We wouldn’t know if the highest run-getter in the history of one-day cricket and a permanent occupant in most dream XIs to open the batting was impressed with the willow wielding on show. Presumably, he was. Who wouldn’t be? However, in that moment he felt a surge of sympathy for those other participants in the contest- you know, the bowlers. The guys who deliver five and a half ounces of leather to get a play started in Cricket.
In an unusually belligerent tone, Tendulkar described the use of two new balls in ODI cricket as a “perfect recipe for disaster” and went on further to lament its contribution to the disappearance of one of the game’s great skills – reverse swing. In Tendulkar’s view, reverse swing was an “integral part” of the final stage of an ODI innings and it’s been a “long time” since it has been seen.
In essence, Tendulkar was pointing to how the absence of this challenge skews the contest between ball and bat. Working with an implement that won’t move off the straight, bowlers are essentially providing cannon fodder to the musclemen they are confronted with. Once lined up, secure in the knowledge that there won’t be a vicious change in direction, batsmen can simply pulverise the incoming delivery. There is skill involved in the execution of course, but the dice is loaded heavily in favour of the batsmen to come out trumps in such a contest.
Tendulkar’s tweet expectedly set off a cacophonous social media conversation. His once great rival Waqar Younis blamed the rule for the lack of “attacking fast bowlers” in the game, arguing it forces bowlers to be “defensive” and always look for “change ups.” Stuart Broad chimed in saying he found reverse swing exciting to watch and would like it back in the white ball game. Mitch Mcclenghan was another to offer a ringing endorsement of Tendulkar’s view. And so on…
So, the nub of the matter really is what qualifies as “entertaining.” Back in 2011, when the decision was made to operate with two new balls, it was one of many desperate fixes attempted to resuscitate ODI cricket. The all-consuming narrative was about overs 15-40, the middle overs, being “boring.” The ball would inevitably get older and softer and as a result harder to smash to the boundary. The thought process was about enabling the faster bowlers to extract more swing during this phase and the batsmen to find stroke-making less cumbersome. Along with an additional fielder being mandatory in the circle, a decision that was mercifully reversed, this move was thought to be the injection of energy the format needed.
However, seven years on, an assembly line of past and present cricketers have questioned this formula to make the game more “entertaining.” M S Dhoni had said exasperated bowlers felt a bowling machine might be a better replacement for them and now Virat Kohli, a modern day ODI colossus, has described the situation as “brutal” on bowlers. In England, where India plays next and the World Cup will be hosted next year, the world record for the highest team total has been decimated twice in the last couple of years. Yes, much of it is down to an incredible array of hitting talent that is now at their command, but when pitched up against opponents neutered by the conditions and rules, they become doubly devastating.
As T20 becomes the format of choice for an ever-increasing audience, it would appear broadcasters and administrators are keener than ever to present ODI cricket as an extended version of T20. “Entertainment” would be provided via a sustained assault with balls flying rapidly to the boundary, shrinking the space for the nuance and skills of the longer format that had seeped organically into ODIs. So, if fewer fielders are allowed to guard boundaries to ensure more balls find their way to the fence, so be it. So, if the wear and tear on a ball, a natural occurrence in the course of a cricket match, inhibits this “entertainment”, find an alternative method.
With one Tweet, Tendulkar has forced some talking points back on the debate table. In a sport of three formats, must ODI cricket become a longer version of its youngest or offer the fan a best of both worlds scenario? As a generation of fearless, supremely skilled batsmen populate limited overs teams around the world, free flowing run scoring is increasingly the norm. By arming the bowlers with some weaponry – fairer pitches that offer some assistance to their craft and a ball that permits spin and reverse swing as the game progresses – the balance in the contest may just be restored.
After all, it was one of the great sights of the game to watch a fast bowler steam in towards the end of an ODI innings and shape deliveries into the toes of batsmen and those batsmen working overtime to find a counter, whether it was through calibrated movements in the crease to find new angles or keeping still to the very last moment before making impact. It made those “death overs” come alive as a throbbing battle between skilled combatants, equally well equipped to test each other out to the limit. It was entertaining.
With a World Cup under a year away, it is improbable that a change to the playing conditions will be hastily introduced. However, with the Tweet of Tendulkar, what to do with the 50-over format is now a raging conversation again, focusing the minds of cricket’s decision makers on considering another tweak. One that already has a swarm of support from an increasingly vocal playing and watching community.
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First Published: June 24, 2018, 7:50 AM IST