December 18, 2009

Disarm the bowler, kill the contest

Administrators must keep cricket from turning into a computer game where the player can hit a six off every ball

Rajkot was a cricket occasion, not a cricket match. It was a spectacle, not a contest. It wasn't good for cricket.

Yes, there was a close finish; yes, Sri Lanka chased a virtually insurmountable target with great gusto; yes, India's bowling in the last three overs was top-class, but the ball was rendered incapable of throwing up a challenge. At the heart of cricket's magic, the reason all of us are so enamoured by it, is the fact that every ball is a contest. The bowler conceives the challenge, sets his line, his length, his movement, the placement of fielders, and presents it to the batsman, who must then unravel it and respond.

And then there is another challenge. It is relentless and it must be that way. The moment the delivery of the ball to a batsman is no longer a challenge, the contest ceases. It is no longer cricket. Or maybe it would be to the same extent that boxing would remain a sport if each boxer is allowed three minutes at a punching bag and the winner determined by who hits the bag better.

And so it is imperative that we get the surface right. The vagaries of the surface, and therefore their role in the presentation of a challenge by the bowler to the batsman, lies at the heart of cricket: favouring the batsman a bit one day, then ensuring that he has to hop against the bounce or crouch to smother the turn the next day. It is the inherent mystery in the surface that defines the contest. And that is what cricket's administrators have to protect. They must be obsessed by the need to retain the contest. Chocolates must have their cocoa, cricket must have its contest; neither exists otherwise.

In Rajkot, 825 runs were made in a hundred overs. Many cheered, as they might have in ancient Rome when Christians were thrown to the lions. The hitting of a boundary was no longer an event, no longer a victory for the bat over the ball. It was routine, almost par for the course. Was the bowler thinking of getting a batsman out or was he fearing where he was going to be hit? Was there a sigh of relief at a dot ball? Did submission accompany a bowler back to his mark in place of aggression? The earlier we outlaw such pitches, the better it is. We must start today. An 825-runs-a-day wicket is as bad as a 200-runs-a-day wicket.

The moment the delivery of the ball to a batsman is no longer a challenge, the contest ceases. It is no longer cricket

Having said that, let us pause a moment and see if another point of view exists. Could it be that what we are seeing is a redefining of possibility? Is this just a quantum jump of the kind we are seeing in the computing world? Are batsmen compelling us to reassess the definition of risk? Are they taking us to a world we didn't know existed? Is this going to be the norm from now? Will we hit 1000 runs in a day? Possibly. Certainly hitting through the line and driving in the air are not as risky as once thought. But even if we grant that we are at an exciting phase in the evolution of the game, we must never reduce a bowler's chances of taking a wicket. Otherwise how are we different from computer games where the player sets all the parameters and the batsmen hit a six off every ball?

Maybe we can start, us in the media, by defining what a good pitch is; not one on which batsmen can score a lot of runs but one on which ball and bat have equal opportunity. Every time a curator says, "I have prepared a good wicket", let us ask him what he really means.

Bowlers are not waiters, they should not have to serve deliveries on a platter at a batsman's command. We have already produced monster bats and brought the boundary rope in so much that on some days it looks like we are playing in a small park. And increasingly we produce pitches like the one in Rajkot. Is it inconceivable that a day will come when a bowler is given a list of balls he can bowl, it is announced on a public address system, and then we all wait to see what the batsman does with it?

Hopefully that is a doomsday scenario, but it doesn't reduce the great need for the cricket world to come together to ensure that every cricketing occasion is a contest between ball and bat. We must be obsessed by the need to maintain it.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer

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