Anyone who feels that batsmen are on velvet in limited-overs cricket will do well to look at ‘Universal Boss’ Chris Gayle’s Indian Premier League journey. The master blaster, who for six years swatted express deliveries like pesky flies, didn’t have a taker at the auction last year.
And just when it looked he would go unsold, Gayle was bought by Kings XI Punjab for his base price of `2 crore, a fifth of his earlier salary. It was not that Gayle was not scoring; it was just that demands on batsmen have changed and he didn’t match up.
Cricket, especially white ball cricket, is branded a batsman’s game. But when the game is played in the mind and the pressure on top batsmen is nothing short of excruciating, how can we say that batsmen have the edge in the limited-over format? It is the team with a better set of bowlers which consistently wins more matches.
Demands on batsmen keep piling up: they have to score at a fast clip, run like a hare and also rotate the strike to unsettle the rival bowling attack. Worse, one error and a carefully built innings comes to an abrupt end. There are no second chances.
Modern limited-overs cricket is hard on batsmen. The least that is expected of a batsman is to put the bat to the ball. It isn’t as simple as it sounds especially in a pressure-cooker atmosphere with bowlers unleashing everything they have in their arsenal—knuckle ball, slower delivery, yorker, slow bouncer, regular bouncer and a low-full toss to name a few. Faulty reading can be disastrous.
How many times have we seen teams being let down by a batsman who misreads the delivery?
Then there are batsmen like the incomparable Virat Kohli, who eases into his innings by incredibly quick running between the wickets. Kohli hardly plays big shots and prefers quick singles or twos as he settles in. His partner has to keep up with him. This is where Gayle didn’t fit into the plans of the Royal Challengers Bangalore skipper. It was felt that the top order was losing out on precious runs because Gayle wasn’t running fast enough.
The ability to recoup instantly is another must if batsmen have to run hard the next ball and the ones following that. Another buzzword is bat speed. Batsmen put long hours in the gym to get these right just as they sweat it out in the nets to improve their shots.
Strength and power are prerequisites for high bat speed, which is essential as bowlers have a bagful of tricks to deceive the batsmen. Hand-eye coordination and bat speed have to
be fine-tuned to the level of a reflex action.
In short, as Malcolm Gladwell writes — in another context — in his masterpiece Blink, the ideal limited-overs batsman would be the one who makes an effective snap judgment without giving it a thought. Most commentators credit muscle memory for this, but it is more than that. Batting is a reactive response. It is so dynamic that it suppresses muscle memory—different strokes are attempted for identical deliveries at different times by the same player.
Over the last few years, rules of the game have dramatically altered the concept of a chase. Teams have successfully overhauled scores of 350 and 400 in a 50-over game. This has added to the pressure—four to five runs an over is so last decade. The shorter the format, the greater the demand for runs.
It has consequences. Opponents minutely study a batsman’s strengths and weaknesses. They pick the trigger moment and don’t allow him to play to his strengths. Hence, batsmen seldom face bowlers they can easily score off.
One or two top-class batsmen in the line-up doesn’t cut anymore because the opposition would have found ways to deny them runs or, at least, limit the damage. Teams now need five or six batsmen who can take the fight to the opposing camp.
While it is desirable for batsmen to have an edge in limited-overs cricket, the complexities of the game are such that they can only react to what is hurled at them. Equipment, boundary size, pitch and even rules are designed to wrest the initiative from the bowler. But then there will be few who will pay top dollar to see bowlers crush batsmen.
Bowlers may call the shots, but in white ball cricket, batsmen are cocks of the walk.
(Vedam Jaishankar is an experienced journalist who has covered cricket in all the continents. His books include Rahul Dravid — A Biography and Casting A Spell The Story of Karnataka Cricket)
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