The end of bowling
In the age of staggering batting records, the compelling tussles between bat and ball are a thing of the past. Pitches need their parochial flavour back
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Last November, a couple of days before the start of the historic pink-ball Test at the Adelaide Oval, I ran into New Zealand’s Ross Taylor at the Penfolds Magill Estate Vineyard on the outskirts of the city. The winemakers were inscribing a special message on a bottle of 2010 Grange, a particularly good vintage, to celebrate his 290 in the previous Test of the series.
That bottle of red, valued at A$900 (around Rs45,630 now), isn’t the centrepiece of this anecdote. If you’re a cricket lover, what is remarkable is that Taylor made his runs at the Western Australian Cricket Association (Waca) ground in Perth. Once a venue that batsmen looked forward to as much as little children do Bogeyman stories, the now defanged Waca had seen first-innings scores of 559 and 624. Apart from Taylor’s epic, Australia’s David Warner made 253. There were four other centuries in the game.
To understand the significance of those numbers, you have to traipse down memory lane. When Test cricket was first played in Australia’s western outpost, in 1970, the pitches quickly gained a reputation for pace and bounce. The intense summer heat would also open up sizable cracks as the match wore on, and the ball would take off from those much to the discomfiture of batsmen. As examinations went, they didn’t come any tougher.
Long before Curtly Ambrose decimated Australia with a spell of seven wickets for one run in 1993, the Waca had acquired a fearsome reputation. Fast bowlers went there to indulge their need for speed. Most batsmen had survival on their minds. Those that thrived went into the game’s annals. If you could make runs on that greased-lightning surface, you were a bit special.
Perhaps the most famous innings ever played there came in December 1975. West Indies’ Roy Fredericks was nicknamed Kid Cement, a moniker most apt for the rock-hard surface that greeted the two teams. In a 2011 report in The Guardian, Andy Bull wrote: “The pitch at the Waca was then the fastest in the world, and the curator Roy Abbott told the men from the press that he had prepared a strip with ‘plenty of pace and bounce’. He wasn’t lying. There were a team of university researchers at the ground that day, who were recording the speed of the bowling. They clocked one of Jeff Thomson’s deliveries at 99.68mph.”
Ian Chappell, who had just relinquished the Australian captaincy to Greg, his younger brother, stood in the slip cordon that day. “The quicker you bowled, the harder he hit,” he would say later. “Fredericks began by hooking (Dennis) Lillee’s second ball for 6 off the edge although from then on he never made any sort of mistake,” says the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack report of the match. “Runs came at a bewildering pace as he hooked and drove and cut at (Jeff) Thomson and Lillee. It was thrilling batting and the Australians could only stand and watch.
“Fredericks went on and on through the afternoon as one astonishing stroke was followed by the next. His hundred came in 1 hour, 56 minutes off 71 balls with one 6 and eighteen 4’s and when soon after tea he drove at Lillee and was caught at slip he had made 169 out of 258.”
India had their first experience of the surface in 1977, when Bishan Singh Bedi’s team played a weakened Australian side captained by Bob Simpson, after the Chappell brothers had led an exodus to World Series Cricket. But Thomson was still around, and bowling as quick as ever.
The late Rajan Bala, India’s pre-eminent cricket writer of that era, had a wicked sense of humour and a gift for imitating people. He used to describe the scene on the eve of the Test as the Indians stood and watched Thomson unleash his thunderbolts during a net session. One stalwart clutched his hamstring, another his abdomen. Neither made it into the eleven to face the wrath of the world’s fastest bowler.
A generation later, India went to Perth in February 1992, for the final Test of a five-match series. They were already 3-0 down and a formidable Australian attack dismissed them for 272 and 141 to win by 300 runs. All these years later, however, it’s a game that many Indians recall with great fondness.
Sachin Tendulkar would go on to make 37 Test scores greater than the 114 he made at the Waca that day, but few were as unforgettable as the memories of the 18-year-old standing on tiptoe to cut and drive a succession of boundaries. Having come in at 69 for 2, he was ninth out with the score on 240. It was boy-on-burning-deck stuff, ultimate proof that “our kid” belonged at the very highest level.
That was nearly 25 years ago. In the first three decades of cricket in Perth, only 51 hundreds were scored in 27 matches. Other than the all-conquering West Indies (twice), only England (twice) and New Zealand crossed 400 in an innings against a full-strength Australian side. Pakistan, one of the strongest teams of that era, averaged 21.72 runs per wicket when playing in Perth, and even the hosts managed just 35.4.
