January 6, 2011

The return of swing and other stories

The top teams were on about an equal footing, which produced more absorbing cricket. And an exciting bowling art made a comeback

The last couple of weeks of the year are among the most pleasurable for the cricket fan. Apart from England, the weather is pleasant everywhere. There are festivities. And there are Test matches on television. In 2010 it was a bit more special than usual because the top four Test teams were involved in engaging contests in two different time zones. If you are in the subcontinent, like I am, what bliss it is to wake up to Test cricket in Australia and carry on watching through the day till it is late afternoon in South Africa.

Despite the Tests having been one-sided, both series have been full of surprises, drama and brilliant performances, and the momentum has swung from one Test to the other, with both series yet to be decided going into the last Test.

As Australia have fallen from their perch, the era of great teams has ended, at least temporarily. It is both a blessing and a blight. An even playing field makes for tighter, more interesting contests. At their peak Australia were so far ahead of the rest that matches involving them got predictable and dull. Now we know that a team can get hammered one week and return the favour with interest the next. England have now beaten Australia at home and away, lost to South Africa at home and drawn with them away, and lost to India at home and away. South Africa have drawn against India away and are level at home at the time of writing. India have won 14 of their last 23 Tests but haven't won a series in Australia and South Africa. So damn the rankings, no one really knows who is top dog in Test cricket, and that keeps the Test scene spicy and simmering.

The flip side is that the bar has been lowered, and while contests between teams are now more even, it has been at the cost of quality. England have brought their best team in years to Australia, to be met by one of the softest Australian teams in memory. India must have the thinnest bowling attack for a top-ranked team. And South Africa continue to lose too many vital games.

And while Test cricket looks and feels healthy and vibrant when the top teams are playing each other, the news from the bottom half has got more and more depressing. New Zealand managed to hold India to two draws recently, but the series held little spectator interest. Pakistan continue to provide sparks but the tragedy of their cricket is both created from within and by circumstances beyond the control of players and administrators. In the West Indies it's tough to figure out who cares less, players or administrators. New Zealand face a crisis of talent. And Bangladesh still don't look like they belong in the Test arena.

While nothing is more rewarding than Test cricket played at a high level, when it is between unequals, or even among low-skilled opponents, it can be a drag. The last year provided enough evidence of the vibrancy and viability of Test cricket between the top nations, but it posed some serious questions about the way forward.

The bar has been lowered, and while contests between teams are now more even, it has been at the cost of quality. England have brought their best team to Australia in years, to be met by one of the softest Australian teams in memory. India must have the thinnest bowling attack for a top-ranked team. And South Africa continue to lose too many vital games

In other ways too, 2010 was year of contrasts. While Indian cricket glowed on the field, the cricket board found itself mired in controversies and court cases. Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif lit up the English summer with the magic of their wrists before spot-fixing allegations against them plunged cricket into darkness. Pitches produced gluts of runs and cascades of wickets. Mitchell Johnson misfired for most of 2010 but produced one of the great spells of the year, in Perth. And the Umpire Decision Review System threw up as many questions as it provided answers.

The need for competitive pitches
It's never been a secret: keep bowlers in the game and cricket will be rewarding. And to keep bowlers in the game you need pitches that aren't a one-way street in favour of batsmen. It isn't a coincidence that the last decade was among the most profitable for both batsmen and cricket boards. Most of the money in cricket is made from television rights, and television companies make their money from ads that run between overs. The longer games last, the greater the number of ads that can be run. Curators, after all, are employed by cricket boards. Even if they were not explicitly instructed to roll out flatbeds, they got the message.

Statistically 2010 wasn't any better. The runs-per-wicket ratio from 43 Tests stood at 36.48, the second highest in the last 10 years. But there were plenty of encouraging trends. Perth was restored to life, Durban produced bounce and pace, Nagpur and Bangalore had enough for spinners, and most of all, the English summer sparkled with life.

Over the last decade English grounds, the most favourable in the world to swing and seam bowling, produced increasing amounts of runs. Lord's became a batting paradise, The Oval lost pace, and even Headingley no longer remained a haven for seamers. But something changed in 2010. In the hands of some skillful operators the ball wobbled and seamed, and all eight Tests - two were neutral ones between Australia and Pakistan - produced results. The spot-fixing scandal at the end of the season took the sheen off the summer, but hopefully the lessons will have been absorbed. It's not merely enough to keep the players on the field for as long as possible; to keep fans of Test cricket engaged, it is essential to provide a proper contest between the bat and ball.

