February 8, 2016

Why the good-length ball has lost its sting

The old precept of bowling on a good length doesn't work when pitches are flat and batsmen fearless

Smack that: batting, especially in limited-overs cricket, is barely a challenge anymore © Getty Images

I like to cover Under-19 cricket because it's the one place where you see batsmen and bowlers competing on even terms. The two players who stood out for me in the last U-19 World Cup were South African fast bowler Kagiso Rabada and Indian left-arm chinaman bowler Kuldeep Yadav.

But in senior cricket, batsmen continue to dominate. After watching the Australia-India limited-overs series, I was surprised that alarm bells weren't ringing across world cricket. While you admired the exploits of Virat Kohli and Co, after some time it all seemed too easy for the batsmen.

One feature that stood out for me in that series was how straight the bowling was. The ball went straight through the air, straight off the pitch onto the bat, and from there, as you would expect, straight to the boundary. The batsmen were standing a foot outside the crease, putting their front foot down the pitch and hitting the big, strapping fast bowlers out of the ground.

And how did the bowlers respond? By bowling slower deliveries.

Fast bowlers today have become like lions in a circus - tame. They used to have aggressive instincts, but not anymore. Even when they are allowed two bouncers per over, they don't react to the audacity of big-hitting batsmen and let a few rip past their ears. It seems like they have lost their pride - and can you blame them?

Over the years I have been critical of India's weak bowling, but it's a problem in limited-overs cricket all over the world, as we saw reiterated in Australia. It's weak, weaker and weakest when it comes to bowling attacks these days.

Till a few years ago you avoided bowling good-length deliveries only in the death overs. But in the series between Australia and India, seamers were bowling everywhere but in the good-length area right through the 50 overs

Mind you, bowlers can still swing the ball on flat pitches and not make it so easy for batsmen, but I guess right now all they are looking to do is save their skins. Perhaps they take comfort from the fact that everybody around them is going through the same ordeal. It's like when the stock market crashes: investors console themselves by saying everyone lost money, so it's no big deal.

Bowlers thinking like that is not healthy for the game. They need to be as motivated as the batsmen - like it is in U-19 cricket.

The problem is that in senior cricket it's not only the Kohlis and the de Villierses of the world who are hammering the bowlers. Every second batsman seems to do it. Shikhar Dhawan puts his front foot down the pitch in international cricket and hits the ball out of the park as if he were playing a club attack.

Batting overall can't have become that good. If it had, batsmen would be dominating on lively pitches as well.

A good-length ball is one that is bowled on a length where a batsman is unable to make up his mind whether to play off front foot or back, and so gets into trouble. But today a good-length ball is a bad ball.

A few years ago you avoided bowling good-length deliveries only in the death overs, but in the series between Australia and India, seamers were bowling everywhere but in the good-length area right through the 50 overs.

From a young age, a bowler is trained to bowl on a good length, and as he grows up, he makes it his stock delivery. But when he makes his way into international cricket, he has to abandon his main delivery and try things he hasn't practised as much. Bowling variations have now become regulation.

Only when some life comes back into pitches will the good-length ball, bowled with the seam up, start getting the respect it deserves.

I was surprised by the pitch for the first match I covered in the Under-19 World Cup, at the Shere Bangla Stadium in Mirpur: it had a liberal covering of grass. The curator would never have prepared a pitch like this for a senior-level match here. When the stakes are high, compromises are made and flat pitches become the safe outcome.

These U-19 seamers bowled a lot in the good-length area, the ball changed direction, and only the truly exceptional batsmen could hit through the line.

In the 1980s, when batsmen started wearing helmets, fast bowlers lost one of their most important weapons: intimidation. Since then, bats have become bulkier, pitches flatter, outfields quicker and boundaries smaller. Bowlers are getting marginalised in the game.

I didn't enjoy watching the limited-overs series in Australia. There was too much one-way traffic. If this trend continues, who knows, one day the bowlers might just stop turning up.

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