Since the turn of the millennium though, Australia average 42.38 per wicket there. South Africa, who have won two of the three Tests they have played there, including a successful pursuit of 414 in 2008, average 42.28. There have been 32 hundreds in 15 Tests, including four of the six double centuries made at the venue.
Before 2000, the only 200-plus scores were Michael Slater’s 219 against Sri Lanka, who had yet to become a Test force, and David Boon’s 200 against a New Zealand side missing Richard Hadlee. Since then, the ground has even seen a world record—Matthew Hayden’s 380 against Zimbabwe in 2003.
“It’s always been a batsman’s game,” says Michael Holding, who picked up 11 wickets in the two Tests he played in Perth. But it’s even more so now because administrators have done little to arrest the trend of chunkier bats, shorter boundaries and anodyne pitches.
In late August, the West Indies beat India in a Twenty20 game at Lauderhill in Florida, US. Batting first, they made 245, before holding off the Indian charge to win by a run. The most economical bowler that day was R. Ashwin, who went for 36 runs in his four overs. He bowled 10 dot balls, but was also smashed for 4 sixes. It seemed farcical to even talk of economy rates in the context of a match that saw 35 fours and 32 sixes.
Recently, India’s 500th Test produced a great five-day context. Ashwin, despite bowling with a corn on his middle finger, took 10 wickets, but there were also significant contributions from several batsmen and New Zealand’s pace bowlers. But such spin-friendly pitches have often been frowned upon, and even attracted official sanction.
Back in Ahmedabad in 2005, India beat Sri Lanka on the fifth morning of the Test. They had made 398 in the first innings, with V.V.S. Laxman—who had prepared for the Muttiah Muralitharan challenge by batting on underprepared tracks at the St John’s Cricket Academy nets in Hyderabad—scoring one of his best hundreds. In the final innings, Sri Lanka, who had batted poorly the first time, made 249, with seven batsmen reaching double figures.
Clive Lloyd, who was match referee for the game, reported that the pitch had been poor. He reached his conclusion based on the fact that the ball had started turning sharply on the opening day itself. The fact that the conditions had provided for a riveting five days, with bat and ball alternately in the ascendancy, was completely overlooked.
More importantly, it had produced a result.
Four years later, at the same venue, the two teams played out the worst Test it has been my misfortune to witness. Seven hundreds were made, including 275 from Mahela Jayawardene, as 1,598 runs were scored for the loss of just 21 wickets. Four of them had come on the opening morning, as Chanaka Welegedera scythed through India’s top order. Thereafter, it was four days of glorified batting practice.
That pitch, which might not have produced a result even if we had played seven days, was not sanctioned. Neither was the abomination in Perth on which Taylor made his 290. When bowlers speak of a batsman’s game, you know exactly where they’re coming from.
Bats which behave as though spring-loaded don’t help matters. One of the 4 sixes that Carlos Brathwaite hit to win West Indies the World Twenty20 against England earlier this year, came off the leading edge of the bat. The Eden Gardens in Kolkata doesn’t have especially short boundaries, but the ball still sailed over the rope at long-off. The bowler, Ben Stokes, had induced the mistake. The batsman had the six and the glory.
A decade ago, during an Indian tour of South Africa, a friend and I found one of Barry Richards’ bats in a showcase in the media dining area at Kingsmead in Durban. He thought it would be fun to get one of M.S. Dhoni’s bats and put the two next to each other. The picture that resulted said more than a thousand words. The bat used by the South African legend looked like a toothpick next to Dhoni’s, which was shaped almost like a Roman galleon.
Regulating bat sizes is only one aspect of keeping bowlers relevant though. Almost every rule change that limited-overs cricket has seen has been designed to produce more fours and sixes—which are somehow confused with entertainment. A batsman can bat all 50 overs and make 264, as Rohit Sharma did not long ago, but a bowler has just 10 overs, usually in two spells, to make his mark.
One of the most enthralling passages of play I have seen was in a One Day match between Pakistan and India at Lahore in 2006. Mohammad Asif is now remembered for the notorious no-balls at Lord’s, but on his good days he was as skilled a bowler as Hadlee. With India needing nearly 300 for victory, Asif put the top order through the wringer. Rahul Dravid played and missed as though he were batting blindfolded. Tendulkar survived somehow, showing impeccable judgement of which balls to leave.
The batsmen knew though that they only needed to play him out. Sure enough, once Asif’s spell was over, India wrested the initiative. They eventually cruised home, but it might have been a very different tale had the bowler not been prevented from bowling more overs.
