When Dale Steyn, arguably the world’s deadliest fast bowler at the moment, gets whipped for 23 runs in one over while in the best of his rhythm, you realise cricket has turned into an unequal game. Bowlers are running out of options as batsmen have worked out answers to every delivery and in the match of wits that takes place in the fraction of a second before the ball leaves the bowler’s hands and hits the pitch, they are losing the plot.
Yorkers, the safest ball in death overs, get paddled to the boundary; slow bouncers get placed over the wicket keeper’s head and the 'slower one' is flat-batted deep into the stands. Low full tosses are no more a safe bet and so are regular bouncers. Forget regular good length or short of length deliveries. They could vanish anywhere after hitting the bat. Speed, of course, is not too much of a bother for good batsmen.
Mix and match. That was an intelligent bowler’s potent weapon against his opponent. He played mind games with the batsman and tried to keep him guessing. He toyed with the bounce, length, line and speed. For good bowlers it worked most of the time, if not always. They built their reputations on intelligence. Captains used them in the slog overs and critical times during the inning since the situation demanded application of mind. It was the same for fast bowlers and the spinners.
But that seems to be changing. A look at the range of deliveries from Steyn in that over in the IPL against Bangalore and the array of responses from AB de Villiers reflect that batsmen are winning the mind game, or are at least well-equipped to deal with it. One could argue that Twenty20 cricket is a different ball game and it is unfair to assume that Steyn would face the similar predicament in other formats too. True.
However, it is also true that the tempo of the game might vary but battle of wits between the batsman and the bowlers is a constant in any format. Batsmen have surged several notches ahead here.
Is there a reason? Well, fielding restrictions, shorter boundaries, flattening tracks and the vastly improved quality of bats are reasons why bowlers are at the receiving end. While fielding restrictions have allowed batsmen to play over the in-field freely, flat tracks have killed the fear of the uncertain in the pitch. Improved bats, of course, have allowed batsmen to play with freedom and be adventurous. While the spectator demand has caused rapid evolution in batting, bowling has not kept pace. It is not surprising given the scope for it is limited.
Does all this mean bowlers are getting redundant in a progressively batsman-centric game? Definitely not. The current situation in the batsman-bowler equations is not even an imperfection. It is an interesting addition in the narrative of the game’s progress.
In fact, the changes in the art of batting open up exciting possibilities for bowlers. It makes the latter think more and devise new ways to fox batsmen. Remember how the likes of Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram stole a march over batmen with the reverse swinging delivery and the Sri Lankan Ajantha Mendis flummoxed opponents with the mystery carrom ball? It was the batsmen playing the catch-up game then.
Well, bowlers have been adding both unconventional and unconventional tricks to their craft, making the job of scoring runs difficult for batsmen. While on the subject of bowlers’ bag of tricks, it is difficult not to mention Lasith Malinga. He is devastating as a bowler not simply because he bowls the perfect toe-crusher and the capable of delivering it at call. What makes things difficult for batsmen actually is the trajectory of his deliveries. His short height and the slinging action put the balls at a trajectory not too many batsmen are comfortable with. It would not surprise if a lot of young bowlers are imitating him already and experimenting with the trajectory.
However, that is one part of the story. Batsmen have started sorting him out too. Probably it is time some one else came with some other trick. For someone reading the mind games in cricket the prospect is exciting. Beyond the bland calculation of run rate and tally of wickets— the obsession of thrill-seekers with a pedestrian approach to the game— he has something more to enjoy: the true beauty of cricket.