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Bowling's dark age

Golden ages, whether in art or literature or sport, tend to define themselves in retrospect, usually being held up against a disappointing present. So it is a surprise to find cricket, even after the entertainment extravaganzas seen in Australia this summer, revelling so freely in the idea of a golden age of batting.

It is true that there is now considerable statistical evidence to support the idea that we are in a batting bull market. Average runs per wicket during the 44 Tests played in 2003 was 36: the highest since 1989. Run-rates are virtually unprecedented: since 2000, every team has been scoring faster than in the 1990s - Australia by the factor of a third (3.83 versus 2.95). Swelled by 14 double-hundreds in 2003, individual batting averages are inflating like share prices during the dotcom boom. The question is: are they doing so with the same connection to reality? Watching Australia's attack pursue a profitless line two feet wide of off stump as India broke 700 during the Sydney Test - enjoyable as it was to those fatigued by Australian pre-emininence - it was hard to avoid the feeling that this golden age of batting involved a regression to the stone age in other departments of the game.

'Golden age of batting', of course, is essentially a tautology. Golden ages are always about batting. As Neville Cardus wrote of the first, in English Cricket (1946), the Edwardian era was one in which "the great batsman could absorb himself in the perfection of his own art in the face of an attack largely reduced to a static mechanism". The measures of law-givers and the attention of innovators were geared towards the batsman's welfare, often transparently, from the interdict against throwers to the introduction of the six - and, not least, the introduction of marl, improving the reliability of pitches. The sole attempt to redress the favour bat enjoyed over ball, the proposal in 1900-01 to liberalise the lbw law in order to punish those batsmen who'd become adept at using their pads as a defensive bulwark, failed anyway.

Likewise in our new golden age. Jam-packed international schedules are good for batsmen: in the event of failure there is always another innings round the corner. But they condemn bowlers to a regime of increasing toil: the temptation is to "bowl smart", within oneself, from a shortened run-up with a minimum of experimentation, risking nought where injuries are concerned - though they seem to come frequently enough. Batting, too, is not an especially complex activity. You can walk into a game without extensive preparation and in time rediscover your touch. Bowling is more complicated. Yet international bowlers are frequently expected to return from inactivity and injury with minimal first-class match exposure: witness Brett Lee's groping for rhythm and straining for speed in Melbourne and Sydney, having appeared in only one Pura Cup match since the last season.

Part of the problem, of course, is generational. With the retirement of a bevy of outstanding new-ball bowlers, every country is being challenged by a lack of bowling depth. When Matthew Hayden made his Test debut 10 years ago, he immediately had his hand broken by Allan Donald. Restored to the Test side two years later, he was humiliated by Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh. After such an initiation, no wonder he feasts on the likes of Andy Blignaut and Sean Irvine. And great as were the presences of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, its absences were no less significant. When the series began, the first-choice attacks of each team would probably have pitted Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Brett Lee and Shane Warne against Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, Ajit Agarkar and Harbhajan Singh. Only Agarkar played without interruption; the rest were hors de combat some or all of the time. The absence of even a few key bowlers in a series upsets equilibrium, allowing batsmen to sweat out the top-liners in expectation of easier pickings later.

All this, in a sense, we know. Cricket's calendar, like Mark Twain's view of weather, is something everyone talks of but nobody does anything about. Does the hegemony of batting, however, reveal a deeper malaise in the game?

While we have been busy rejoicing in the splendour of strokeplay, bowling seems to have been becoming less ambitious, more stereotyped. Its rhetoric is accented to nagging and negating - "the corridor", "the channel" and "getting it in the right areas" - rather than beating and bewildering. This is so even in Australia, home to the great missionaries of attacking cricket. Our bowler of the seventies was Dennis Lillee: athletic, intuitive, extreme, expressive. Our bowler of the nineties and the noughties has been Glenn McGrath: taut, trained, restrictive, repetitive. His autobiography Pacemaker (2000) provides, unconsciously, a fascinating insight into the times. The second half of the book analyses a string of Test batsmen from all countries and their respective strengths and weaknesses. In each case, without perhaps realising it, McGrath recommends bowling - prepare to be amazed - "a nice tight line on off stump" or some slight variation thereof. We've come a long way since DK.

