A couple of years ago, spectators attending a 50-over match in England rarely had to wave their placards numbered 4 or 6 frantically until the death overs. Now, the minute they arrive at the stadium, they are likely to witness a boundary within a couple minutes of play, regardless of the situation of the match.
Last night in Nottingham, the England batsmen plundered 62 boundaries in 210 minutes on route to setting a world record total of 481/6 in 50 overs. It was mayhem for the Australian bowlers and high entertainment for the crowd that had arrived to watch their national heroes hand out a walloping to the old enemy.
Ever since the injection of Trevor Bayliss as the head coach and the discovery of natural stroke-makers such as Alex Hales, Jason Roy and Jos Butler, curators around England have been hell bent on preparing placid pitches to suit their power-hitting batting line-up. And while this new brand of English cricket is highly entertaining and thrilling for the audience, there is the risk that such benign pitches could make next year’s World Cup a highly predictable tournament.
Scores in England have been on the rise in the past three seasons and there's no doubt that the inventiveness, the skill sets of the batsmen, the rise of T20 cricket, the bats, the professionalism and the fearless attitude have all played a huge role. But at the same time, the fans have also been deprived of watching a contest between bat and ball.
As evident in last night’s run spree, the bowlers were almost non-existent, and the incredibly short boundaries meant the batsmen were more likely to be caught by a spectator than a boundary rider. No doubt, such games are exciting to watch, but only when they are a rare occurrence. South Africa’s phenomenal chase of 435 against Australia over a decade ago remains etched into people’s minds because it was a singular incidence. Now a score of over 400 in England is becoming a norm.
Next year, the World Cup will be played in England and all the elite players will arrive to show off their skills. Amongst those players will also be some of the world’s best bowlers — who can swing, seam and spin the ball and do all sorts of tricks with it. But such might be the nature of the pitches in England that these highly skilled individuals might end up looking like net bowlers or ones that have replaced bowling machines.
The last time the World Cup was held in England, the white Dukes ball swung prodigiously. There was a balance between bat and ball. It was the contest that kept the audience engrossed at all times.
There is no doubt the change in the conditions have been brought about due to the brand of cricket, England want to play and excel at, but if one-day internationals continue to become a monotonous high scoring event, there is a chance the format will be extinct before we know it.
Many experts believe there is already no place for the 50-over format and having it played like an extension of a T20 is certainly not the way to enhance it. The format needs it own balance, and having batsmen constantly plunder boundaries with their eyes shut might win England the World Cup in 12 months, but over the long term it could only add to the lack of interest in the format.
England is ranked the No 1 team in the world and have based their team on power hitters, so the chances of seeing similar pitches and similar conditions leading into the World Cup are high. There will be no mercy on the bowlers and the batsmen will be expected to have strike-rates in excess of 120 to ensure totals of 350 are posted on a regular basis.
There is absolutely nothing unethical about England’s approach or their demands for such true pitches, but come the World Cup next year, the curators around the English circuit should be aware of their roles of producing pitches that ensure the 50-over games is simply not about plonking the front foot down the pitch and smashing the ball into the crowd.
Full credit to England for taking the ODI game to the next level; they are the No 1 team in the world at the moment and possibly the favourites to win the World Cup. But as the Champions trophy showed last year, one sluggish pitch and the England train can derail very quickly.
One thing that seems certain is that batting records will be shattered at the World Cup next year and scores in excess of 350 will be the benchmark. Is this trend of high scores on such a regular basis healthy for the 50-over game? We will only know after the tournament. But one still hopes the next generation of players will aspire to become bowlers, and not just batsmen.