouted wings and propeller blades, the ball has been busy too. Busy. Ignoring. The world. The cricket ball shrank three-sixteenths of one inch, by law, in 1927. Then never again. This would be well and good if batsmen still batted with 1927 bats. They do not. Bats are fatter along the edges. What was once called the sweet "spot" is closer to a 38-inch-long sweet rectangle. Yet the ball has not, to even things up, gotten smaller or bouncier. And so the delicate balance has been upset. The game's oldest understanding - that batting is hard - no longer rings quite true.

Not that batting is a cinch now. Knowing one mistake will put you out of the match, potentially out of the team and maybe out of a job is still a heavy load in a batsman's head. But when your Kookaburra Kahuna Blitz sends your nervous defensive nudge clanking into the advertising board, that lifts a bit of fear. Then when you attempt a cautious dab outside off stump and the ball sails screeching over the top of gully, any lingering tension soon dissolves. And without fear and tension, what's left that's worth savouring? Nostalgia, certainly, although even nostalgia - seldom as fine as it used to be - might soon acquire a bitter aftertaste. For when cricket people hark back to olden times and stirring deeds they invariably mean batting ones, usually involving heroic triumph over frightening odds. And if bat technology loads all the odds in the batsman's corner, rendering triumph predictable and heroism surplus to requirements, what then?

The solution must by now be blinkingly obvious: make batting hard again. The sensible thing would be for the International Cricket Council to hit rewind and insist that cricket be played with the bats of 20 years ago. Alas, that would involve our august custodians weighing up the game's greatest good against a few companies' maximum profits and deciding that the former matters more. So forget it. Instead we must turn to a less sensible-sounding alternative: make the ball smaller.

The idea rouses a certain gut squeamishness when you see it written down like that, even though the notion that the bat can be any unlicensed woodworker's plaything yet the ball must stay a museum piece is piffle. No law in cricket is more stuffily drafted nor wraps a deadening hand round the modern game's neck so surely as Law 5:

"The ball, when new, shall weigh not less than 5 1/2oz [five and a half ounces]/155.9g , nor more than 5 3/4oz [five and three-fourths]/163g, and shall measure not less than 8 13/16in [eight and thirteen-sixteenths]/22.4cm, nor more than 9in/22.9 cm in circumference."

One long-winded sentence. Two little measurements - the third and fourth ones - that need scribbling out and smaller numbers inserted. It should not be beyond the wit of cricket to fix this.

The delicate balance has been upset. The game's oldest understanding - that batting is hard - no longer rings quite true

The tricky bit is calculating what the two new measurements should be. Logic suggests that the smaller the ball's circumference, the harder it will be to see and hit, and the more onerous batting becomes. But once you start shrinking the ball, might there also arise a point - scientifically traceable - at which the ball becomes impractical to grip and bowl? Common sense is our only guide here - common sense and a handful of far-fetched yet apparently factual tales from cricket folklore.

We know, for instance, that the boy Arthur Mailey fine-tuned his googly in the family home by repeatedly bowling an orange. Once, with his orange, Mailey spun a googly past Neville Cardus' defences on a footpath in Piccadilly. Oranges are sometimes bigger and sometimes smaller than a cricket ball, like apples. It was with an apple, a green apple, that Doug Ring on the train to Bristol gave Richie Benaud an impromptu masterclass in how to bowl a skidding top-spinner.

Let's suppose this particular apple was smaller, and conclude, safely enough, that a cricket ball the size of a small apple would pose new challenges to batsmen without affecting the bowler's ability to grasp the ball and make it deviate. Or how about a tennis ball, 10% smaller than a cricket ball, like the one young BJT Bosanquet persuaded to twist left when it should have twisted right and so changed the course of bowling history? Or a ping-pong ball, capable of dazzling gyrations under the influence of Jack Iverson's bent-back middle finger? Iverson could curl it round walls and make it fizz back to himself; he could bounce a tennis ball one way then the other in a single overarm motion.

Probably a hard, red, six-stitch, ping-pong ball might make batting too perilous. Probably is as precise as we can be. For the ICC, ever oblivious to the real crisis, is more interested - an altogether more useless endeavour, this one - in devising a durable day-night ball that lasts longer than an orange or apple, and has so far not noticed that modern bats are wrecking cricket as entertainment. The game's rulers are in thrall to the idiot's philosophy of the more boundaries the merrier, even if sixes - no longer a feat of breathtaking might - are these days worth about 412, and fours off your sneakers are the prerogative of pluckless journos, and we can replay in our minds brave 35s from the mid-'80s yet are hard-pressed recalling a single distinctive characteristic of the hundred we saw three weeks ago.

The 80s, golden days if only we'd realised it, were a time when Steve Waugh could score 39% of his runs in boundaries and be considered a scintillating strokemaker. In the 90s he cranked that up to 41%. By the noughties - the decade batmakers went batty - Waugh's boundary rate skyrocketed to 52%, even though he was by then a shuffling, crab-like figure who was averse to taking risks. Now, Phillip Hughes has a boundaries-runs rate of 59%. Shane Watson's is 61, Mitchell Johnson's too. This is not because Hughes, Watson and Johnson are seat-of-their-pants specialists beyond all precedent. It is because of the bats.

Tell you one thing I miss: the hard-run three. A Test match went for five days in Ahmedabad last fortnight and consisted of 436 overs, 1598 runs, 179 boundaries and 12 threes. "That's entertainment," the bosses would say, and maybe they really do know best. No point, though, in pretending we are still watching the old, finely balanced, beautiful game.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket