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Home >Opinion >AB de Villiers’s 149: Batting reduced to primitive accumulation

Last Sunday, South Africa’s AB de Villiers scored the fastest century in one-day international (ODI) cricket history. He needed only 31 balls for his 100. This comes within a year of the Kiwi Corey Anderson’s record-breaking 36-ball 100 last January. It also comes in the wake of Rohit Sharma’s ridiculous 264 against Sri Lanka last November, which is today the world record for the highest individual one-day score.

It is no coincidence that both Andersen’s and de Villiers’ records came against a pedestrian West Indian attack. Nor is it a coincidence that de Villiers’ knock came at the same ground that, in 2006, yielded 872 runs in one day at almost nine an over as South Africa chased down Australia’s 434. In what now, in hindsight, appears to have been a premonition of the shape of things to come, this match that reduced bowlers to humanoid bowling machines was hailed as the “greatest match of all".

Plus it was the same venue (Wanderers, Johannesburg) that also produced this scorecard summary: West Indies 236 for 6 (Gayle 90, Wiese 3-43) beat South Africa 231 for 7 (Du Plessis 119, Bravo 2-32) by four wickets. This looks like a typical ODI score card from, say, the early nineties. Except that this was a T20 match. And it was played out barely a week before the De Villiers stunner.

All this is not to take anything away from De Villiers’ achievement or undisputed prowess. But now, more than ever, the primacy accorded to the enjoyment of statistical goods—such as the fastest century, highest ODI score, fourth-fastest half-century on debut versus Australia at the Gabba during the vernal equinox by a south paw with eleven fingers, and so on—needs to be challenged.

It needs to be challenged because it is the mobilization of the audience’s appetite for ever more spectacular and intriguing statistical content that is currently compensating for the progressive impoverishment of the sport itself at the base level of cricketing content—the contest between bat and ball, the variety of bowling/batting styles on display, the quality of commentary, etc.

The dominant consensus today, a consensus that can be traced back to the requirements of television as a medium of mass entertainment, seems to be: the more the numbers of sixes and fours, the more the runs scored, the greater the entertainment quotient of a match.

The Wanderers, for instance, is not a batsman’s paradise in Tests. So, if the limited overs matches played here are consistently high-scoring, and records are frequently being broken—over and beyond batting talent, there is clearly an element of design involved. The Wanderers curators evidently knew—or were under instructions—that the ODI track cannot be the same as the Test one. And they produced the kind of easy-paced wicket that made the kind of innings de Villiers played more possible than it otherwise would have been.

So, is it really pertinent to compare de Villiers, on the basis of this knock, to Viv Richards and Don Bradman, or to call him the best batsman of all time ?

The mercantile logic that now dictates global cricket administration is one that fosters the same values of enjoyment/appreciation, no matter what the arena of human endeavour is—be it manufacturing, management, logistics or sport. We know what these values are: speed, efficiency, productivity.

In cricket, the total number of wickets whose fall can be “consumed" is fixed. If you, as a bowler, are very productive and take too many wickets too fast—the match will end prematurely. At the outer limit of productivity, it could even end in 20 balls. So, a very productive bowler can be fatal for a sport that is under compulsion to deliver (to its sponsors/primary buyers) entertainment goods of a minimum specific duration.

Talented, effective, bowlers, by definition, are unpredictable from the point of view of match duration. On a wicket that offers some help, they can make an ODI end in 30 overs. Or make a Test match end in two-and-a-half days. This doesn’t, a priori, make such a contest bad or worthless—for a hostile wicket brings to view a different set of batting and captaincy skills that are never manifest on easy-paced tracks. But unfortunately, such truncated games cannot help but steal from the cricket board’s warehouse its most valuable asset—match duration. They are incompatible with a seamless monetization of time quantities within a pre-specified, permissible band of variation.

And yet, low-scoring, collapse-ridden ODIs have been a cricketing sub-genre in themselves. They have their own grammar of enjoyment, their own characteristic script where few or no boundaries are scored, maiden overs proliferate, batsmen are tested on their reserves of patience and self-restraint, and bowlers play the lead roles that are now routinely monopolized by batsmen.

But the delights of such variant possibilities are lost in a scenario where the game of glorious uncertainties is subject to the iron hand of the market which needs some level of predictability to function. This is one of the reasons why, with more money pouring into the sport, the dice is being loaded ever more in favour of batsmen. If the bowlers are getting the short shrift, it is not due to an accident of technology.

Nor is it an accident that pitches across the world—even in Australia and South Africa but especially in India—have become increasingly batsman-friendly. And rules, of course, are never accidents—they signify intention. It is clear why they are blatantly partial to batsmen—from power play restrictions that defang the new ball bowler, to draconian wide ball rules on the leg side. Bowlers are getting a raw deal not because cricket administrators hate them but because it is bad business to have an ODI finish in half a day when you’ve sold commercial air time for seven hours. Just as it is bad business to have an ODI match with no boundaries when you have a consumer brand sponsoring all your sixes.

It is not feasible to assume that the cricket and the batsmanship we consume today is not at all distorted by the structuring economic necessity for every limited overs game to go the full distance—to stretch to the last over, if not the last ball. Even when matches don’t—and they frequently don’t—the uniformity, and unidirectionality of playing conditions around the world have an effect on the sport and batsmanship that cannot be ignored. We would, therefore, do well to bear these beyond-the-boundary factors in mind when we assess the events unfolding within the boundary, or hail de Villiers’ record-breaking effort.

Moreover, in the glorified subset of mass culture and industrial entertainment that cricket has become, it is perforce the batsman who is now the symbolic carrier of the essential values of (cultural) capitalism.

The dominant register of cricketing enjoyment today, especially in ODIs and T20, is that of batsmanship. Batsmanship consumed, and desired, in terms of speed (how many runs scored in how many balls, or strike rate), efficiency (how many boundaries), spectacle (sixes measured in distance travelled by the ball), and productivity (how were the power play overs used, how many wickets were lost, etc)—all neatly packaged and tied up with the ribbon of statistics.

If we are to unplug from this increasingly sterile enjoyment, two conditions have to be met. First, cricket audiences have to withdraw from their present over-identification with batsmen and their personal milestones. Second, cricket needs to evolve—some would say, rediscover—different ways of narrativising enjoyment that are not beholden to the ever-proliferating numbers and graphs and ratios and charts that these days can give a CFO an inferiority complex.

But such narratives can flourish only in a realm of public cricketing discourse dominated by the subjective, creative, and informed register of cricket enthusiasts who are not only students of the game but also enjoy a degree of autonomy from the commercial logic of cricketainment. Obviously, this is today an utopian fantasy. Nevertheless, it is a fantasy worth enjoying in an era when cricket, and (therefore) batsmanship, are both wedded to the ethos of primitive accumulation.

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