April 25, 2014

Can we do something about monster bats?

Modern bats are getting chunkier by the day, while not getting much more heavy. This gives batsmen an unfair advantage

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Recently I had the opportunity to commentate on the India-Pakistan Asia Cup match in Mirpur, Dhaka. As I wandered onto the field for my pre-match duties, I stumbled across a bat lying on the ground. It belonged to one of the Indian batsmen. I picked it up, out of curiosity, to check the weight and balance. I was taken aback by what I saw.

I have seen bats get bulkier over the years, but this one shocked me because the edges were the thickest I had ever seen on a cricket bat, and the bulge at the back the biggest. It was clear to see that this bat of 2014 was more bloated than the ones of 2012. Wandering around the ground, I realised that most bats were more or less similar. These were the bats of 2014. With every passing season, bats get bigger: bigger edges and bigger bulges behind the face.

So bats are getting more meaty; what's the big deal, you might ask. Batsmen are stronger, so they can carry heavy bats around more easily than you guys could.

True. But here's what's great about these modern bats: they are getting bulkier, but they are still light to pick up.

I think the weight of the bat is not so much an issue as much as the thickness of the edges and the swell at the back are. If bats got heavier as they got meatier, that would be fair because wielding a heavy bat, especially in T20 cricket, where you use the bat like a wand to play all those unorthodox, mind-boggling shots, is not ideal. So it would be a tough choice for a batsman to make: go for weight on the bat for the power, or choose versatility with a lighter bat?

Coming back to that Asia Cup match, I saw the dramatic effect of those bloated bats lying around the ground in that very game. Virat Kohli as India captain made a smart move to have his spinners bowl the death overs on a pitch that had turn. It all came down to the last over. Ten runs to get, with R Ashwin to bowl.

As it turned out, Shahid Afridi hit two sixes to win the game for his team. That's what went into the record books: Afridi hits two sixes off Ashwin and Pakistan beat India in a nail-biter in the Asia Cup. But if you looked at it with a cricketing eye, here is what really happened. Ashwin bowled two good deliveries, on which Afridi mistimed two lofted shots. Both times the ball did not hit the middle of Afridi's bat - it was well away from the sweet spot - but it still sailed over the short boundaries. Those two sixes landed just a metre or two over the rope.

Why did this happen? Modern bats.

The edges are so thick now (two inches or more) that even if the ball makes contact with the bat close to its edge, there is still a lot of wood behind the ball. The thick edges ensure that there is still a lot of body and thrust behind the ball even if it has not hit the core centre of the bat.

In earlier days, when the edges were thinner (about three-quarters of an inch thick), as a batsman you knew you had to hit the ball with the centre of the bat, the sweet spot, or you were in trouble. Even the big guys were conscious of this fact. Now, because there is all that extra wood, spread right across the rear of the bat, the whole face of the bat has become one sweet spot.

Was it fair to Ashwin when with his guile he had the better of Afridi but the design of the bat made Afridi the eventual hero? In modern cricket, bowlers are losing such battles on a daily basis. Why, even Afridi experiences this harsh reality as a bowler.

If someone kept count of how many badly mishit shots are going for sixes these days, the number would be very high. We need to bring it down.

I propose that the ICC places restrictions on how thick the sides of a bat can be, and on the extent of the protrusion you can have behind the face of the bat. I don't care too much about the weight of the bat, for it has its pros and cons for the batsman. My suggestion is that bat edges should not be more than three-fourths of an inch thick, and the bulge behind must not exceed an inch and a half. Before a tournament or series, all bats should be cleared by the match referee and a hologram sticker put on those that have passed the test.

After that, brace yourself for some real fun. It will now be the guile of the bowlers versus the muscles and skills of the batsmen. No more shortcuts for the batsmen.

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

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