This article is written as an entry for Harsha Bhogle’s Bloggers Dream Team.
On March 1, 2015, Kumar Sangakkara scored a scintillating 117* off 86 balls against England. His innings was graced with piercing drives, dismissive pulls and a touch of his own elegance. Sri Lanka chased down 310 like a stroll in the park. Hasn’t it become a very common norm to set up or chase targets in excess of 300? Is 300 even safe? Is 350 considered to be a good score? Like a speedometer turns towards a higher number with increased acceleration, the answer to all the questions above is quickly turning towards a NO. Let us compare Sangakkara’s innings to the infamous 36* off 174 balls by Sunil Gavaskar in the 1st edition of the World Cup in 1975 against England. India considered chasing 334 in 60 overs as unobtainable. Over the different editions of the World Cup, we have seen targets rise like the buildings along Marine Drive in Mumbai. If we look at a bigger picture over the past 15 years, cricket, all over the world has progressed more than the peace talks between the nations. We have teams like Afghanistan, Ireland and United Arab Emirates participating and scoring 250 to 300 odd runs. Something has changed somewhere. Is it the vision towards the game? Is it the anxious attempt to save the excitement of the game? We think it is a conglomeration of the both.
The governing body, International Cricket Council (ICC) has played the role of a mother in nursing cricket and revamping the rules and strategies over the years. We have seen the colored jerseys, the famous white ball, game being played at new venues and under lights, the technology to support the speed of the game and the famous birth of T20 cricket. But what has stood out the most is the change in the performance of the batsman and the bowlers. Countries and their players have confirmed Darwin’s theory of adaptability. The one who adapted are surviving and progressing as strong contenders and one who couldn’t have vanished away like the city lights when the dawn broke.
We would like to present our perspective on how the game has changed from the previous editions of the World Cup. The change that has allowed the batsmen to innovate, bowlers to suffer and the teams to re-think their fitness strategies. To compare how the performance standards have dropped or lifted, we will analyze the game in the following bits & pieces:
a) Change in Rules and Coaching Strategy
The term ‘fielding restrictions’, for the first time, was introduced by ICC in the 1992 edition of the World Cup. As a part of the rule, only 2 fielders were allowed outside the circle for the first 15 overs, then 5 for the remaining overs. These rules were tailor made for aggressive openers unafraid of lofting the ball over the midfield. It is since 1992 that the world has started looking at the run-fests in the ODI’s. Sri Lankan coach for 1996 WC, Dav Whatmore, stated his team’s objectives before the 1996 WC: “The goal in our hearts is to be really competitive in the World Cup.” The instructions Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana received to score 100 runs in the first 15 overs actually set the tone for the biggest transition in ODI cricket. It was first the change in the coach’s approach towards the game that came out magnified in the dressing room and then on the ground. The methods by all measures were revolutionary: they seemed as obvious in retrospect as any truly great invention, and no one could ever go back to the old way of playing after they were introduced. The change in the mentality of the coaching staff was the most far-reaching cricket had seen.
b) Change in Batsmanship
Statistics can only highlight a certain aspect of the story, but we all know somewhere that it is the attitude that has changed the game forever. To give a perspective, 35 centuries were scored till the 1992 WC and of these only 4 manage to appear in the top 50 fastest centuries while a staggering 24 of them find place in the top 50 slowest centuries of the World Cup. Over the last five editions of the World Cup, the average strike rate of batsmen has seen an astounding increase from 58 to 76* (current edition in play). An addition of nearly 20 runs scored / 100 balls is a huge increase and speaks volumes about the ‘hit-out or get-out’ strategy of the batsman, a culture from the T20 cricket. The average runs per batsman has seen a hike from 28 in 1999 edition to 35 so far in the 2015 edition.
The percentage of runs scored in running between the wickets portrays the biggest change in the game of the cricket, over the years. From 1992 to 1999, the number swung between mid-30’s and low 40’s. However, it is with the team’s approach to score a run off every ball that the percentage of has seen a drastic increase nearing 51% in the current edition under play. Quick running between the wickets in the middle overs with field spread out has actually made the difference to the overall total. Team have realized that a formidable total can be achieved by building a strong foundation and then launching an attack in the last 15 overs. Planning is one and execution is another, and the game has significantly seen an upside as these plans get executed more often than not today.
