January 21, 2015

Gimme slimmer bats over fatter records

Unlike in baseball, where you could mistake Babe Ruth's slugger for a modern-day one, in cricket the difference in sizes and weights is mind-boggling - and harmful

AB de Villiers' fastest ODI century is a victory of big bats over logical law-making © Gallo Images

The other day, this column emailed a former player of global renown, asking whether a particularly astonishing feat of batsmanship, having won the day for the team he supported, had generated joy. As suspected, it had not, not remotely. Only one clue is proffered as to his identity, and a blindingly obvious one at that: he did not get where he is today by wearing a helmet.

Never mind the unapologetic absence of objectivity. Here was the saddest, maddest commentary on cricket in the 21st century. Never mind that victory had accrued to the ex-player's team, a team about which he cares enormously, a team unaccustomed to smiling; the bigger picture, the dominance of bat over ball, was unavoidable, and far too painful to permit even a crumb of solace. His lament is not a lonely one. Unbalanced cricket is about as useful as a tuneless song. Just as rhythm only gets you so far, it takes a lot more than thwack to appreciate the full craic.

Mind you, AB de Villiers' eruption in Jo'burg on Sunday may have done us a favour. What can you say when the fastest century ever made in an ODI is now a mere one ball slower than the swiftest in T20? That the justification for two limited-over formats is running out of steam? You bet. It also reminds us of a fact of contemporary cricketing life at once admirable and utterly unappetising. Never, on the one hand, has the game been so blessed with positive mindsets. Attack is the default; defence is for wimps.

Notwithstanding sluggish, even pitiful over rates, let alone chief executives' pitches, the 624-and-54-for-1-plays-524 draw is going the way of cheap housing and exorbitant oil prices. Padding up is now as shrewd a gambit as peppering Viv Richards with long-hops. Twenty-five years ago, the prospects for either development were on a par with opening the Sun and not finding a topless model on page three.

Unfortunately, the price of record-smithereening and a new audience has been horribly steep - and all because lawmakers, regulation-changers and broadcasters are on the same patronising, profoundly misguided side.

The only (relatively) new aspect of all this, of course, is the influence of the broadcasters. To them, the pie-flinging fraternity, six-curbers, match-abridgers and income-reducers to a man, are the very devil. The only truly bowler-friendly measures taken since the arrival of one-day cricket have been the advent of the DRS and the outlawing of the aluminium bat. Conspiracy theorists might not be alone in suspecting that the BCCI's objections to the DRS are even more insidious and toxic than billed.

The only truly bowler-friendly measures taken since the arrival of one-day cricket have been the advent of the DRS and the outlawing of the aluminium bat

Major League Baseball endured a remarkably similar identity crisis two decades ago - and ignored it with much the same aplomb. The brand was in dire straits - lousy image, profits in freefall. Livid with club owners and militant outfielders alike, fans deplored the 1994-95 players' strike; to them it was "Billionaires v millionaires". When play resumed, attendances plummeted.

As fate would have it, Bill Clinton had recently passed the Dietary Supplement and Health Act (DSHEA), shifting the onus of responsibility from drug companies - to prove their products were safe - to the Federal Drug Agency, to prove they were unsafe. According to Howard Bryant's brilliant investigation, Juicing the Game, this begat "a medicine cabinet the likes of which the sports world had never seen". Steroid use abounded, transforming so-so sluggers into home-run factories. Eyebrows were raised, but as the crowds thronged back, only the pitchers were complaining. Illuminating indeed was the tagline for one fearlessly sexist ad campaign: "Chicks dig the long ball."

Fifty home runs in a major league season was long considered heroic. From 1876 - when the National League opened for business - until 1977 it was accomplished 14 times. In 1927, Babe Ruth topped his own record with 60; not for a further 34 years did Roger Maris go one better; not for 37 more did Mark McGwire (70) and Sammy Sosa (66) surpass Maris. The next three seasons saw McGwire hit 65, Sosa 63 and 64 before Barry Bonds battered 73. From 1995 to 2007, there were 23 50-homer campaigns.

New, intimate ballparks certainly helped, but those bulked-up biffers stoked rumours of performance-enhancement - all the more so when fatalities ensued. Cue presidential intervention, Congressional hearings and 2007's desk-buckling Mitchell Report. Dope tests were finally introduced; heavy suspensions followed. Only twice since 2007 has that 50-homer mark been breached, the peak 54. The average number per game in 2014, 0.86, was the lowest since 1992. Coincidence? Hmm.

