Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The left-right divide

When Ian Botham played the shot, it looked ugly all right but it seemed to befit the man and his cheekiness. It appeared to contravene the spirit of the law, but in a harmless and endearing sense, not unlike a Javed Miandad stealing a single after giving the fielding team the impression that he considered the ball dead. So it became accepted as the Botham shot (though he did not quite invent the stroke) and gradually, other players, many less accomplished than Botham and some more, started attempting the stroke, with mixed results.

Mike Gatting’s famous dismissal in the finals of the 1987 World Cup was promising: will it mean the death of the shot? Unfortunately, but rightly so, the man got pilloried more than the stroke. The reverse sweep survived. Today when Rahul Dravid plays it, it's his statement that he can play unorthodox shots, and thus is not a misfit for Twenty20. When Matthew Hayden plays the left-hander’s version of it, it seemed to be one more manifestation of his ugly-but-hugely-effective run-gathering approach.

When Kevin Pietersen launched those two left-handed sixes off Scott Styris (one of them through long-off / long-on!) en route to a match-winning century against the New Zealanders earlier this week, I groaned. (I know he did it once before against Muthiah Muralitharan in a test match, but then once is an exception, twice is a trend.) Come on, this was not a gentle paddle to fine-leg / third-man for an ambled single; this was just playing the other way around. Instead of a light-hearted skirt around the spirit of the game, it was becoming another tool for batsmen to terrorise bowlers. Surely it was time for the administrators to step in and do something?

Step in they did, but do something they did not. They investigated and decided that the ‘switch hit’ (note the change in terminology: it’s no longer the reverse sweep; on such subtleties does the game change) is “exciting to the game of cricket” and therefore gave it an all-clear sign. Michael Holding, the patron-saint of bowlers, questioned the double standards at play here, arguing that when bowlers cannot change hands midway without intimating the umpires, why should batsmen be allowed to do so. The MCC response?

They [bowlers] do not provide a warning of the type of delivery that they will bowl (for example, an off-cutter or a slower ball). It therefore concludes that the batsman should have the opportunity – should they wish – of executing the ‘switch-hit’ stroke.

Sure they’re comparing different fruits here? The bowler’s craft involves mixing things up – slower ones, yorkers, bouncers, etc. – while bowling with one hand and the batsmen respond with their own execution strategies, in terms of what stroke to play – drive, cut, pull, hook, defence, leave, etc. – while also batting in one stance. That’s the comparison, and it ends there.

Now with the legitimisation of the ‘switch-hit’ (it still does not have enough legitimacy with me to escape the inverted commas), batsmen, the deprived souls that they are, get an advantage over the bowler. So if you can’t play leg-spin properly, all you need to do is change grips so the ball comes into you rather than turn away. Sure, such ambidexterity is not easy, but at least batsmen can practice the shot and the ‘gifted’ ones like KP may come off successful. But what about the bowlers? Bowling off one’s other hand is even more difficult, so even granting that for bowlers is not a reasonable levelling out.

The anti-bowlers’ campaign carries on mercilessly, as the MCC and the other bodies benignly preside over the gradual inevitable death of the game. To begin with, the death of the bowler. Why would any one want to be a bowler in a batsman’s game? It’s about as intelligent as launching a new brand of typewriters in the market today.

Forget test cricket versus Twenty20, let’s stoke the batsmen versus bowlers argument.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The future cricket 5 (More to toss)

Eight long years ago, a good professor called Warren Edwardes suggested that the toss, the traditional ritual that constitutes the first action in a cricket game, be replaced by the Bid. His suggestion seems to have been considered worthy enough to be picked up by the Financial Times (caution: opens a pdf file). Considering no move has been made in this direction so far, it is safe to assume that the ICC did not deem it worthy to interfere with tradition in this one regard. (Considering the financial and marketing implications that the concept of “the Bid” suggests, certain quarters that run certain forms of the game may be interested in it, but hush, let’s leave cricket to people who understand the on-field game, shall we?)

It’s surprising when you think about it, but many of the traditional rituals of the game haven’t really changed, notwithstanding what else has happened to the game in the last few decades. As Gideon Haigh writes in this Cricinfo piece, the taking of the guard is still as unquestioned and unthinkingly automatic an activity with batsmen as it was from the days of the primo professional allrounder of the early 19th century, William Lambert. (A relatively recent augmentation to this charade is the slightly pretentious and dare I say, sanctimonious, act of taking guard again after reaching a landmark like a hundred or a triple-hundred.) Similarly, that oh-so-quaint British tradition of a tea break still persists in test matches, and lunch continues to be taken after the first two hours of play in the day, even though the clock barely tips over to half-past-eleven in the sub-continent. Test cricket is still played in whites, notwithstanding the fact that players are used as sandwich men in some forms of the game, especially the IxL (replace x with either alphabet, depending on who you support).

Back to the toss. It is a chance beginning to the ritual called the match, and of late, players (do I remember Steve Waugh protesting against it as well?) have questioned the need for it and have suggested that it be done away with. But as rituals go, do you really want it to go? Instead, what if we use it as a kind of a marker-laying for captains to play their hands?

Traditionally, the toss-winning captain decides on two things – who would bat first and, if he decides to bat first, what roller should be used on the pitch. What if we increase the ambit of decisions that can be made immediately after the toss? Like choosing which overs to use as powerplays in a limited overs game? Now that makes it less of an unmixed blessing, doesn’t it? Or choosing what roller to use on each day of the test? And just to take away the luck factor to an extent, how about defining a set of decisions that will be taken alternately between the toss-winning captain and the opposing captain? And the toss winner just gets to make the first move.

Of course, the easiest option is to just eliminate the toss, but then how do you get the game started? Surely not cede home advantage or away advantage or any of those suggestions that were mooted in the past? As for the bid, I suggest we leave that to the people who manage the game outside the ground. I fear it is already happening.

Tailpiece: There is one unquestionable (at least by those who understand the game) abomination that needs to be tossed away when it comes to this ritual: using the toss to determine the winner of a game, a rule that applies in the Twenty20 format when the scores are level at the end. You know the cliché I am thinking of here.

Earlier posts in this series


More new balls

Limited over tests


Friday, June 06, 2008

What next?

I wonder why no one thought of it before: using the trouser as more than just a piece of cloth to protect one’s modesty. The kiwis have hit on it, high-tech bowlers' trousers, specially designed to put shine on the ball, and Dipak Patel springs the second surprise of his life. (The first, lest you start thinking the 1992 World Cup, is having managed to have played at the apex level in the first place.)

The more interesting mention, as published in this cricinfo story is the introduction of the IonX BaseLayer performance underwear which is claimed to improve performance by 2.7%. The performance of the balls, I suppose.

From a cricketing perspective, the more sobering sound byte in the story comes from Patel himself.

"When I came into cricket I was surprised to find there are no regulations about what materials you can and can't use."

The game seems to be setting itself for controversy, considering the number of gaps it offers for misinterpretation. Not so long ago, there was an MCC debate and decision on the use of graphite in cricket bats. And quite some time back, a certain famous personage tried an aluminium bat, didn’t he?

So what is the next performance-enhancing accessory likely to be? A Velcro surface on wicket-keeping gloves perhaps? (Did I hear Kamran Akmal nod enthusiastically?)

Corrigendum published 06-June-08: The Patel responsible for this performance gear innovation is Dipal Patel and not Dipak Patel. Apologies for the mistake.