Bring the fight back

2013-11-09 00:00

I DO not know how many readers saw anything of the recent ODI series between India and Australia. Seven matches were scheduled, but two were washed out. Of the other five, only the first one, which Australia won easily, gave any succour to the bowlers. The rest of them were gluttonous run fests that delighted the spectators and flattered the batsmen, but did nothing to convince anyone outside India that they represented an even struggle between bat and ball.

In a series in which the galaxy of hundreds was topped off by an innings of 209 by the hitherto unremarkable Rohit Sharma, it is difficult to recall a single respectable bowling performance. Confronted by lifeless pitches, small grounds and heavy bats that send cricket balls into the stratosphere, bowlers were reduced to little more than animated bowling machines that have been programmed to pitch their deliveries into the hitting arc of the batsmen.

Two recent rule changes have contributed to this sorry state of affairs. The first is the introduction of two new balls, which has meant that reverse swing with the old ball has all but disappeared from ODI cricket. The other is the absurd change to the fielding restrictions that do not allow more than four fielders outside the inner ring for much of an innings. This means that batsmen have an undefended area of the boundary to attack. On Indian ODI pitches this is manna from heaven for any half-decent batsman.

On flat pitches, bowlers are defenceless under these conditions and cricket as a contest between bat and ball simply does not exist. I do not know which group of “wise men” was responsible for these changes but, in their efforts to liven up ODI cricket by increasing the number of runs scored, they have damaged the fascination of the duel between batsman and bowler when conditions favour the former.

Fortunately, as we have seen in the matches between Pakistan and South Africa in the Gulf states, if pitches are more bowler friendly the essence of cricket can still exist in ODI matches. If the rules of ODI matches remain so tilted in favour of the batsmen one hopes that groundsmen will be encouraged to produce sporty pitches in most of the cricket playing world.

What we are seeing in the Gulf are intriguing matches that have been dominated by the bowlers. In the first two games, one of which was a thriller, both teams were bowled out. The question being raised now is why the South African batsmen have been so inept in conditions that have offered some assistance to the bowlers? The Proteas batting in the first two matches was characterised by leaden footwork and the inability to work the ball into gaps in the field.

The consequences of these failings have been long periods of defensive play punctuated by desperate heaves across the line. Batting like this on pitches that assist the bowlers is invariably doomed to failure. Admittedly, the team were without the services of Amla and Kallis, who are the two South Africans skilled enough to make runs under all conditions. On the other hand, this has been a wonderful opportunity for the younger batsmen to show that they can handle the pressure of playing in difficult circumstances. Thus far none of them has produced a match-winning performance. Just as they struggled under tricky conditions in the recent Champions Trophy, they are battling in the Gulf.

Some of them must be stretching the patience of the selectors. The good news for them is that these guys are the best that we have. There is not one batsman playing in our domestic competition who has suggested that he is ready for international cricket. If you trawl through the provinces all you will find is a collection of notable has-beens and those whose potential is limited by the Peter principle.

The hope is that a couple of the youngsters playing in the Gulf will benefit from their current experience and learn enough to be ready in early 2015.

JP Duminy looks the part but I think he is better suited to batting down the order and the same can be said of David Miller. If the Proteas want consistency from these two, it is imperative that the top four in the batting order get the team off to good starts. This has not been happening often enough.

The most vulnerable batsman is Faf du Plessis, who must show he is capable of playing a substantial innings in this format. He had a golden opportunity to do so in the third match, but surrendered his wicket with an awful shot. He is a brilliant fielder, but he needs a couple of big scores to secure his place.

It is imperative that Kallis resumes his place in the team. It is all very well preserving him for Test match cricket, but if he is to play a part in the next World Cup, which seems to be the plan, the need will be to arrange the rest of the batting order accordingly. The minor batsmen in the team must be given a chance to bat where they will in the World Cup.

Some aspects of the Proteas’ play have been very good. Whatever the surface, the Pakistanis have struggled to make runs and the fielding has been excellent. The team are not the finished article by some distance, but there are sufficient reasons for quiet optimism.

I hope that the ICC recognises that the Indian-style ODI matches are not good for cricket and that changes are made in time for the 2015 World Cup in Australia. I can think of several that should be on their list, including doing away with the latest fielding restrictions and the two new balls. I would also allow bowlers to bowl a maximum of 11 overs an innings and increase the number of unsuccessful umpiring referrals by the fielding side to two per innings.

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