The two white balls—one at each end—in 50-over matches have given new-ball bowlers more of a chance in certain conditions, but they have enfeebled spinners and taken reverse swing pretty much out of the equation. These days, teams routinely tee off to the tune of 120-150 runs in the final 10 overs. Cricket then ceases to be a contest and becomes a highlights reel.
Is this alarmist nonsense? The numbers would suggest otherwise. In the 139-year history of Test cricket, only 43 batsmen who have scored more than 1,000 Test runs have averaged more than 50. Of those, a whopping 18 have played the bulk of their cricket in the 2000s. On the flip side, there have been 75 bowlers (minimum 2,000 balls bowled) who averaged less than 25. Of those, only 11 played the majority of their cricket in the 2000s. And five of them, including India’s Ravindra Jadeja, have played less than 30 Tests.
Having raced to 200 Test scalps in just 37 matches, Ashwin is the only Indian with more than 100 wickets to average less than 28. As many as 140 of his 207 wickets have come at home, a convenient stick with which to beat him. It’s another matter that most of the Tests overseas have been on concrete slabs where there’s next to nothing on offer for spinners.
There was a time when each venue had its own characteristics. The Waca, with its spidery cracks, was scary. Brisbane had bounce for the pace bowlers and also spinners—Shane Warne thrived there—later in the game. Sydney would turn viciously towards the end. Adelaide would be a batting beauty that became capricious on days 4 and 5. Chennai’s Chepauk was much the same.
Test cricket needs that parochial flavour when it comes to pitches. The homogeneity of the past few years has brought a slew of batting records, and bottles of Grange, but there haven’t been too many compelling tussles between bat and ball. India’s curators have a 13-Test buffet to cater for this season. If Kanpur, which gave us a good, old-fashioned Indian Test match, and Kolkata, which provided an engrossing contest on a grassy surface, are any guide, we could be in for a feast. Cricket, which depends so much on the balance between bat and ball, sorely needs it.
Five run-fests since 2000
Sri Lanka in India Test Series, 2009-10
Runs per wicket: 49.68
India did not have a single total of less than 400 in the entire series, which they won 2-0; they scored 642 in the first innings of the second Test and 726 in the first innings of the third. Sri Lanka had a 700-plus innings themselves, in the first Test. The batsmen continued to make the bowlers miserable in the succeeding One Day series, in which both teams crossed 400 in the first match and 300-plus totals were chased successfully twice.
India in Pakistan Test Series, 2005-06
Runs per wicket: 53.46
Before Pakistan were barred from hosting Tests, in 2009, they had developed a reputation for preparing dour, flat pitches. In the first Test of the 2005-06 series against India, four Pakistan batsmen scored centuries in the first innings, before Virender Sehwag scored 254 runs off 247 balls. Entertaining for the crowd, but not for the bowlers, who saw three more 500-plus innings totals (and one of 490) in the series, which Pakistan won 1-0.
India in Australia ODI Series, 2014-15
Runs per wicket: 49.77
Ten innings, eight totals of 300-plus, with the two exceptions being innings of 295 and 296. You might find excuses for the lopsidedness of this series by pointing out that both teams were resting some front-line bowlers for the forthcoming World Cup, but this kind of carnage has become a regular feature of India-Australia One Day games. When the two teams had met a year earlier, in India, 300-plus totals were chased successfully three times.
England in West Indies Test Series, 2008-09
Runs per wicket: 43.50
The days of fast West Indies pitches were over by the mid-2000s. In this series, West Indies saved the third Test by batting out 128 overs in the fourth innings on a pitch that offered neither spinners nor fast bowlers any help. The first-innings scores of the fourth Test read England: 600, West Indies: 749, and of the fifth, England: 546, West Indies: 544. An exciting finish to the series somewhat masked how much bat had dominated ball through it.
Pakistan Vs SA in the UAE Test Series, 2010-11
Runs per wicket: 49.55
You can’t talk about dull series without mentioning ones in the United Arab Emirates, where runs and wickets come slowly. In this series, Pakistan looked in trouble in the first Test, in Dubai, but they lost just three wickets in 117 overs on days 4 and 5. The next Test, in Abu Dhabi, saw first-innings scores of 584 and 434. South African all-rounder Jacques Kallis suggested another Test could be played on the pitch straight away and it would still be a draw.
Dileep Premachandran is editor-in-chief, Wisden India
Note: This story has been amended from its original version to clarify that Sri Lanka didn’t win any test against India in the 2009-10 series.