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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Terry on December 3, 2009, 18:03 GMT

    I think the ball is the right size. I believe the pitches are poor quality. Test Cricket need to be moving pitches to make getting runs difficult. ODI&T20I should favor batsmen, wheres Test pitches should favor bowlers. In Test cricket, a flat pitch is a dead pitch Other things to improve test cricket: * 3 format Competition - 2 or 4 year Championship that includes all 3 formats with higher points for tests then ODI & more for ODI then T20I * Split Day - 4 sessions (25,25,20,20) a day with teams alternating each sessions (continuing from their previous batting session) * Night Tests - 2 sessions in Day, 2 at Night each day. Thus each team gets 1 day & 1 night session * Multi-Tiers relegated - This exists with ICup & IShield, but 3 tiers arent relegated. Expand 4-5day Internationals to be 5 tiers relegated, being 2 tiers of 6 tests, 2 tiers of 6 associate (ICup&IShield) & 5th tier any other team that applies (in groups of 5 or 6) * 3rd Umpire - All wickets can be challenged by batsmen

  • barrie on December 3, 2009, 10:03 GMT

    once again,in the name of spin why not resin powder?(it was allowed before 1927),just read and research some of arthur maily's(australian leg spinner) comment's on this..exactly what are batsmen scared of

  • John on December 3, 2009, 1:24 GMT

    Why not change the laws to allow deliveries to be thrown? Wouldn't this bring back the balance between bat and ball? Considering how much better the bats are now and how batsmen are able to cover themselves in protection from head to toe, why not give the bowlers the freedom to deliver the ball without the straight arm restriction?

  • Shishir on December 2, 2009, 19:15 GMT

    While what Christian Ryan is suggesting here is extremely radical there is merit to the suggestion. Do true cricket lovers prefer a slug fest to a intriguing battle between the bat and the ball. Is this generation of batsmen really better than their predecessors? What has the ICC done to address the balance which is increasingly in the batman's favor? I think it would be a good idea to reintroduce (this was an idea used before if i am not mistaken) the idea of using 2 sets of balls for one innings of an ODI (one from each end) and this would probably give budding cricketers incentive to also bowl also. Also the ICC probably needs to do something about the bats that are being used these days and probably put in some restrictions on it as well.

    PS: I really am not sure how fielders would feel about a smaller ball...not very enthused is my thought ;)

  • Martin on December 2, 2009, 14:59 GMT

    I think it's rather a case of mindsets rather then bat sizes. Bats still have to be wood and cane (kevlar, graphite etc been banned recently) and still weigh between 2 and 3 pounds, just like they did 10 years ago. I appreciate edges have grown and sweet spots are larger, but all bat makers have ultimately realised is that you can take useless wood from some areas and add it to others and then learnt a few things about balancing. The way to even the balance is with pitch preparation...simpel as that. No more 2000 run test matches I say!!!

  • sachit on December 2, 2009, 6:12 GMT

    Changing the ball is impractical, the balance between bat and ball has changed not only due to the external factors such as bats and balls, and of course the batsman-friendly wickets. There's simply a lack of quality in cricketers themselves. Look at the 90's and the number of great bowlers - Ambrose,Donald,Walsh,Akram,Younis, Kumble, McGrath,Warne,Muttiah, can the same be said of today? do the names today strike fear in the hearts as those bowlers did even when they were new to the game? Look at 2 of the most promising bowlers from last year -Ishant Sharma and Ajantha Mendis These 2 were considered as huge future prospects but they cant make it to the test XI now. Wayne Parnell demolished the aussies earlier this year but he got Belted in the Champions trophy. The problem is bowling today is very toothless and lacks the class of the past.

  • Arif on December 2, 2009, 3:33 GMT

    i completely agree with atulcricket. if DON has played as much test as Sachine and faced great bowlers of different countries like Wasim, Waqar, Imran, Ambrose, Donald, Murali, he would have much less average than what he has now. remember Don only played against England and perhaps South Africa if i m correct. i would not consider him as a greatest, though he was a good batsman.

  • Alexander on December 2, 2009, 2:36 GMT

    The rule for the maximum bend in a bowlers arm was changed recently to allow an additional 5 degrees of bend. This change has been beneficial to bowlers ability to bowl with extreme spin or speed. Murali's action would previously have been considered illegal. You could argue that this is more fundamentally against the spirit of cricket then any advancement in bat technology.

  • Kaushik on December 2, 2009, 2:24 GMT

    See the interesting thing about this is what is a bowlers opinion and i mean a survey of both quicks and spin bowlers. will the change in the size be it bigger or smaller or heavier make easier to swing/spin the ball, can they can get more pace on the ball or will it be harder and will they be able to produce as much bounce? All in all its a good question to put up to see if perhaps some science can get behind it to see what gives the advantage back to the bowlers. I'd imagine if the ball is too large or too small bowlers would struggle with grip, so what is the optimal size, and again this comes back to individual genetics of how big your hand is. love to see some research go into it.

  • Peter on December 1, 2009, 23:28 GMT

    Why not increase size of of wickets [believe they were reduced in the '30s] and/or change the LBW rule to help bowlers ?

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