Nothing spoke more eloquently for the new climate than the Kansas City Royals, perpetual underdogs whose unlikely march to last year's World Series was fuelled not by home runs - none of the other 29 clubs tallied fewer - but daring base-stealing, supreme fielding and Scroogian relief pitching. No less telling, mind, has been the success of the San Francisco Giants, Series victors in 2010, 2012 and 2014 while finishing, respectively, 11th, bottom and 19th of the homer chart. Attendances? Not only have they not withered, they have risen.

Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's home-run record after a 34-year wait © New York Daily News Archive

Baseball may not have rediscovered credibility by design, but the sound of clicking turnstiles poses questions for cricket; the second might be even more distasteful than the first:

1) In ten years' time, who the hell is going to want to bowl for a living (or even a playing)?

2) Are cricket lovers less discerning than their baseball brethren?

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So far as we know, cricket cannot cite drugs as an alibi for its grotesque bowlerphobia - though one can't help but wonder what hallucinogens were on the table when the decision was taken to tighten those already criminal fielding restrictions. At bottom, the changes that have facilitated the paradigm shift of the past decade stem from the same mentality that drove baseball to ignore drug abuse: a conviction that what turns the masses on is not vibrant competition nor close finishes nor an even-handed exposition of differing skills, but how often spectators catch the ball.

We all know the list of charges, so this column will desist from detailed repetition. It does, however, have one reinvigorated gripe. Earlier this month, Channel Nine asked Mark Taylor to compare one of his own late-1990s vintage bats with David Warner's current weapon: the accompanying shot of both implements was as depressing as it was gobsmacking.

Forgive the belated gatecrashing of this well-attended party, but sometimes only the evidence of one's own eyes can bring home the impact of something taken for granted. Judging by my admittedly oversized TV screen, the face of the blade brandished so fruitfully by Taylor - the former Australia opener who withstood Wasim, Waqar, Maco and Curtly, matched Don Bradman's Test-best 334, and remains the last man to amass 800 runs in a series - was barely wider than the edge of Warner's.

In many ways Warner is Taylor's spiritual opposite. Even without such a ludicrously mighty asset, that innate aggression would still have allowed him to terrify bowlers, thrill Australians and neutrals alike, and have sponsors forming a disorderly queue. But how many more of those shots might have been catchable - or play-on-able?

Enhanced equipment has benefited many ball games. Better-strung rackets with broader sweet spots have revolutionised tennis, improving defence as well as attack. Advances in golf-club design have levelled the fairway - invest in those humongous drivers and even an average pro can be a millionaire; winning majors, conversely, still depends on the subtleties of the putter. Lighter, flightier f***balls are easier to swerve and hit from a distance, encouraging enterprise while being less hazardous to heads. All, on balance, have been boons. It is considerably harder to defend the small trees that currently pass muster as cricket "bats".

Sure, it can be argued that greater confidence in their destructive qualities breeds adventure, audacity and innovation. However, given the way the game has sped up, would that not have happened regardless? Maybe not quite to the extent of a batsman ransacking 149 off 44 balls in an ODI, or a team chasing down 232 in a T20 international, but I did see Somerset savage Devon for 413 for 4 at Torquay back in 1990. And Graeme Pollock broke the 200 barrier as long ago as 1974, when the hippest word in bat design was the Gray-Nicolls Scoop, which actually removed a sizeable chunk of wood.

In common with their cricketing counterparts, the bats swung by major league hitters must be wooden; most favour ash. Regulations cover length and diameter. In a cabinet at the Baseball Hall of Fame stands an array of bats once whirled by Ruth, Maris, McGwire and Sosa; the differences, to the naked eye, are largely imperceptible, marginal at best. To come across a similar display at Lord's is to be convinced that the MCC is the most free-spirited, radical organisation in the entire history of the ball.

Once upon a time it was enough for the custodian of the laws to stipulate a maximum width and length, of blade and handle. Given the unpoliced strides taken by Messrs Woodworm, Spartan and Kookaburra, to persist in overlooking thickness looks ever more like suicidal folly. Until it clapped eyes on Warner's and Taylor's bats, this column firmly believed that the limited-overs variations, stage for the most grievous and regular excesses, could only be transformed by looser fielding restrictions and/or a removal of constraints on bowling allocations. However tardily, slimmer bats now top that wishlist.

As that underrrated social commentator Mr Meat Loaf once assured us rockers, two out of three ain't bad. In this instance, one out of three will do - so long as it's the right one.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His book Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport is out now

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