Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Is fast bowling fast bowing out?

Simon Hughes goes after fast bowling in Fast bowling suffers slow death in The Telegraph. Simon identifies some factors that have led to the decline of fast bowling – one-day cricket, too much cricket, flatter pitches and more protection for the batsmen. Simon also opines that fast bowlers today are probably trying to pick up too many skills – I’ll pass that comment lest I digress.

There are two points that Simon has left out. One is the changing nature of the rules of the game – limiting the number of bouncers in an over, fielding restrictions in one-dayers, the lbw rule for balls pitching outside the leg stump and the like. The second, which can be argued is part of the first, is the minimum over-rate requirement today. Back in the days when the West Indian pace quartets operated and before, they did not have the 90-overs-a-day requirement. So they were able to pace themselves, preserve their stamina and go at full tilt through the day. (As for one-day internationals, they were few and far between, and most of them happened in England and Australia, where you had light late into the day in the summer.)

Reasons apart, isn’t it time we stopped mourning the death of fast bowling? Sure we don’t have fast bowlers with averages under 23 runs per wicket. May be we don’t have too many great spells like the ones the types of Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall, Dennis Lillee, Imran Khan and Richard Hadlee came up with. But is that only because fast bowling has fallen apart?

Perhaps. On the other hand, should our yardsticks change?

If so many rules have changed and so much development (such as it is) has been brought to bear on the game, should our yardsticks for measuring the efficacy of fast bowlers remain the same?

Let’s look at batting records for a moment. No longer is a score upwards of 400 an absolutely winning first-innings score in a test match. No longer is a sub 3.5 run-rate good enough in one-dayers. And how many centuries do we get in one-dayers today compared to the 70s, 80s and 90s? And look at the top five individual scores in tests. How many of them were scored in the last 15 years? Take away the almost unreal average of Sir Don Bradman, and almost all batting records are owned by modern day batsmen. Does that mean today’s batsmen are better than those of yesteryears?

The flip side is perhaps true for bowlers. Would Marshall have managed an average of 20.94 if he had come up against the power hitting of Mathew Hayden and Ricky Ponting on the shirtfronts of Adelaide, trying to rush through his overs in four minutes? Would Joel Garner have managed his miserly 3.09 runs per over in one-dayers if he had come up against the Powerplays and the power bats of today? On the other hand, would a Glenn McGrath have got so many wickets if he had played in an era when there were fewer test matches?

Well, I don’t want to compare players across generations, but considering the way the game has evolved, is a sub-23 average per wicket still a fair benchmark for tests? And a sub-4 runs per over in one-dayers?

I think it was Ian Chappell who once suggested that inflation happens in cricket. May be it’s time for us to inflation-adjust our measurement dimensions and redefine our benchmarks, and stop wallowing in memories of a different past.

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