Where’s the contest?

In the wake of the AB De Villiers show in Johannesburg this morning, I found myself asking if the balance between bat and ball has shifted too far.

Was that innings from De Villiers simply a once in a lifetime display of skill from arguably the most complete batsman of his generation, or is it symptomatic of a worrying trend in cricket in general?

De Villiers’ 149 not out in just 44 balls was undoubtedly a brutal display of hitting and batsmanship. His ability to make, previously respectable bowlers, look no better than a club dobber, was endless. At times it just seemed too easy for him, he was toying with the bowlers, deciding where he would hit his next six almost before the ball was released.

Pity Jason Holder, the new West Indies captain and a veteran of just 23 ODI’s as he attempted to not only bowl at De Villiers, but also marshal his men in the field. I’m mean really… what was the point? He was hitting it out of the ground every ball anyway.

While we are right to revel in the plundering beauty of De Villiers hour-long runfest; it also unsettles me. Sure, we all know that in the so-called ‘modern’ age, cricket is not supposed to be just sport, it is entertainment too.

However, it appears that for many, this entertainment just consists of a man, possibly a recognised bowler, maybe just the least protesting batsman, whose job it is simply to lob the ball, hopefully a nice full toss, at the heroic batsman at the other end. For me, that’s not entertainment.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that seeing high scoring matches isn’t great, and who doesn’t want to see records being beaten? T20 was a game-changing invention, and that change has certainly been for the better. If you’re looking for cheap entertainment, then continual runfests are fine. If you’re interested in sport, then perhaps a little variation might be gratifying.

When I watch sport, I watch it for the contest. Obviously if England are playing, I will watch regardless of the quality due to blind unfathomable loyalty. But when it’s a neutral match, in a World Cup for example, I crave the match to be a contest. A contest between bat and ball.

I’m not bemoaning high-scoring matches; I’m really not. If the conditions are such, and the batsman are good enough to score at 7 an over in an ODI, then crack on.

But when it is clear that batsmen are there to do the entertaining and the bowlers are simply canon fodder, then it becomes tiresome. We might as well just go back to the gentlemen and players era of cricket.

After being bowled for a low score, W G Grace once placed the bails back on his stumps and continued his innings, saying that ‘they’ve come to watch me bat, not you bowl’. It does feel that some matches are becoming this way in recent times.

The new rules in ODI cricket, in particular with regards to power plays and the number of fielders allowed outside the 30-yard circle, are severely hampering, even highly skilled bowlers. I’m not advocating minefield wickets and ODI’s where 200 is a good score. All I’m looking for is an evening up in the contest between bat and ball.

12 of the fastest 20 ODI hundreds have come in the last five years. This clearly shows that the speed at which batsmen naturally score has increased significantly. But, I suppose, this can be put down to the introduction of T20 cricket and obvious flashes of brilliance from world-class players.

Perhaps more illustrative of my argument, is that of the 70 instances of a side scoring more than 350 in an ODI, 35 of them have come in the last five years. This represents a clear trend towards higher totals, with half of those 350+ totals being made since 2009. While you may argue that it’s perfectly fine because both sides are usually making figures in that region, it doesn’t accurately represent a good balance between bat and ball. Of course there are going to be scores in excess of 350, but the frequency with which they happen is symptomatic of the problems facing modern day bowlers.

Every new rule or relaxing of previous regulations seems to favour the batsman. The powerplay restrictions, the continually shrinking boundaries, the railway sleepers that pass for bats; the batting circus rolls on. While bowlers have, as Alastair Cook would say, upskilled considerably in the last few years, they are being held back by the existing regulations.

The only rule I can see that has been brought in to benefit bowlers in the last decade is the introduction of the two new white balls. But even this change has begun to penalise the bowlers. While the ball may swing for an extra five overs, a newer ball also flies harder off the bat and negates the opportunity for reverse swing.

Conversely, as soon as bowlers look to push the boundaries of the game, they are met with an iron fist. The crackdown on perceived ‘chucking’ over the last few months, has seen the game loose a considerable number of talent bowlers a few degrees of flex. I’m not saying that ‘chucking’ should be allowed, but simply that, if the batsmen can, then why can’t bowlers also push the laws to the maximum?

I love the ‘modern game’, I really do. T20 is a superb format and I’m aware that we are blessed with possibly the greatest ever crop of One-Day batsman. But from time to time it would be nice to see the balance between bat and ball restored. I know that many will think that in the shorter formats, that balance is irrelevant, but it’s not. It doesn’t have to be a low scoring turgid affair, there just needs to be some encouragement for the bowlers.

Having said all this, I take nothing away from the audacious innings of De Villiers today, he is the most complete batsman in the world right now and deserves all the plaudits that will unquestionably come his way.

I hope that the upcoming World Cup will go some way to resorting the balance between bat and ball in the ODI game. I think that, particularly in New Zealand, we may see a reverse of the recent trend, and we could be in for some games where 220/230 is actually a very good score. While I obviously don’t hope that all games are like this, I do honestly hope that we see a real contest between bat and ball, because cricket, and sport in general, is at it’s most compelling when the odds are stacked evenly.

You’d never guess I’m a bowler would you…..?

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