Spinners and reverse-swingers under threat
When Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, a one-time editor of Le Figaro, wrote Les Guêpes (The Wasps) in 1849, it included the memorable epigram: "The more things change, the more they stay the same." Look at the world around you and you could say that about a lot of things and people. Not about one-day cricket, though.
All sports evolve. Fitness levels change. Players become more athletic. Tactics are refined. Professionalism alters focus. Despite all that, the football that Lionel Messi and Barcelona play in 2011 is still comparable to that which Pele and friends played on their way to Brazil's first World Cup win in 1958. A doughty Rahul Dravid century in overcast English conditions can still evoke memories of Ken Barrington and other stalwarts of the black-and-white age.
But with one-day cricket, all comparisons fail. Consider the first Gillette Cup final, between Sussex and Worcestershire just over 48 years ago. In a game where both sides had 65 overs, Sussex were bowled out for 168 with 28 balls remaining. In fading light, Worcestershire fell 14 short. Their run rate was 2.43, which would be considered tardy in modern Tests.
Eight years later Australia and England played
It could be argued that very little changed in one-day cricket till it turned 20. Teams learnt to up the ante, but the start of an innings was usually no different from that of a Test match, with shouldered arms and maiden overs commonplace. After Mike Brearley put most of his men on the boundary in a World Series game in Australia in the early 1980s, fielding restrictions came into the picture, but by and large coloured clothes and white balls only served to enhance the spectacle for television.
Things changed with the restriction in the number of fielders allowed outside the circle in the first 15 overs. The 1992 and 1996 World Cups saw most teams experiment with the pinch-hitter who could clear the infield and make the most of the overs bowled with the new ball. Innovative captains like Martin Crowe tried to surmount that by taking the pace off the ball, using the likes of Dipak Patel to bowl first.
In the two decades since, we've seen many more tweaks, including the Super Sub rule, which was quietly binned after 2005-06. While the flaws in that were quickly recognised, Powerplays injected more urgency to proceedings, giving teams as many as 20 overs to capitalise on the fielders being in the ring.
The latest changes are the most significant yet, and will force most teams to drastically reassess strategies. In recent times most teams have taken their bowling Powerplay right after the mandatory ten-over one at the start of the innings. Batting sides left their Powerplay till the very last, with the exception of those teams that preferred to target the ball changed after 34 overs.
The latest change in the rules forces teams to take the batting and bowling Powerplays between the 16th and 40th overs - the period of the game when batsmen often retreat into steady accumulation mode and bowlers focus merely on containment. The intent is to inject some storm into the calm, but whether it works will depend entirely on the personnel available to each team.
Powerful batting sides changed tack a while ago anyway. When you have six men capable of effortlessly clearing the rope in your line-up, the drip-drip approach is not really for you. During the 2007 World Cup, Australia and South Africa played out a memorable match in Basseterre, St Kitts. Australia scored 106 for 1 in their first 15 overs. Between overs 16 and 40 they added a further 182. The run rate didn't dip, it went up.
When India crossed 400 against South Africa in Gwalior last year, the Tendulkar-200 game, it was the same story. The first 15 overs saw India make 100 for 1. In the next 25, they pummelled 186. There was no hint of the handbrake, just full throttle.
The mandatory ball change after 34 overs clearly impacted the bowling side, with only a tiny window possible for reverse swing, and that too usually only on abrasive pitches in the subcontinent. Now, with a new ball to be used from both ends, fielding captains may not be able to call on reverse swing at all, unless teams can figure out how to make the white ball go Irish as quickly as Zaheer Khan did the red one in Mohali in October 2008.
The use of two balls could also handicap teams that rely on spin. The slow bowlers have usually been employed between overs 16 and 40, with the odd exception like Saeed Ajmal trusted even at the end of an innings. Now, with two Powerplays in that period and a ball that will hardly be scuffed, spinners face their most significant challenge since Shane Warne, Anil Kumble and Muttiah Muralitharan revived the craft.
The ball staying hard will undoubtedly help the strokeplayers, and also bowlers artful enough to use the seam. There will be some spinners who prefer to bowl with a harder ball under lights, rather than a beat-up one that feels like a bar of soap.
It's curious, though, that the one change that would make the most difference hasn't been considered. Back when the Gillette Cup started, each bowler was allowed as many as 15 overs. Norman Gifford and Antony Buss bowled their full quota in that first final. Even now, the easiest way to end the bat's reign, especially in the subcontinent, would be to allow at least two bowlers to bowl on beyond the ten-over limit.
The sight of a part-timer being walloped for six is not edifying, and it is one of the prime reasons why limited-overs cricket is considered a "lesser" form of the game. Cease giving batsmen such freebies, and a format that's had more obituaries written for it than we can count may yet summon up an Indian summer.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo