Conventional wisdom has it that limited-overs cricket has diminished the relevance of bowlers. With scores rising by the year, it would appear true but there are interesting developments to suggest that bowlers are still very much in the game. In the last 25 years, there has been a sharp drop in the number of drawn Test matches and advent of Twenty20 cricket has only made it better for bowlers.
Almost 75 per cent of Test matches since the turn of the century have produced results. This is a huge improvement from the 1950s, 60s and 70s, when Test cricket became terribly attritional, necessitating the need for shorter formats to keep fans engaged. There is a direct correlation between wickets and results in Test cricket, and if more five-day games are being decided, clearly bowlers have an equal, if not more, say in the contest unlike in the three decades mentioned earlier.
Limited-overs cricket, especially T20, compels batsmen to take big risks, which leads to success for bowlers. But that is only a part of the story. The other is the effort being made by bowlers in finding new ways to succeed.
I recently moderated a session with former Australian spin ace Shane Warne and asked him whether spin bowlers were handicapped in T20 cricket. Warne’s take was interesting. “The game’s changed dramatically in the past couple of decades. Even in limited-overs cricket, teams and captains have realised that their best chance of winning lies in bowling the opposition out. Bowlers have to deliver”.
This is a big departure from the time when limited-overs cricket started in the 1960s, when containing the batsmen was the main priority of bowlers. But that mindset has changed. Bats have got better, enabling even mishits to travel. Batsmen have got more innovative. Laws have swung in their favour with field restrictions and power plays. Captains have had to revise their tactics and bowlers forced to dig deep for survival.
Bowlers have to experiment and improvise constantly to outthink batsmen. The battle with batsmen is at two levels: technical and psychological. Bowlers have to keep probing at flaws in a batsman’s technique and also second-guess his intent, induce false strokes through changes in line, length, pace and flight. And, they are succeeding. Take the trajectory of the Indian team, which is ranked Number 1 in Tests, 2 in ODIs and T20s.
While Virat Kohli is the undisputed superstar of the Indian— indeed world—cricket, and Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Cheteshwar Pujara play stellar roles, India’s rise to eminence has been because of the bowlers. In different combinations for different formats, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Ravindra Jadeja and R Ashwin have performed splendidly. The Indian attack is considered the best in the world.
Barring perhaps Ishant, Shami and Bhuvneshwar, all the others have risen to Test stature because of their performances in limited-overs cricket, and T20 in particular. The IPL showcased the talent of Ashwin, Jadeja, Bumrah, Kuldeep and Yuzvendra and fast-tracked them into the Indian teams. This was not because they were parsimonious, but also had wicket-taking skills.The first three have, in fact, become major domos even in Test cricket. Kuldeep has been in and out of the playing XI but has been part of the squad while Chahal is straining at the leash on the margins.
These developments are not restricted to India. Demand for wicket-taking bowlers has grown, and got more pronounced after T20 leagues mushroomed all over the world.The rise in supply of wrist-spinners is a testimony to this. Imran Tahir for South Africa, Adil Rashid for England and Adam Zampa for Australia are all part of this “new wave”. Afghanistan’s Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rahman have not only become household names in T20, but were also instrumental in getting their country Test status.
How does this then explain the skyscraper (and rising) totals in ODIs and T20s? There are several factors at play. Cricket is considered a batting spectacle; so, most things are loaded in their favour especially in the shorter formats.
To improved bats and physical strength, add pitches doctored to be featherbeds and boundaries reduced by 10-15 metres to facilitate big hits and the handicaps under which bowlers perform are considerably enhanced. That bowlers have not just survived, but are thriving, can be attributed to human ingenuity. But there is a threshold beyond which even this can snap. Cricket’s minders have to consider this seriously going ahead.
(Ayaz Memon is a senior sports writer and journalist)
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