The return of swing
A look at the top wicket-takers' table for the year tells a happy story. Two of the top three are swing bowlers and there are a couple more in the top 10. Between them Dale Steyn and James Anderson have swung the ball in all conditions, and have done what opening bowlers are meant to do: take out top-order batsmen.

For over a decade Glenn McGrath specialised in the surgical dismantling of batsmen, but his control and accuracy were near freakish, and McGrath was arguably the greatest defensive bowler in the history of the game. In its own way, that perfection was both beautiful and terrifying, but in the hands of lesser practitioners, back-of-the-length bowling and the business of preying on the patience of the batsman can get tedious. In contrast, there are few better sights in cricket than aggressive swing bowling.

As Ian Chappell says elsewhere on this site, swing bowling is wonderful for cricket because not only does it bring the prospect of wickets but also the prospect of boundaries. To allow the ball to swing, the bowler must pitch it up, creating the opportunity for good batsmen to unfurl the most majestic of cricket strokes: the cover drive.

It is a somewhat mysterious art and often bowlers themselves don't fully comprehend it. Mitchell Johnson, who turned devastating when he managed to curl it into right-handers in Perth, readily admits he doesn't quite know how to get it going, and Sreesanth, who can bowl some unplayable outswingers on his day, goes whole days searching for one. For advice he can do no better than turn to Zaheer Khan, who has developed a keen understanding of the aerodynamics of the cricket ball.

Zaheer, however, is not an out-and-out swing bowler, and relies on various tricks, including seam, cut and reverse. For the revival of swing bowling the game should be thankful to Steyn and Anderson. With Anderson there always remained the question of his effectiveness away from English conditions, which he has dispelled emphatically by swinging the Kookaburra ball in Australia like no one has done in recent memory.

The player of the year
By a distance it was Sachin Tendulkar's year with the bat, but push me to pick a player of the year and I will unhesitatingly plump for Steyn. Anderson and Graeme Swann took nearly as many wickets, but no one took them more breathtakingly than Steyn. For that matter he also took them more regularly.

Steyn is that rarest of species, a genuine fast bowler who swings the ball late. The outswinger is his stock ball, but the predictability hardly makes it easier. He bowls a great length, and his perfect ball begins its journey with the natural angle inwards to the right-hand batsman and starts shaping out fractionally prior to hitting the pitch, but the line is still around middle and off, so the batsman has no option but to play it; only if he is lucky in the extreme does it evade the edge.

Steyn destroyed India in the first innings in Centurion and Durban, but those were pitches and conditions tailormade for him. His performance of the year, and arguably the bowling performance of the year, came against the same opposition, but on a flat wicket in Nagpur. After South Africa had plundered 558 for 6, Steyn removed Murali Vijay and Tendulkar in a searing opening spell and blew out the lower order with a five-wicket burst in his third spell.

During the Boxing Day Test his career strike rate dipped under 40 and he now stands as the best among those who have taken more than 200 Test wickets. In this club, only three bowlers - Muttiah Muralitharan, Richard Hadlee and Clarrie Grimmett - have a better five-wicket-haul-per-Test ratio than him.

If he can maintain his fitness and enthusiasm, he should end up as one of the all-time greats. Cricket needs the likes of him.

Tendulkar: an Everest of his own
What do you say about a man who has just had his best year in Test cricket after a 21-year career full of greatness? Sachin Tendulkar's place in the pantheons of cricket's greats had never been in doubt, but 2010 has perhaps made it a little easier to answer the perennial question: who after Bradman? Beyond everything else, it's a number that enshrined Bradman's undisputed status as the pinnacle of batting. Tendulkar has now created his own Everest: his tally of international hundreds - certain to cross 100 - and runs are unlikely to be surpassed ever.

Longevity is a crucial element of greatness and Tendulkar passed that test years ago. But the incredible aspect of his performance in 2010 was not merely his mountain of runs but that he is playing some of the best cricket of his career. In the 1990s, Tendulkar was a more entertaining batsman to watch: a combination of batting genius and the rush of youth produced some electrifying contests against some of the world's great bowlers. The Tendulkar of the 2010s is a mellower, cannier and tighter batsman, who knows how to temper his game to the rhythm of the match. He has adjusted his game to suit his body, his defence is tighter, and he still has all those shots. In fact, he has been playing more of them.

It's no secret what keeps Tendulkar going. Life outside the game has never held much interest for him. He enjoys being a family man and spending time with his close friends, but it's cricket that still consumes him. And because he has never taken the game for granted, his pursuit towards perfecting his craft continues. And he has become so much a part of the game that for his fans it is unthinkable to think of the game without him.

In part two, tomorrow: Pakistan, the UDRS, and India as cricket's bully

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo