Tons of tedium on pitches watered with bowlers’ tears
Cricket’s foremost nineteenth century moralist the Reverend James Pycroft published his famous treatise The Cricket Field in 1851. He recalled a shocking chapter in the game’s history – the presence of bookmakers at cricket matches:
“They had all sorts of tricks to make their betting safe. ‘One artifice,’ said Mr. Ward, ‘was to keep a player out of the way by a false report that his wife was dead.’”
The Reverend rejoiced that cricket had been placed back in the hands of sober and temperate men. Yet by 1886 he was again despairing at the state of the game. This time it wasn’t the sinful or wicked ways of man that upset him, but the dominance of bat over ball.
“No one can be satisfied with the game as it is at present, especially in a dry season with true and hard grounds – with innings of three hundred and more runs no match has much interest.”
Replace the number three with a six or a seven and the Reverend could be writing of cricket in 2009.
The Tests played so far this year bring to mind Neville Cardus’ line that the bowlers might well have watered the pitch with their tears.
While Australia duelled with South Africa three other series unfolded. At Bridgetown England declared at six for 600. West Indies replied with nine for 749. At Karachi Sri Lanka amassed seven declared for 644. The Pakistanis countered with six for 765. The two sides were at it again at Lahore, eleven wickets falling for 716 before the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team. Even the New Zealand batsmen joined the party, knocking up 619 at Napier against the Indians.
Bowlers have always been the downtrodden labourers of the game. And their burden has only grown over time.
Batsmanship developed from a means of artistic expression prior to the First World War, to a relentless pursuit of big scores by the onset of the Depression. By the time Don Bradman came to Test cricket it was played with a ruthlessness that had not before existed.
Jack Fingleton opened the batting for Australia in the bodyline Tests of 1932/33, all the while the personification of courage. He could reflect thirteen years later in his seminal account of the saga, Cricket Crisis, that bodyline was an uprising of bowlers against their lot.
“All it required to touch off the fire of bowling revolution was somebody like Bradman, somebody who could throw into bold relief just how one-sided this game of cricket had become in its lauding of, and consideration for, the batsman, always at the expense of the bowler….. The people to blame for bodyline in the main were those who could see no further than huge scores, doped wickets and limitless Tests.”
Andy Sandham made Test cricket’s first triple century in 1930. Four more followed in that decade of doped wickets and limitless Tests. Len Hutton’s 364 stood as the highest individual Test score from 1938 to 1958. Then Gary Sobers went one run higher, and his mark stood for 36 years. That innings of 365 has been bettered four times in the last 15 years, by Brian Lara twice (375 and 400), Matthew Hayden (380) and Mahela Jayawardene (374).
In no decade in the history of the game has the bat been as dominant over the ball as in the first of this century.
The reasons why are there for all who care to look. Flat pitches. Turbo charged bats. Smaller playing arenas courtesy of boundary ropes. Batsmen encased like armadillos in lightweight helmets and protective padding. The deskilling of the bowling class as a result of ceaseless limited overs cricket, both versions of which further advantage the privileged batting class.
From 1877 to the end of the 20th century Test cricket saw fifteen triple centuries, on average one every 99 Tests. This decade there have already been eight individual scores over 300, on average one every 55 Tests, including the first Test quadruple century.
Double centuries are now commonplace. Since 1999 Test cricket has seen 101 individual innings over 200, one every 4.8 Tests. This compares with 187 double centuries or better prior to 1999, one every 7.7 Tests.
Discounting the Antigua Test abandoned after 10 balls due to the outfield resembling a beach, 16 Tests to date this year have produced one triple and five double centuries.
The panjandrums of the International Cricket Council, a body as dysfunctional as the United Nations, have helpfully tampered with cricket’s regulations to make things worse not better. Take the restrictions on intimidatory bowling.
Law 42.6 empowers the umpire to rule persistent short pitched bowling dangerous and unfair at his discretion, and provides that the skill of the batsman on strike shall be taken into consideration. An umpire has the authority to come down hard on a fast bowler seeking to intimidate a tailender with bumpers.
Yet the ICC Standard Test Match Playing Conditions alters Law 42.6 to limit a Test bowler to two fast short pitched deliveries per over, regardless of the skill of the batsman. This is another legislative ruse in favour of pampered batsmen. It should be struck out.
Only last year the guardians of the Laws of Cricket, the MCC, amended Law 6, concerning the bat. Yet almost all bats which were legal remain so under the amended law. No limits have been set on the weight of a bat, or the maximum depth from the face to the back of the blade, or the width of the side edges. In reality the new Law 6 seeks to guard against the future introduction of performance enhancing properties in bats, especially artificial materials in handles.
It is the LBW law that, properly amended, could do most to even the scales. Simply rewrite Law 36 to remove the prohibition on a leg before wicket dismissal if the ball pitches outside leg stump. Such an amendment would improve the lot of leg spinners and left arm bowlers alike. It would punish negative pad play.
If a batsman is beaten, or doesn’t offer a shot, and is hit on the pad by a ball which would have hit the wicket, give him out.
The MCC must act where the ICC won’t, to establish equilibrium between bat and ball.
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