What has changed? One of the key differences between the eras is the frequency of one-day cricket. We underestimate now how difficult its growth was for that earlier generation to assimilate. Though the first official one-day match was an Australian occasion and the proliferation of one-day cricket was an Australian concept, the notion of cramping and curtailing cricket sat ill with Australian players. Lillee reflected his countrymen's ambivalence when he wrote in One-Day Cricket (1980): "I know it sounds un-Australian, and I almost find the idea offensive, but in limited-overs cricket we must learn to think negatively." Of Australia's performance in the 1979-80 World Series Cup, Wisden noted: "Greg Chappell made it clear he disliked this defensive form of cricket. He attempted to win his matches without resorting to negative bowling or spreading his fielders round the boundary." In a sense, the notorious underarm conclusion to the third World Series Cup final of February 1981 was as much a reflection of Chappell's contempt for one-day cricket as of the shortcomings of his sportsmanship, a sort of reductio ad absurdum of its principles.

Those days now seem long ago. Jeremiads about one-day cricket are a thing of the past - and rightly so. Much of the energy and ingenuity we appreciate in Test batting now is a result of the insinuation of attitudes from the limited-overs arena. But Test bowling now seems increasingly pervaded by the one-day gospel of containment - check out the way modern slip fielders applaud a maiden in which four balls have passed unmolested to the keeper - and that is not so welcome a development. The principles of Test and one-day bowling respectively are far more different than those of Test and one-day batting: you actually spend a lot of time in one-day cricket trying to prevent the ball behaving as you'd like it to in a Test match, like swinging and turning. If Test cricket is becoming a batsman's game, it may be because it is becoming more like one-day cricket, which always has been such.

The other influence on the conduct of international cricket - often underestimated but nonetheless profound - is coaching. It is sometimes forgotten that until 20 years ago the team coach was something players arrived in. Analysis of one's game was simple and informal but personal. In the Buchananite age of the video, computer-aided analysis, specialist coaching, and sports psychology, self-evaluation and self-direction are de-emphasised, and spontaneity and flexibility are less important than sticking to the agreed gameplan. Bowling attacks under such a regime tend to be reduced, borrowing Cardus's expression, to "a static mechanism"; recall the English coach who chided his bowlers for bowling too many "wicket-taking deliveries".

The effect of the philosophies of coaching can be experienced in an hour of television, where you soon obtain a sense of how ruled cricket has become by increasingly arcane statistics. The English scientist Lord Kelvin once observed that "what gets measured gets made", and this in cricket has always been true: would bowlers have bothered trying to follow five accurate scoreless deliveries with a sixth had there not been the statistical recognition of the maiden? But what, one wonders, is the psychological impact of new performance indicators that disaggregate runs conceded from back-foot shots, behind square leg, off effort balls etc? And of the new video jiggery-pokery, from the HawkEye that can scrutinise a bowler's line over the course of an over, or the pitch schematics that map the bowler's length so its regularity can be studied? Is there in modern bowling, one wonders, too much attention now on process and too little on outcome?

It may seem like an act of apostasy, or party-poopery, to question the foundations of this halcyon era of batsmanship. But even during golden ages, Gore Vidal once said, complaints are heard about the general yellowness of things. And as yet, it might be wisest to restrict ourselves to two cheers. Bear in mind that if the opposite were true, and batting averages and scoring-rates were in decline, we would not be toasting a golden age of bowling; we'd be wondering what the hell was the matter with everyone.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer based in Melbourne. This article was first published in the February issue of Wisden Asia Cricket.
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