April 11, 2020
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Bang Bang, And You Win

Leave swing to the poets. All we need is the demonic grin of the six.

Bang Bang, And You Win
Bang Bang, And You Win

It is possible that Chris Gayle’s record World Cup score of 215 might be overtaken before the current edition is done. And then authorities might finally look at loading the dice in favour of the bowler. All the recent cha­nges in the one-day game have made the already batsman-friendly game more so. Things must change: that is what experts are expected to say. I have said so on many occasions myself.

But perhaps we are wrong.

If the reactions to innings such as Gayle’s and Brendon McCullum’s against England are any indication, what we need is more of the same. Batsmen swinging and hitting and clearing the boundary. Strike rates of 200 and even 300 (Gayle’s second century came off 33 deliveries). When the great W.G. Grace was once bowled in a match, he calmly replaced the bail and told the bowler, “Folks have come to see me bat, not you bowl”. Today, batsmen as a group can tell bowlers, “They have come to see us bat”. Such is the nature of the game.

By any objective  reckoning, New Zealander Tim Southee’s 7 for 33, which dismissed England for 123, must rate as the performance of the tournament so far. But already the impact of the big hitting has stayed longer than the subtlety of the late outswinger or the swinging yorker.

Bowling is a subtle art; to understand swing or spin requires a sensibility that is attuned to subtlety. Much  easier to comprehend a big heave from a Gayle or a McCullum. It takes something to recognise the high levels of skill required for these too, but a ball soaring into the stands is easily understood. The viewer does not have to invest too much thought here. As those providing live commentary have shown, there is a bowler’s way of looking at a game, and a batsman’s way. Since most of us figure we are more capable of striking a ball hard than swinging it into the batsman at will, we identify more readily with the batsman.

And that is a good reason to let the ODI remain the batsman’s game. Authorities must resist the call to refigure the bat, make its edges less meaty and so on. Cricket is lucky in that it has three formats at the international level, with a World Cup in two of them. Each of the formats has its own texture, its own flow, and to interfere with that is unnecessary. The aesthetics of appreciation too vary.

The differences must be maintained, and to tweak the rules so the three begin to look like one another would destroy what makes each of the formats special.

In the first four decades of the one-day game, there were no double centuries. In the last five years, there have been five. Three months back, Rohit Sharma made 264, suggesting that even a triple century is possible. Scary from a bowler’s perspective, it is exciting from a batsman’s—and spectator’s—point of view.

Rather than crib about bowlers being bit players in the drama that is one-day cricket, let us appreciate just how far the batsmen can take the game. In 2006, when Australia made 434 in a one-dayer at Johannesburg but still lost to South Africa, the sensitive were aghast. The bowler was dead, long live the batsman. Even those who enjoyed the run chase felt more than a twinge of sympathy for the hapless bowlers. It was not politically correct to enjoy the massacre unabashedly. Congratulations for the South African batsmen had to be tempered with commiserations for the Australian bowlers.

That was then. Almost a decade later, there is guilt-free enjoyment of the Gayle double. Yes, the bowlers were manhandled, but that, we now accept, is the nature of the game. After all, it is batsmen who win matches, and they have just 300 legal deliveries in which to do it. A well-struck six is a reminder of what someone in our species, more fit and better coordinated than us, is capable of. There are few sights in the ODI to rival that shot. We leave subtlety to poets and painters; give us the raw, the visceral power of the six-hitter.

(Suresh Menon is editor, Wisden India Almanack)

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