Bowled over

06 Oct, 2013

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Last year, with the series tied at 1-1 after two Tests, Mahendra Singh Dhoni took on Prabir Mukherjee — the curator for Eden Gardens, where the third Test was to be played. As per Mukherjee, Dhoni wanted a rank turner and wanted the Test to “end in three days”. Mukherjee felt that robbing the fans of two days of cricket (especially those who bought season tickets or tickets for the final two days) was “immoral and illogical”. Eventually the pitch did last five days, resulting in an England win.

Mukherjee’s ideas were, perhaps, altruistic in nature. But his line of reasoning is what has been used by cricket administrators the world over, too. They claim these to be their efforts to create conditions that are friendlier to batsmen. After all, the fans do want to see fours and sixes. And their viewpoint is proven every time a T20 smashathon garners ratings. And yet the greatest contests rely not only on the balance between two teams, but the balance between two disciplines.

Tact and power

Bowling has always been the step child in the eyes of the people in charge, something the plebs were supposed to do. The stereotype of the great batsmen being educated at elite schools and bowlers being working-class ‘professionals’ would be offensive if it wasn’t largely true. The attitudes towards bowling and batting reflect the English class system in the days that made cricket popular.

Today’s Jardines may not be Winchester-educated but they still rely on today’s Larwoods (even if they have never been in charge of pit ponies) to do their dirty work. The cliché of bowlers, particularly the fastmen, being dumb powerhouses — the equivalent of Boxer in Animal Farm — is part of the banter (shorter form: bantz) that exists in commentary boxes, newspaper articles and fan conversations. And yet the fraternity of bowlers has continued to keep pace with cricket even as the cards have been stacked away from them more with every decade.

Through both tact and power, the bowlers have created a world where the scorecard from 1953 looks barely different from the scorecard in 2013 (with the exception of the speed at which the runs are scored). The two major components, both of which have had their last rites read during these 60 years, are representative of the tact and the power. Even in 2013, fast bowling and spin are still active art forms.

We take it for granted that the new ball is to be shared by two pacemen, even lamenting the days of Wasim and Waqar sharing that new ball and casting the current lot in an unflattering light.

Yet even that phenomenon is barely a century old. In Game for Anything, Gideon Haigh describes the idea of Warwick Armstrong, the Australian captain, wishing for Ted McDonald and Jack Gregory thusly:

“It was a groundbreaking recommendation. Hitherto, the concept of entrusting the new ball to pace at both ends had been almost unknown; the great Australian pacemen of yore had been solo venturers (Fred Spofforth, Ernie Jones, Tibby Cotter), usually sharing the new ball with a medium-pace bowler or even a spinner. With Gregory and McDonald, speed was now in the ascendant; now, in fact, and evermore.”

The evolution

Australia would go on to win the 1920/21 Ashes Five-Nil, a score line they wouldn’t repeat until 2006/07. It started an evolution that peaked with Clive Lloyd’s West Indies team in the 1970s. A quartet of genuine fast bowlers became the norm for the best team in the world. It was, as the corporate speak would have it, Lloyd maximising his strengths. And yet he was blamed, for slow over rates, for the decline of spin bowling and as Gubby Allen said “robbing cricket of variety.” It is inconceivable that such a thing would be said if a team had seven similar but excellent batsmen.

Lloyd’s defence was that he had “guys who bowled spin, not got people out”; he didn’t feel the need to play a spinner just because it was how things were done. Michael Holding asked that if the slow over rates were really a concern for the public then why did such large crowds watch their matches. He argued, quite rightly, that it was the quality, not the speed, of cricket that mattered to the masses.

Despite this, the new bouncer regulations were introduced. Introduced by England and Australia, with the support of Sri Lanka and India, these regulations incensed the Pakistan captain Imran Khan. As quoted by Jack Williams in Cricket and Race, Imran argued that it was harmful for cricket. He said “England and Australia have been through a phase where they were being thrashed by the West Indies. Instead of being fair about it, and trying to beat them on even terms, they are trying to handicap them. Good fast bowlers will always dominate, and there are periods in every country’s history when they go through a dearth of good fast bowlers. … The balance redresses itself in time.” And yet what was supposed to kill fast bowlers only became a diversion. They just switched their focus from the head to the toes, led by two of Imran’s protégés.

