December 11, 2014

It's largely even between bat and ball

Each skill evolves over time to get the edge over the other, but as long as conditions encourage both, there's no cause for worry

Wasim and Waqar could control the fortunes of a Test together © Getty Images

Lately there has been a lot of talk about the ongoing dominance of bat over ball. I don't buy it. Some in the game feel the bat is dominating too much and that that is why chucking has been allowed to spread the way it has done. Thankfully the authorities are not falling anymore for this.

There are moves afoot to increase ground size to what it used to be, to ensure the game's integrity stays intact. At times in the last two decades, it has bordered on looking a different sport.

Whatever you make of T20, its role is to generate money and entertain, promote new territories, and provide a time frame that fits a new market; so that we, being an impatient society demanding very little time is used up, get to enjoy a quick fix.

In one-dayers, the rules can destroy the bowler, as Rohit Sharma did recently. Two hundred and sixty-four? What next? Hopefully after this next World Cup the late Powerplay will be scrapped. Perhaps the format should even be reduced to 40 overs to remove the need to contrive while securing better crowds?

In T20 the cry of "Cricket is a batsman's game" is a given.

When the game isn't tinkered with so much, as is the case with Test cricket, the balance between bat and ball sits authentically. Sometimes batting gets a jump for a period, or bowling discovers something new, but the balance is always there. What's critical for Tests is that the conditions encourage both skills to compete equally at all times.

The essence of Test cricket lies with the bowler. He starts the action, controls the heartbeat of the game, and determines the direction a game will take. In truth, bowling wins games more than batting.

The bowler is helped by knowing he and the pack he hunts with have ten wickets to take per innings. Ten good pieces of cricket. The batsman has no such definite clue as to what to achieve and aim for, apart from a large score, until he gets to the final chase and knows exactly what is required to finish the match. The batsman is simply on the receiving end of whatever energy and spirit a bowler can muster and deliver.

Let's consider the pros and cons for both sides.

The bowler has less mind chatter to deal with, more physicality and muscle to spend. He hopes the conditions give him a sniff here and there. He bowls when he is ready, he gets a drink on the boundary at the over's end, he appeals loudly, he sledges, he stops bowling at the end of his spell, he rests - sometimes for hours on end, until a new ball arrives, he has a 15-degree leeway to provide mystery.

The bowler is helped by knowing he and the pack he hunts with have ten wickets to take per innings. The batsman is simply on the receiving end

The batsman has one ball to end his journey, one moment of recklessness to create future doubt. It is felt the batsman will get himself out most of the time, and therein lies the trick. To delay his inevitable dismissal he needs to understand that batting is all about temperament and, in particular, about being in the present. If resolutely equipped and in the zone of playing one ball at a time, with conditions fair, the batsman can repel any type of bowler and go all day undefeated.

The batsman's essential requirements are mind control first, fast reflexes and agility next. He must react instinctively, trusting his conditioning to follow the ball in a split-second, removing risk of dismissal, allowing the easy swing of his bat to find the middle of his well-manufactured blade, to find the late timing to send the ball away with assuredness. If he premeditates, he risks everything.

The bowler often in the course of an innings needs competent fielding to complete the transaction. If all catches were caught, the game would be short and sharp, confirming that the bowler rules. Thankfully the fielder has a tough role too, and often determines whether the bat or ball wins the day. It's a fair point that catches win matches, and therefore the bowler relies a lot on teamwork to succeed.

In my time, two bowlers didn't rely on fielders much: Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. Their team of the day fielded poorly, mostly, and so these two geniuses - subconsciously, one can only assume - developed the art of bowling full to shatter stumps, smash toes and bruise shins. A quarter of the time they dismissed batsmen with only an umpire to assist. As a duo they were incredible. They bowled long spells, mainly in tandem, mastered the technique of reverse swing, and had stacks of pace when required.

Of all the partnerships I saw in cricket, they stood out. Not far behind you would find Malcolm Marshall and Michael Holding, and Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, lurking as the greatest combos of all in the modern era.

The key for batting, to counter the threat of the best bowlers on show, is in partnerships. You can't do it alone. The team that paired off the best when batting came off best in the long term. If you are smart you will stay close in the order to the player you bat best with.

I thrived on having Andrew Jones at No. 3. Unorthodox, steely, dogmatic, and unforgiving, Jones became the ideal partner for my style. He said nothing as he wore bowlers down, hitting so late, the bowlers were often convinced they had got through him. The bowlers did far more talking to him in a series than Jones did in his career.

I also enjoyed batting with left-handers, the left-right combo forcing bowlers to change line often, providing angles for leg-side scoring when they missed the target. On the flip side, I am not sure I was an ideal partner - intense, aloof, zoned in to the ball, zoned out to conversation. I wish I had relaxed a bit.

Hayden and Langer brought different styles to their wildly successful partnership © Getty Images

The best I saw in a batting partnership was the Australian opening pair of Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer. They brought different styles and strengths and set the scene for one of the greatest sides of all time to dominate.

Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes were similar. Then there was Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. They complemented each other perfectly, especially at home. Away from home there weren't many better than Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar; at home they were staunch - it was like bowling to a concrete wall.

The partnership was always the key to nullifying the bowling attack and getting on top. Great teams possessed no weak link, and batted with quality and resilience long down the order. No easy feat to find such a team.

When we look at the Test records of the finest on show, it's interesting to note the greatest bowlers averaged around 50 balls or so per wicket and the top batsmen 50 runs or more per innings with the bat.

If we consider four to five wickets as a fine individual bowling performance in a Test match, it equates to 200 balls bowled to achieve it. Batting to score 80-100 runs per match would require 200 balls as well. The balance for Test cricket has always been there, always will. The same game it started out as.

For what it's worth, in a new life, just for fun, I would choose to come back as Garry Sobers, with a modern bat, who could bowl reverse. You?

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s and early '90s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand

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