Cricket’s bastard child

2012-02-25 00:00

SMALL grounds, heavy bats, brutish batsmen, flat pitches and helpless bowlers are the unappetising ingredients of T20 cricket. This mix adds up to a game in which the skills required for success have been reduced to a bare minimum. It bears little resemblance to the complicated, clever game of cricket to which it seems scarcely related. T20 is the unruly bastard of the marriage between the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and the Indian Premier League, and it is threatening the fabric of a game that is centuries old.

The recent T20 series between South Africa and New Zealand might just as accurately have been billed as a contest between Richard Levi and Martin Guptill. The other batsmen involved were bit players at best, but the bowlers might just as well have been operating a bowling machine for all the help their hard-earned skills did them.

The top earners in cricket today are not the best cricketers in the world, but rather a group of muscular batsmen who can scarcely believe their luck that the game has taken a turn that enables them to achieve full and lucrative employment by smashing a cricket ball out of grounds all over the world in uneven and meaningless contests.

The message that this is giving to young cricketers is clear. The future belongs to those batsmen who excel in the shortest version of the game. Bowlers, wicket keepers and world class Test batsmen are destined to belong to the cast of extras in the lucrative theatres of T20 cricket unless they too can achieve abnormal strike rates with the bat.

Hashim Amla, who is arguably the best batsmen in the South African Test and ODI teams, looks lost in the crude world of T20 cricket. His ability to wear down and then plunder attacks with his good defence and wide array of sweetly timed shots is of little value in a contest where the virtue of patience is a handicap.

What does it say about a form of cricket when the best batsman in the country is not worth a place in the team?

What are the implications that the market value of Levi is suddenly worth ten times that of Amla? Normally in the commercial world such explosions of wealth are contained in market bubbles that inevitably burst of their own accord, but in T20 cricket some form of balance can only be restored with the help of some form of intelligence.

Domestic administrators are so enthralled with the money produced by the rush to T20 cricket that believing they can fix the problem is like expecting a fish to go sunbathing. Outside of the MCC’s International Cricket Committee chaired by Mike Brearley, there is probably no body that is capable of addressing the main problem of T20 cricket, which is the uneven balance between bat and ball.

A start would be to reduce the weight of bats in use throughout the game of cricket. The edge of the latest bat in use is wider than the base of a 330 ml beer can. The problem for bowlers now is that mishits are flying over the ropes with ease. It is disheartening for a bowler to induce an edge from a batsman only to see the ball sail over the boundary. In the famous 438 match, Barry Richards estimates that of all the sixes hit that day no more than 17% came off the middle of the bat. When a batsman can hit a six without making pure contact with the ball something needs to be done. In baseball, by contrast, bats are the same size and weight that they were over 100 years ago. But then baseball is not controlled by the BCCI.

Secondly, grounds should be stretched to their maximum sizes. Many of Levi’s sixes last Sunday would have cleared the boundaries of the biggest grounds in the world, but a good number fell just over the ropes of a reduced playing surface. Ropes were introduced in part because of safety fears but it is time to roll back boundaries of both cricket fields and the nanny state. Pulling the ropes in further than normal, as is done in T20 cricket, has been an unkind cut for all bowlers.

Thirdly, pitches should be made more bowler friendly. The fall of wickets adds greatly to the drama of cricket and no game should exist where bowlers are handicapped by bowling on pitches that give them little help. I also think that bowlers should be allowed to bowl a maximum of six overs and not four as at present. Some bowlers might argue that under existing circumstances four overs is a few too many.

Richards believes that helmets should be banned from the T20 game. Instinctively one agrees with him, but helmets have saved many batsmen from serious injury if not death. Their withdrawal would be too risky in all respects. I would, however, like to see the number of bouncers per over increased to two, if not three, provided umpires were instructed to apply the wide rule strictly. It is the predictability of length that makes big hitting easy, so the more it can be made uncertain the better it would be for bowlers.

Lastly, umpires should be told to cut bowlers a little slack when it comes to leg-side wides. Balls just missing the leg stump are well within the range of competent batsmen and should not be called wides.

For any game to attract and keep its audiences it must have uncertainty and drama. It must place an appropriate value on a wide variety of skills. It must allow all its players to be rewarded for exceptional displays of skill and courage.

The route to sterility is to allow a single characteristic to dominate a game. Then it becomes gladiatorial in nature and the last time I looked such contests died out a thousand years ago.

• Ray White is the former president of the UCB.

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