c) The Innovation
The runs scored and the way they are scored are inter-related when we discuss the progress the game of cricket has gone through. We had the coaches who asked for big scores that in turn encouraged the batsmen to trust themselves and play their shots. Runs had to be scored of every ball and in every part of the ground and for every type of ball ever bowled. The quote, ‘Necessity is the mother of all inventions’ fits aptly to the rise of a variety of cricketing shots over the years. To score runs off a bouncer, the batsmen discovered an ‘upper-cut’. To score runs of a full delivery on the legs, ‘dil-scoop’ was innovated. ‘Switch-Hit’ shot took birth just because of an absence of a fielder in a certain part of the ground when an off-spinner is bowling. It is the improvisation from the batsman who is just looking to score runs from the word go that has provided a different dimension to the game. And this is one of the reasons, why we enjoyed Rahul Dravid play a cover drive on a humid afternoon in Bangalore. The batsmen have come a long way with their shot selection, but sometimes we as spectators wonder if we will ever get to see the vintage drives and flicks.
d) Agony and Pain – Bowlers
As compared to the 1970’s and 1980’s, bowling has something more to it than just a stump to stump line and hitting the ball at the good length. Given how the game has changed there are a very few youngsters in the world who would dream of becoming a bowler. Turning the game into a day-night affair in the 1992 World Cup was the biggest challenge faced by the bowlers. With the introduction of the white ball, the medium pacers and fast bowlers struggled to control the swing and the spinners faced the issues of gripping the ball under lights. As a result, over the editions of the World Cup, the economy rate of the bowlers has gone from bad to worse. In order to save the game, ICC tried introducing the concept of changing the ball after the 35th over, but in vain. With the new ball being harder, it became easier for the batsman to play their shots. In another attempt to save the game, ICC allowed two bouncers per over, but how many times have we seen a bowler perfectly execute a bouncer? We have to look at the fact that the current rule of 4 fielders outside the 30 yard circle is not serving every bowler. After 1996, in an attempt to restrict big targets, bowlers ended up discovering variations like the ‘slower ball’, ‘carom ball’ or the ‘doosra’. But, the game has done a little more justice to the batsman than to the bowlers. We don’t have extraordinary pace bowlers like Malcolm Marshall or Dennis Lille or big turners of the ball like E. Prasanna. But all we have are men who can run and throw the ball, without putting the art into it.
e) The Fitness
Over the years, the coaching staff and the captain have stressed a lot on the fitness of the players. We have seen the tummy going in, the players becoming leaner and fitter every year. Long gone are the days when a fast bowler after bowling an over had to be hidden in the field. It is a thing of the past to hide and rotate the weakest fielder in the team. The addition of the physios’ and the trainers to the coaching staff has provided an impetus towards the ambition of a team to have fit players. The diets of the players, their lifestyle, their routine intake of vitamins and proteins is controlled and that has led to the transition from mediocre to stunning fielding performances over the years. We are currently in a stage, when a diving catch at Point is ‘routine’ as compared to ‘amazing’ in the past. More concentration is laid out on the reflexes and the alertness in the field. That is one of the reasons we see sensational run-outs and catches. Teams have learned that it is possible to nurture an extraordinary fielding side and save about 30 runs in crunch situations. This has obviously reduced the odds of playing an extra bowler. As compared to the past, there is much awareness amongst the cricket world to be a fitter community. Many of the above-mentioned points with respect to the batsman and the bowlers might change with an intention to save the game, but the regime of training hard and remaining fit is here to stay forever.
While we all know that change is the only constant and more often than not, change is for the good, WC as it completes 4 decades this year, has seen immense change over its life as shown above. While the governing body in their bid to keep the format exciting and interesting, have gone ahead to make rules a bit more stringent and demanding. As one man’s loss is another man’s gain while batsman have seemed to benefit the most from these regulations, their poor cousins seem to be losing out. While it would be easy to just sit back and complain and whine all day, bowlers have slowly and steadily come on their own where they have started to throw themselves into the game more often. They seem to be taking a good liking to the challenges being thrown at them and no wonder the value of bowlers who come out on top in such scenario are called to be worth their weight in gold. Like a man in his 40’s, living his most effective years, years which often give him the chance to become a CXO and leave a mark behind in the annals of corporate history, this format is getting there as well. While a lot of them spoke about the format losing its charm, associate nations not proving their worth with talks of taking them out totally, and so on, we are sure it will stand the test of time because the performance standard is rising with each edition and that is exactly what is keeping the fans going.
Data Courtesy: ESPN Cricinfo (Data for 2015 World Cup taken till 5th March, 2015)