Amit Varma, a former managing editor of Cricinfo in India, now writes on economics and politics.
Imagine a modern-day Rip Van Winkle who goes to sleep sometime in the 1980s and wakes up on March 12, 2006. He is a fan of cricket, and the first thing he does when he wakes up is turn on the TV to see what game is going on. It's a one-day match between South Africa and Australia. Australia make 434 in 50 overs. South Africa win. "Damn," thinks Rip, "the world sure has changed."
Well, yes. That SA-Aus game was not an aberration, but a sign of how cricket has been transformed in the last few years, and we have gathered a team of experts to discuss the implications of these changes on this game we love. Over the next few days, Bob Woolmer, Gideon Haigh, John Stern and Sambit Bal will discuss a number of knotty issues. Has the shift between bat and ball come because of market forces, or are other factors involved? Is it desirable? If not, should the men who run the game take some steps to restore the balance? What steps can the authorities take to turn things around?
When similar shifts in balance took place in baseball, the authorities responded with measures like changing the height of the pitcher's mound or the size of the strikezone. And while there have been such regulations in cricket as well over the decades, such as the changes in the no-ball rule and the lbw rule, recent changes, such as the introduction of powerplays and the supersub, have just made the game more batsman-friendly. How could the rules be changed to tilt this balance back? One suggestion made on a TV show recently by the essayist Mukul Kesavan: remove the limit on overs that a bowler can bowl in an ODI. There is no limit on how much a batsman can bat within the 50 overs, so why should there be limits for bowlers?
It could be argued that changes in regulations will have a limited effect, and that this dominance of batsmen was inevitable. Sportsmen and their methods evolve in every sport, and in cricket there is far more scope for batting to evolve than for bowling. Bowlers have reached the human threshold of how fast one can bowl the ball, at about 100mph. Their equipment isn't changing either, and there are few new tricks one can learn with that round piece of leather - reverse swing was the last significant innovation.
Batting, on the other hand, is mainly about skill, and considerable evolution has taken place in the way batsmen play in the last 15 years. The rise of the one-day game, which required urgency and innovation, has been partly responsible for this: in the game that Rip woke up to watch, Roger Telemachus swept fast bowler Nathan Bracken for four. You wouldn't have seen that 20 years ago.
The equipment that batsmen use has evolved as well. In that game, immediately after Graeme Smith was out, Herschelle Gibbs swept a six off the toe of his bat. Perfect strokeplay is no longer a prerequisite for fast scoring.
More than this, a batsman-friendly game is perfectly suited to the times, in which the number of casual viewers of the sport has grown massively, and the lust for spectacle has overcome a love of contest. Twenty20 is ideally suited to this age of the short attention span, and the values of this new form of cricket will transform the older forms in much the same way one-day cricket changed Test cricket. Thus, even as more runs are scored, Test matches will end faster; and more and more teams will cross 400 in one-day cricket. Audiences love this, it could be asked, so why change it?
Tough questions, all of these. The discussion begins soon, and Bob Woolmer takes first strike.