Mumbai: The sensational assault on a hapless Sri Lankan bowling attack by Rohit Sharma on Thursday was yet another reminder of how batting has been revolutionized in recent years. It comes soon after Misbah-ul-Haq took just 56 balls to score a Test century against Australia earlier this month.

A bit of economics can help explain why this could be bad news for cricket.

The economist William Baumol is known for his theory of the cost disease. It shows that some areas of human endeavour are marked by rising productivity: a worker on an assembly line today can produce far more cars than his predecessor a hundred years ago, thanks to better technology.

This is one important reason why industrial goods become cheaper in real terms.

Baumol pointed out that there are other areas of human endeavour where it is very difficult to increase productivity. A barber today perhaps shears almost the same number of people that his predecessor did a hundred years ago even if he has slightly better tools. The same applies to surgeons or musicians or chefs. This is the reason why real prices of services tend to go up as economies grow richer.

It is much the same with sportsmen.

Productivity grows very slowly. The record for the 100m dash gets improved by infinitesimal amounts of time. Nobody has run a two-minute mile yet; perhaps nobody ever will.

So it is for most sporting activities—till you come to what has happened to one half of cricketing contests in recent years.

Batsmen have seen their productivity rise in recent years. Take a look at the records for the highest scores in a limited overs game. Glenn Turner of New Zealand scored 171 against a weak East African bowling attack in the 1975 World Cup, and that too in 60 overs. Vivian Richards beat that record in 1984, or nearly a decade later, when he blasted 189 not out against an English attack.

His record stood for 13 years, till Saeed Anwar of Pakistan scored 194 against the Indian bowlers in 1997. Charles Coventry of Zimbabwe equalled him in a 2009 match against Bangladesh.

In other words: The record set by Richards in 1984 had been improved by just five runs over the next 25 years. A double hundred in a 50-over game was a distant dream. An individual score above 250 was akin to the two-minute mile.

Then everything changed. There have been four double centuries since then: one each by Sachin Tendulkar and Virendra Sehwag, and two by Sharma. It is as if batsmen are becoming increasingly productive. Who knows what more lies in store for bowlers?

Meanwhile, the poor bowlers remain trapped in the dynamics of the Baumol cost disease. Mitchell Johnson today is not much faster than Jeff Thomson was some four decades ago. Now just imagine what would have happened if the productivity of bowlers had progressed at the same rate as batsmen. You would have had fast bowlers hurling the cherry at 200 kmph. Now that would be something.

It is a common grouse that batsmen have benefited from better bats. Even a mishit soars above the boundary these days. Tennis players also have better rackets, but the competitors on both sides of the net have equal access to the tools of power tennis.

In cricket, on the other hand, contests have become imbalanced because bowlers have had no comparable technological advance to take advantage of. Even some of the cricket balls are made to swing less these days.

The batsmen have escaped the clutches of the Baumol cost disease with new batting technology while the ill-fated bowlers have had no such luck.

And there lies one of the core problems of modern cricket.

Close