Battle of the big hitters

2008-08-08 14:45

London - The evolution of the One Day cricketer has not nearly been as explosive as the batting we currently watch in the 50 and now 20-over game.

Since limited overs cricket first reared its head in the 1970s there have been dashers in the batting line-up, of that, there is no doubt. The likes of Desmond Haynes, Viv Richards and Ian Botham have always taken the attack to the bowlers, but they, amongst few others, were the exception to the rule until Sri Lanka exploded out of the blocks at the 1996 Cricket World Cup. Four years earlier New Zealand had dabbled with the idea of the pinch-hitter in the formidable shape of Mark Greatbatch.

The well-set Black Cap opener was something of a prototype for the modern One Day top-order batsman ? big, strong, hits through the line and not afraid to give it a go to get the run rate up.

Sri Lanka, thanks to Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana, took note of the New Zealand innovation, polished it and came out with a model so refined and so blisteringly effective that the rest of the world was left stunned at the 1996 Cricket World Cup. The Sri Lanka Daily News wrote at the time, "The term 'pinch-hitter' was stolen from baseball to convey the tactic of an opening batsman given licence to adopt a high-risk approach against compulsory attacking fields. With his opening partner Romesh Kaluwitharana, Jayasuriya brought into play a new tactic where the first 15 overs were used as the last 15, to catch the opponents by surprise, and good enough to win the World Cup."

After the tournament Jayasuriya was voted the 'Most Valuable Player' and The Wisden Cricketers' Almanack broke tradition (only players who have performed in England are eligible) to name him as one of their Five Cricketers of the Year in 1997. Since Sri Lanka's successful run in that World Cup it's been all downhill for bowlers.

There was a time when 200 in a 50-over match was a defendable score, when 220-250 runs was a guaranteed winning total, when a score of 280-plus would send the chasing batsmen into fits of jelly-legged delirium at the wicket.

Those were the days. Now a score of 300 is no cause for concern with batsmen one through to seven generally capable of turning a match on its head. In the mid-1990s there were just a handful of international batsmen capable of smacking the leather off a cricket ball. Jayasuriya set the benchmark, but the likes of Shahid Afridi and Michael Slater ? a cavalier opening batsmen who was possibly ahead of his time ? weren't far behind.

South Africa experimented with the likes of Dave Callaghan, Mike Rindel, Richard Snell, Steven Jack and Nicky Boje at the top of the order. They all had their moment in the sun, but none found the consistency to keep them basking in it.

Today almost every international One Day team is brimming with big, innovative hitters. Jayasuriya is still murdering bowlers around the world, Yuvraj Singh of India, when the mood takes him, is the most destructive batsman in world cricket, Chris Gayle holds back for no one, Andrew Symonds is the key to Australia's lower-order momentum, and New Zealand, in a move that recalls memories of Greatbatch slamming boundary after boundary, now call on the beefy hitting of the rotund Jesse Ryder to get them off to a flyer.

At the end of this month South Africa take on England in a One Day series. Kevin Pietersen, arguably the world's most creative hitter, will be the player everyone wants to watch. When he performed his brilliant switch-hit against New Zealand earlier this year it marked the next step in the evolution of the modern batsman. It prompted English cricket writers to ask whether Pietersen was the best ever. Most concurred that he was.

The Guardian called it 'preposterously flamboyant'. Former England captain Michael Atherton wondered whether it was a 'stroke of genius', writing in The Times that, "the great players defy convention and search endlessly for an edge, whether that is in physical and mental preparation or technical know-how. Pietersen would argue that his switch-hitting combined an element of all three: he visualised the shot in bed the night before; he practiced it in the nets and then had the nerve and the physical strength to pull it off in the match. Everyone has the opportunity to play the shot; only one man did. Why should his genius be clipped?"

In any event, the stroke was declared legal and Pietersen strides on. As he continues to break moulds and set the cricketing world alight (imagine the carnage that would have been wrought had Pietersen played in the Indian Premier League, a distinct and tantalising possibility in the near future) batsmen from other countries are also pushing the boundary ropes further and further. As far as modern limited overs cricket is concerned, today is not a good day to be a bowler.

It's a batsman's paradise.

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