October 5, 2011

Spinners and reverse-swingers under threat

The latest rule changes in ODIs are unlikely to inject excitement into the format. How well the Powerplay tweaks work will depend on a team's strength, and two new balls will handicap plenty of bowlers

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 the first one-day international, at the Melbourne Cricket Ground after the first Test of the Ashes was washed out. John Edrich made the first half-century, 82 off 119 balls, but Australia chased down 191 with 5.2 of the 40 eight-ball overs remaining. Ian Chappell, who made 60 from 103 balls, struck the only six of the game. There were 24 fours during the course of the day. Nearly four decades later, as he made the first double-century in the format, Sachin Tendulkar hit 25 fours and three sixes.

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.

It's curious 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. Even now, the easiest way to end the bat's reign would be to allow at least two bowlers to bowl on beyond the 10-over limit

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Piyush on October 7, 2011, 10:34 GMT

    Fully agre with the author, ICC is hell bent on killing cricket 2 new ball rule is absurd , if you really want freshness in the ODI better do some meaningfull changes that are visible.

  • Sumit on October 7, 2011, 9:12 GMT

    I believe there is a little bit of 'Astro-turf' mentality in this kind of decision. Astro-turf was introduced in hockey which ended in making it a game more of speed game , of long passes , instead of dribbling skills . Which suited most european teams .

    Now this is done in cricket , which means spinners have a lesser role to play with a similar mentality going in. But cricket is not hockey, and Sub continent teams will still be the one day leaders

  • Dummy4 on October 7, 2011, 8:22 GMT

    (Contd)The ICC spends damn lot of money to make Cricket popular in Non-Cricketing countries.But when the ppl there see today's Cricket,they think its a game of Grandpas.Ironically,TEST CRICKET is the ''toughest'' CRICKET.See the WI & AUS of 80s & 90s or for that matter YOUTUBE the FLINTOFF spell to Kallis at EDGBASTON(2008).Thta's the kind of sport we fell in love with & that's the sport that everyone(even the AMERICANS & CHINESE) will take to.The world doesn't want a short duration sport,it just wants an Interseting sport.

  • Dummy4 on October 7, 2011, 8:16 GMT

    I tell u what the problem with today's Cricket is.You are on the verge of making it a DECEIVER's game.The spinner deceives by NOT turning the ball & bowling fast.The pacer deceives by NOT bowling fast.So they bowl five slowers an over.Batsman deceives by playing SCOOPS & SWITCH HITs.And all this happens pretty regularly.You spoiled the game in the 90s,by mking it a less athletic & physical sport,contrary to what the writer mentions.Now the FAST Bowlers don't run and bowl fast.Batsmen don't run coz they deal in boundaries.Feilders don't have to run because they stand within the CIRCLE,from where you either give up chasing the ball assuming the shot will go for a four or get it straight in your hands.Consequently,the batsmen also don't have to run TWOs & THREEs. Cricket becomes interesting the moment it gets TOUGH.And that's why you loved the HOLDINGs,LARWOODs,GARNERs,RICHARDs & FLINTOFFs(Not the MUNAFS,PRAVEENs & SAMMYs).Just do away with the powerplays and make it interesting to all..

  • Dummy4 on October 7, 2011, 2:28 GMT

    2 balls... makes sense for a gentleman's game..

  • Dheeban Chakravarthi on October 6, 2011, 22:43 GMT

    I agree. Not sure 2 new balls from either end is the right way to go about for ball discolouration. Why not produce balls that don't discolour? May be change the material inside so that it does not get scruffed up with green or doesn't lose the white tint?

  • Dummy4 on October 6, 2011, 14:14 GMT

    I see most sides going in with 4 seamers for every match not for reverse swing but to use the new ball more effectively. Spinners are going to die out!

  • Dummy4 on October 6, 2011, 10:29 GMT

    This will lead to an increase in ball tampering, by the players who have grown up swinging the ball, and don't want to relearn their game.

  • Deepak on October 6, 2011, 9:06 GMT

    To faster the death of one day cricket ICC can make few more changes

    1)Remove the seam from the Ball, so that Swing/Spin/Movement of the pitch every thing will go out So that more runs can be stored.

    2)All the 50 overs will be power play, and the batting team will have the control on placing the filders.

  • Dummy4 on October 6, 2011, 5:16 GMT

    one thing is per sure. modren rules will provok young generation to like becoming batsmen but i think reverse swing is not on stake. beacuse two masters of swing waqar and wasim have given a life to this art and still youngsters in sub continents specialy in pak would want to bowl like them and craze of fast bowling will stay alive. cortsy these two swing kings

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