February 16, 2013

Look to women's cricket for the game's lost pleasures

If you're a fan of spin and swing, you could do worse than become a fan of women's cricket

For the last couple of weeks I have been watching and commentating on a different kind of cricket, where I have had to bite my tongue while saying things like "Bowled him!" Barring that, commentating on the ICC Women's World Cup has been a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

No serious comparisons can be made between men's and women's cricket, for various reasons, but watching the women's game up close has been instructive for me - for its contrasts with the men's game, and what it tells us about the evolution of the men's game.

It has been truly gratifying for me as a cricket follower to see some real spin and swing being bowled. As a rule, women seem to swing the ball more than men do, and they also do not need turners to spin the ball - all they need is a 22-yard cricket pitch. This, of course, is not to demean the men in any way, but it raises the point of how swing and spin are less and less evident in the men's game now.

The pitch at the Cricket Club of India, where the World Cup games were held, was hard and bouncy, covered by a thin layer of grass. With matches starting at 9am, our pitch reports always suggested bowling first as the obvious option after winning the toss, and spoke of how it was going to be a seamer's delight. And each time it startled me how the spinners extracted spin from the pitch, even when they were bowling first. No way would the men have found spin on that surface at that hour.

There are two simple reasons for this: female spinners flight the ball more and bowl it a lot slower than men do, with their average speed being around 65-70kph. Male spinners generally bowl around 80kph, and their trajectory is much flatter. This is why women can find turn even on a pitch with no soil exposed, to get the spin advantage.

There was a time when men used to flight the ball like the women do today, but we all know why that does not happen anymore.

One, with increasing amounts of limited-overs cricket being played, the batsmen's mindset has changed completely. Hitting the ball in the air is no more the taboo it used to be. Two, the bats have got heavier and bulkier, and the boundaries are rarely long enough. It amazes me how many times a batsman mistimes the ball and it still sails over the ropes into the stands.

This is where I find the game is unfair to the bowler: ideally such miscued shots should land in the hands of a fielder well inside the boundary, but that does not happen anymore. Given that, only really brave bowlers will bowl full or flight the ball today.

For the ball to swing, one needs to bowl it full. Over the years, with bowlers realising that full balls can be risky, as the batsman can hit you straight over the head into the stands, they have gone shorter, and this habit has stuck in Tests too. Next time, watch carefully when you see a pitch map during coverage of a men's match, and look at how many times a seamer has bowled balls that would actually have gone on to hit the stumps. They are very few. This also means they are giving themselves fewer chances to get lbws and bowleds.

What was striking in these women's matches has been the number of bowleds and lbws they have got. This is because of the full length they tend to bowl; on the pitch map we could see that most of their deliveries were pitching in the full-length area, unlike in men's cricket, where the stock delivery is just short of a good length and balls invariably sail over the stumps if allowed to pass.

Women are able to bowl full because they know very few women in the world can hit the ball out of the ground. So it does not need an especially big-hearted, courageous bowler to pitch it full or throw it up in the air as a means of deception. Even though the boundaries are shorter (around 55 metres on average), sixes are rare in women's cricket, while in men's cricket, with 70m boundaries, it is batsmen who can't hit sixes who are rare.

Women bowl their overs quicker because they do not "mill around" like the men do. Even on a humid day, the women were rushing through their overs and running to take their positions in the field in between overs

One other reason why 50-overs men's cricket seems a drag sometimes is because men take so long to bowl their quota of overs. They invariably go overboard by 30 minutes. Women get three hours and ten minutes to bowl their 50 overs, as against men, who get three and a half hours. This, I am told, is because men tend to have longer run-ups.

But it was obvious to me that the real reason why women bowl their overs quicker is because they do not "mill around" like the men do these days. Even on a humid day, the women were rushing through their overs and running to take their positions in the field in between overs.

Visits by substitutes with drinks are infrequent, unlike in men's cricket, where it has gone completely out of control. In the women's games, every time the batter was ready, so were the fielders and the bowler.

Why are women generally so keen to finish their overs in time - even when their side is lagging in the match sometimes? Is it hefty fines or penalties in terms of money or runs? Bans? No. There is no penalty of any kind if they don't bowl their overs in time. They do it out of habit, a good habit.

The game is a lot more attractive to spectators if they get to see all its facets in one match, and those include swing and spin. It is up to administrators to ensure this. My stint covering women's cricket has confirmed what I have felt quite strongly for a while: sooner rather than later, the rule-makers will have to restrict the weight and dimensions of the cricket bat. At the moment the edges are starting to resemble the face of the bat.

Wherever possible they need to drag the boundaries further away, so a batsman will know he is taking a huge risk when he is trying to loft a full, swinging ball or a flighted, spinning delivery. If it does not come from the middle of the bat, he should know that is probably going to be the end of him. When a batsman has this doubt in his mind, watch how the game becomes more attractive than it is today.

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. His Twitter feed is here