May 11, 2012

Why the switch hit isn't kosher

If you allow it, you'd have to make other concessions, including permitting a bowler to bowl with either arm

I am overjoyed that the ICC is going to review the switch hit. As it stands it is unfair and strikes at the sanctity of our sport, which must seek to maintain a balance between bat and ball. The box office can take sides - things that look dramatic are always worth a view - but at heart the game must be fair to bat and ball. Well, if not in reality, at least in principle.

The batsmen will lobby for the stroke, as industry associations do for excise and tax laws that favour them. It is what they must do, and they will argue on the grounds of skill and difficulty, as Kevin Pietersen has done. They are correct in part. It is a shot that is fraught with risk and is difficult to play. But it is neither legal nor fair. Running Ponzi schemes requires enormous intelligence and courage, as does forging passports, but they cannot be allowed on that ground.

Indeed, this week we saw a demonstration of skill by an outrageously talented young man that was breathtaking to watch. Steve Smith caught a ball by the boundary and tossed it in the air as he stumbled over the rope. The ball followed him over, but, showing great presence of mind, Smith jumped in the air, scooped the ball, both feet off the ground as he did, back into the playing area, landed beyond the rope, and popped back in to the field of play to catch the ball before it landed. For sheer skill and difficulty, he should have been rewarded with the catch, but the law doesn't allow it. It might seem cruel but it is fair. On another day a fielder might back-pedal a few yards beyond the rope, jump in the air, catch the ball and throw it back into play before he lands, then either run back and complete the catch or let a team-mate catch it. The current provision, where the last contact with the ground has to be within the playing area, is fair for that reason.

If the Smith catch was allowed on the grounds on which batsman ask for the switch hit to be legitimate, it would open up a can of worms. And so you have to go by the principle of fairness, even if takes away a bit of drama. Unless, of course, you want both sides to benefit, which will happen if you also allow a right-arm bowler to run in and suddenly switch hands to bowl left-arm.

The bowlers must have equal opportunity. The ICC is looking at allowing an lbw verdict for the switch hit, working on the principle that a right-hand batsman becomes a left-hand one when he plays the shot and so a ball that would have pitched outside leg stump is now deemed to have pitched outside off. Indeed, I believe there is fair ground to allow an lbw for a ball that pitches either side of the stumps when a batsman changes hands. (It is, of course, different with the reverse sweep, since a right-hander remains a right-hander and the feet do not move differently either.)

And let's allow ambidextrous bowlers too. If anything, suddenly changing your bowling arm is even more difficult than suddenly switching to being a left-hand batsman. Some years ago a Japanese bowler ran in and bowled with either arm in one of the Asian qualifying tournaments, and while naivete might have been at the heart of that effort, it shows it is possible.

The other interesting bit of news was that the ICC will look at the risk versus the reward of playing the switch hit and see it if is indeed as rewarding as it is made out to be. It will be a good academic exercise but the precedent will be dangerous. Can you do a similar risk-versus-reward study on bowlers with bent arms, for example? (Oops, I forgot there aren't any and what I've been seeing recently is merely an illusion!)

Do we complicate things too much in the garb of moving ahead? Or is this an inevitable part of the evolution of the game? Certainly it is a debate worth having, and I look forward to more evolved thoughts than this article can manage.

Harsha Bhogle commentates on the IPL and other cricket, and is a television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here