No ground for fast bowlers
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In late May, the Indian selectors threw a curve ball as they picked the team for the 2017 Champions Trophy, which Pakistan won on Sunday. There were four fast bowlers in the 15-man squad, along with a seam-bowling all-rounder, Hardik Pandya, while there was place for only two spinners.
It made sense, because the first thought that comes to mind when you think cricket in England is swing. But the one thing this Champions Trophy didn’t have much of was swing.
There was only one five-wicket haul in 15 matches, Australia’s Josh Hazlewood with 6-52 against New Zealand on 2 June in Birmingham, and that too from a lanky fast bowler who uses line-length and awkward bounce to upstage batsmen.
The basic formula for One Day International (ODI) cricket in England hasn’t changed. Initially, teams look to protect their wickets even if the scoring rate is low, and attempt to make up for lost time thereafter.
It reflects in the averages of almost every team’s first 10 overs, across matches. Bangladesh (36 runs) and South Africa (40 runs) are the lowest in the eight-team list, while India’s opening pair of Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan averaged 48 runs in the first 10 overs across five matches.
Pakistan (53), Australia (55), New Zealand (56) and England (54) are on the higher side; the only real attacking team in the first 10 overs in this tournament was Sri Lanka (60 runs).
They tried to attack South Africa in a group match on 3 June, while chasing 300, and failed. But they kept at it, and succeeded against India five days later. After failing to defend 322, Indian captain Virat Kohli realized that he couldn’t depend on his four-pronged pace attack because there was no swing.
“It is difficult to point out why the ball is not swinging in England (this time). The wickets are generally not this hard in England during this time of the year. I remember during the Champions Trophy in 2013 and during the Test series in 2014, the wickets were soft. Not very soft that batsmen would encounter problems, but soft enough to allow bowlers to get some deviation,” says Bhuvneshwar Kumar, currently one of the world’s best exponents of swing.
His words came after an eight-wicket win over South Africa on 11 June, in which India’s altered plan vis-à-vis pace bowlers came to the fore. Kumar shared the new ball with Jasprit Bumrah, with both Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami sitting out, as India looked to concede fewer runs in the initial overs with tight line and length.
It is a plan that worked well against South Africa (35-0 in 10 overs) and then in the semi-final against Bangladesh (46-2 in 10 overs), but became less effective against Pakistan (56-0) in the final on Sunday.
“In these circumstances, the idea is not to bowl to batsmen’s strengths. They will find ways to score but the purpose is to keep it at a bare minimum. The par score nowadays is around 300, despite the main aim of taking wickets. If we build up adequate pressure too, then we can get wickets later to restrict the opposition to a smaller total,” adds Kumar, explaining India’s bowling strategy in the latter half of the tournament.
For the record, Kumar finished with 26 wickets in the 2017 Indian Premier League season, moving the white ball around under lights in subcontinental conditions. That he found no such help in England, and had to alter his lengths, points to the simple fact that there is more to this than just hard pitches. He did finish as India’s most successful bowler in the Champions Trophy, with seven wickets from five matches.
“If the pitches were harder, the ball would get scuffed up easily and there would be reverse swing on offer. Did we see much of that either? No, again, is the answer,” says former England fast bowler Steve Harmison, who was on commentary duty for the Champions Trophy.
“The problem is with the white balls in use. The seam of the Kookaburra ball is less pronounced. Once you go after the bowlers, even the slightest amount of wear and tear on the ball, and you lose that seam. It doesn’t help the bowlers at all in terms of movement.
“This isn’t a recent phenomenon. It has been so for long. The Kookaburra has been in use in England for a long time now, and there isn’t enough swing with the white ball. It is only now coming to the fore because batsmen are scoring higher every day,” explains Harmison.
For the record, the Duke red ball is used in Test and first-class cricket in England, but since the 1999 World Cup, the Kookaburra has been used in limited-overs cricket in that country—partly owing to the International Cricket Council norm of using Kookaburra balls in all its tournaments.
Additionally, one school of thought suggests that the current production of Kookaburra balls—in terms of procuring and treating leather—isn’t optimal for swing bowling. The other school of thought, which Harmison subscribes to, is that this is simply the worst batch of Kookaburra balls in a while, and the Champions Trophy bore the brunt.
Even so, there can be no doubt that pitches in this tournament were batsmen-friendly, as is the growing norm in international cricket. It could mark a shift in the way teams approach the 2019 ODI World Cup, which will also be played in England.
It showcases the shift in thinking, primarily of batsmen in England, and now, also of those who are visiting. A case in point is the English ODI team’s record in the past two years—they have crossed the 300-run mark 23 times since the 2015 World Cup, with 15 of those landmarks coming on home soil (read flatter tracks with no swing).
In this Champions Trophy too, there were seven scores of 300-plus in 15 matches, and on two occasions, they were chased down with aplomb. “I would put that down more to a change in mindset than anything else, particularly in the case of English batsmen,” adds Harmison.
It’s a pointer to another shift in ODI cricket: The last haven for fast bowlers in limited-overs cricket is gone.
Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper—A Definitive Account Of India’s Greatest Captains.