Rohit Sharma broke Virender Sehwag's world-record ODI score of 219 by 45 runs at Eden Gardens on November 13. Beginning with Glenn Turner, the record has been broken in the 20th, 216th, 264th, 1209th, 2873rd, 2962nd, 3223rd, and 3544th ODIs.
Rohit's world record caused some dismay among fans. To some extent, this has to do with the fact that it was Rohit Sharma who broke the record. He is seen, rightly or wrongly, as a player who has been given more than his fair share of opportunities. Be that as it may, he has now scored more than 200 in ODIs twice. Perhaps the closest analogy I can think of is Chris Gayle making two Test triple-hundreds. If you are feeling even less charitable, Ravindra Jadeja making three first-class triple-hundreds.
The idea that runs have been devalued in ODI cricket in recent years is not a new one. It is put down to superior bats, changes in fielding restrictions, and the general improvement in hitting ability, thanks to the proliferation of T20 leagues. I have shown that the increase in the scoring rate is not due a decline in dot balls but to an increase in boundary-hitting and, especially, six-hitting. Scoring has changed the least on the bigger grounds in Australia, while it has exploded in New Zealand, South Africa and India. But the story is not merely one of exploding scoring rates. I'll use four charts to explain that ODI cricket has evolved into a contest in which there is more action per delivery than there was 25 years ago, not simply more runs.
In 1990, a boundary was hit in an ODI once every three overs. In 2014, a boundary was hit once every two overs. The rate at which wickets fall has changed as well. In 1990, a wicket fell every 41 balls (say seven overs). In 2014, a wicket fell every 35 balls (say six overs). Interestingly, the boundary rate and wicket rate in a calendar year have not changed substantially since 2005, the year the Powerplay was introduced. The effect of the most recent change to the Powerplay rule and fielding restrictions, which gives some choice to the batting side but none to the bowling side, remains to be seen. Early indications suggest that boundaries will become more frequent, mainly because of the new fielding restrictions (at least five fielders inside the circle).
Setting aside ODIs involving all but the top eight Test-playing nations (excluding Bangladesh and Zimbabwe), teams batting first have been bowled out more frequently in recent years compared to the 1980s. It remains to be seen whether or not the most recent field restrictions will change this. The numbers suggest that three boundaries are scored (on average) per dismissal in ODI cricket now, compared to about two boundaries (on average) in 1990. The trend is strong enough to suggest that teams in the 1980s were perhaps too cautious in the 50-over contest, and spent too much time trying to keep wickets in hand. While the improvement in fielding in ODI cricket is often commented on, the improvement in hitting ability is perhaps equally, if not more significant.
On the other hand, this quick scoring has also meant that teams are getting bowled out more often. From 2006 to 2011, at least 30% of first innings in ODI cricket ended with the batting team being dismissed before the 50 overs were complete. There has been some fluctuation in the last three years.
How are individual batsmen scoring runs these days compared to 25 years ago? The rate of failure has remained more or less constant. About 60% of individual ODI innings involve less than 20 runs. However, about 16% of all individual innings are at least half-centuries today. The corresponding figure in the past has hovered between 10% and 15%. Similarly, 3.5% of individual innings in 2014 have been centuries, compared to an average of 2% to 2.4% 25 years ago. This ought not to be unexpected, given that boundary-hitting has become far more prevalent after the 20th over than it used to be.
In the 1996 World Cup, every team sought a pinch-hitting opener. Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharna aimed to reach 50 in the first five or six overs. This enthusiasm has abated a little since. Batsmen take their time early in their innings these days. It is rare today to see an opener make a half-century in 25 balls in an ODI. In his 264, Rohit reached his half-century in 72 balls.
The story of ODI cricket over the last 25 years seems to be one in which teams have realised that there is a lot more time in a 50-over game than might be assumed. As a result, they are able to get a lot more out of each delivery. Old thinking about not chasing a boundary in an over after you've already got one has been set aside. Part of the reason an innings like Rohit's is possible is because he has the licence to bat in a way that Tendulkar's generation never had. Strictures about what constitutes a "bad shot" have loosened. If Viv Richards played today, he would not stand out among AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla and Virat Kohli. He would merely be their equal. Richards' greatness lies in how far ahead of his time he was in his day.
Even if Rohit's record is not broken in the near future (I doubt that it will be), individual ODI innings in excess of 150 will become more commonplace. In 28,805 individual ODI innings from 1971 to 2000, there were 23 innings in excess of 150. One every 1252 innings. In 32,968 innings since 2001, there have been 56. One every 589 innings. In these periods, 61% and 60% of innings have been worth 20 runs or less. In these periods, 23% and 29% of teams batting first have been bowled out. This illustrates the trajectory of ODI cricket. The rule changes have favoured the bat, but wickets have fallen more frequently as a result.