When Wasim and Waqar popularised and perfected reverse swing it polarised the world. But the politics of this aside (much of which had been forgotten, conveniently, by the summer of 2005), it started the great age of innovation that cricket is still going through. Fast bowlers have become adept at Yorkers, at slower balls, at slower bouncers and everything else that has been popularised in the last two decades, even as the purists complain about the basics no longer being there.

It is curious that the same people who celebrated the bouncer limitation rules are the ones who complain about modern quicks being unable to bowl good bouncers. Even as the pacemen have been involved, it’s been the spinners who have led the way in innovation. The advent of T20 cricket was supposed to revive pace bowling — the four over limit is ideal for the 90+mph bowler; and we’ve seen the quickest of their generation, Shaun Tait and Lasith Malinga, prefer that format, even if it means forsaking the others. But contrary to popular belief, T20 has actually made the spinner probably more important than he has ever been.

The innovations

While the journalists and administrators of the time blamed Lloyd, it was actually the movement to start covering pitches (from the 1960s onwards) that affected the spinner the most. By the 1980s, the spinner was restricted to the borders of the subcontinent. One could even argue that it was the covering of the pitches that facilitated the rise of pure paceman in the 1970s as the bowlers needed that extra bite from their shoulder, which they had lost from the lack of support in the pitch, but I digress. The return of the spinner came in the 1990s, led by Warne, Murali, Kumble and the Pakistani Mushtaqs. And again, it could easily be argued that Saqlain is the one whose legacy is most prominent nowadays. Murali, after all, was a freak of nature. Warne’s greatness lay not in any innovation but using the tools already in existence and attaining perfection. Kumble started the trend of the non-spinning spinner, which is today led by the likes of Muhammad Hafeez, Ravi Jadeja and Shahid Afridi.

Saqlain, though, was different. In formulising, if not inventing, the doosra he became the forerunner for the men who dominate T20 today. For the first time since the pitches were covered, the off-spinner became an attacking weapon outside of an Asian dustbowl. It is, of course, expected that almost two decades on from Saqlain’s debut any spinner with a doosra is still considered a mystery spinner — a title given to everyone from Bernard Bosanquet to whatever new whiz kid Sri Lanka will produce.

Saqlain was the first spinner who bowled actively at the death, even though Pakistan didn’t lack quicks who could bowl yorkers. In taking his pace off the bowling and maximising his variety he laid down the template which others have followed as bats have become heavier, and batsmen have become more inclined towards hitting. More recently the likes of Ashwin and Mendis have revived what seemed too restricted to John Gleeson and the armies of finger spinners that play tape-ball and tennis-ball cricket in Asia.

Hard to swallow

And almost all of this has been questioned by the authorities; far more than the change in bats, the homogenisation of pitches, the shortening of boundaries or quickening of the outfields. All of those things gear the game towards the batsmen, and therefore towards “entertainment” and the sort of thing that the fans want, allegedly. The bowler-friendly things are considered unsporting, at best, and cheating at worst. Cheating the morality set by a culture promoted by ex-batsmen, of course.

The only innovation that has helped the bowlers did so unplanned. The Decision Review System (DRS) and the technology that preceded it has made everyone involved in the game realise how much bigger the stumps were than they actually thought. Pakistan’s success against England in 2012, more than most, relied on the new definition of the leg before wicket (LBW), as illustrated by HawkEye.

Even though there has been loosening of the bouncer limitations, the majority of the laws remain in favour of the batsmen, almost always unquestioned. Getting hit outside off stump still doesn’t get anyone LBW, for example, and no one wonders why that is the case. Surely if it’s going to hit the stump, it should be out, no?

You could argue that a ball pitching outside leg would promote negative bowling, yet negative batting has never been condemned. Any pitch that produces a quarter of under 200 scores is considered worth investigating, yet a pitch like what the National Stadium Karachi produced in Pakistan’s last full Test at home (where Sri Lanka’s 644 for 7 played Pakistan’s 765 for 6) is never investigated.

So, this is where cricket is, and always has been. The batsmen set the rules, the bowlers try to find ways around it, and the batsmen complain if someone does stretch the rule. It all goes back to Bernard Bosanquet whose googly was regarded as “unfair” and “immoral” when he invented it; and now any leg spinner without one is considered not good enough. Time has a weird habit of changing morality.

The writer is a freelance journalist, who writes on cricket and football.