Cricket as we know it today is unrecognisable from the 1970s when a second format – One Day International – was introduced. Since then, Twenty20 has appeared on the scene and seems to hold the entire ecosystem hostage to its ability to appeal to the modern sports fan in its action-packed short duration and hence, its draw for commercial sponsors.
As to the cricketing merit, Tests and T20s are poles apart, and as India's ace off spinner Ravichandran Ashwin said, “They ought to be considered different sports”. Where does that leave ODIs? When T20 became popular and domestic franchise leagues began popping up everywhere, the players were of the opinion, according to an annual report published by the Australian Cricketers Association that they foresaw a time when ODIs cease to exist as a regular item on the cricket calendar. In fact, in 2013, ICC determined that they would drop the Champions Trophy as one of their marquee global tournament but yet, we are only months from the 2017 Champions Trophy.
ODIs just won't go away, and the reasons are very simple – there is money to be made. Broadcasters love ODIs as it provides a solid seven-hour window (including primetime during day-night games) with more than a hundred breaks for advertisements that allows them to make incredible profits. For generations of fans, especially in the subcontinent – the financial hub of the sport, ODIs were synonymous with cricket as it made less demands on their time and attention than Tests.
With T20s now carving chunks out of that, ODIs – since they are still tremendous money spinners – needed to be just as action packed. ICC then meddled with the Powerplay rules and introduced two balls per innings, to ensure more runs were scored at a rate never before seen, and the so called boring middle overs are all but eliminated from the game.
However, the question is, who has suffered the most due to all these rule changes? Bowlers.
On wickets that are flat, in grounds where the boundaries are pulled in further, and with batsmen confident in their abilities to clear the field at any stage of the game, bowlers are fodder. It's even more acute in bilateral ODI series.
Even as the 50-over World Cup is the flagship event of the ICC every four years, bilateral ODI series continue to thrive. Bilateral series typically are played on surfaces that are just a concrete highways for the batsmen to drive along at any speed they want. Just cast your mind back to India vs Australia series last year or in 2013. It should be no surprise then that records are being set at breakneck pace; there have been multiple ODI double centurions in the last few years; team totals over 300 are achieved as a matter of fact; four hundred is just another number.
In addition, with the preference of teams to lengthen their batting line up, it is not necessarily the case that the best available bowlers are picked in an ODI side. If a terrific bowler, say Mitchell Starc, already has odds stacked against him due to the rules and the conditions, an average bowler selected more for his ability to beef up the lower order is not going to be successful.
The following tables list the batting (Table 1a) and bowling averages (Table 1b) of the top five ODI teams (according to ICC rankings) since 1 January 2015, in matches including bilateral series and tournaments involving three or more sides. Table 2 is the batting and bowling averages in bilateral series only amongst the top five ranked teams.
It is clear from the tables that the top five teams score about 300 runs generally, with the averages skewed by the India-New Zealand bilateral series that were played on surfaces that aided spin. In the series that India won 3-2, New Zealand were bowled out for 79 in the final match of the series in Vishakapatnam. Every top five side, except for New Zealand, also score at a healthier rate in bilateral series than their scoring rate in all matches (New Zealand just about the same rate). The batting averages of the top five sides are also higher in bilateral series than in all matches, except Australia who score at pretty much the same average, bilateral match or not. The bowers from the top five sides when facing other top five side concede runs at higher RPO in bilateral matches as well.
On Sunday, when England scored 350 in their innings which India chased down, I received messages from friends that complained about the Indian bowlers as well as bowling in general in the match.
True, the quality of bowling wasn't all that great but the structure of the game is set in such a way as to neuter the effectiveness of the bowlers, where they are encouraged to limit the runs rather than to look for wickets.
At the end of the match, Eoin Morgan talked about lack of turn for his spinners on an Indian pitch and that even a 350 score “clearly not” being sufficient. Virat Kohli highlighted the kind of shots that a batsman could play on that Pune wicket that would “demoralise the opposition bowlers”. In fact, he played one himself, when he played a shot with the straight bat and high elbow to launch a back of length slower delivery from Chris Woakes over long on for six.
Kohli was honest in his thoughts about the pitch calling it “placid”, where “even at 63/4, you could chase 350 with  balls to spare.” He conceded that his bowlers were “trying their hardest” and acknowledged that towards the end of England's innings, the “powerful” English batsman “were aggressive” and “didn't think twice before going for any shot”.
As such, bowlers in white ball cricket are on a hiding to nothing. And in bilateral series where flat tracks seem to get dished out more often than not, there isn't really a point in blaming the bowlers when they can't seem to stop the flow of runs. The deck is stacked against them.