Thursday, May 3, 2007

Game's over, for smaller players

This might seem like whining after the Aussie win. So I must preface this piece by acknowledging that the Aussies have a great system in place for cricketing excellence and that's why they succeed. My argument is that the gap between the Aussies and the rest will only widen if the trend towards flattening and hardening of pitches around the world continues. I wrote about this on page 16 of DNA Sunday. The article is reproduced here...

Big Is Successful
In a Super 8 game at the World Cup, Australia's big, burly opener Mathew Hayden strode down the track to off-spinner Marlon Samuels. The West Indian saw him coming and floated the ball a little wider and shorter. Hayden, off-balance, lunged at the ball anyway and hit it one-handed over long off for six.
Is that wielding the willow or does it hark back to primitive man swinging a club? Is cricket regressing to a stone age where physical attributes hold more value than subtlety and dexterity?

Homogenised Wickets
To watch Hayden advance towards bowlers and swat the ball cross-batted, makes you wonder: Would he have got away with that against Anil Kumble on the Ferozeshah Kotla track where he got 10 Pakistani wickets in an innings? And to see Glen McGrath bang the ball in and mouth expletives, gets you thinking: When have we seen McGrath rejoicing on a Chennai wicket?
It’s the age of the tall, strong, aggressive cricketer, all right, but that’s at least partly because blinkered cricket administrators around the world are rolling out flat, hard, bouncy pitches, in the misguided belief that you need a standard surface that produces lots of fours and sixes in one-day matches, and goes the five days of a Test match without cracking up. In the process, the game gets skewed in favour of a certain type of cricketer: bowlers who can get bounce, and batsmen who can handle bounce.

Next Generation
Of course, you would point to Sri Lanka’s Muthiah Muralitharan and Lasith Malinga, but their success has come out of freak actions which are difficult to replicate. Australia too has players like Michael Clarke and Ricky Ponting, who rely more on technique and timing than strength and height. But, it’s a dying breed, as Ponting himself admitted, when asked if Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara and himself were the last of the Little Masters: "The next generation will be power batsmen. I really think that is the way the game is going. It will be the same with the bowlers. All the wickets around the world are pretty flat now and you need big, tall bowlers who are going to get extra bounce."
Even if that statement was calculated to add to the ‘aura of invincibility’ around his team, it also raises the question if the game is becoming one-dimensional through a loss of diversity. How boring would this World Cup have been, for instance, if not for Sri Lanka? Malinga’s slinging action and Murali’s back-of-the-hand off-spin added a whiff of spice to an otherwise bland main course. But these innovations coming out of the sub-continent’s tennis ball cricket culture are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Disappearing Arts
Where are the classic swing bowlers like Kapil Dev and Ian Botham, or finger spinners like Bishen Singh Bedi and Erapalli Prasanna? From wicket-taking bowlers, Saqlain Mushtaq and Harbhajan Singh were reduced to playing a containing role, then banished. Chaminda Vaas is one of the last surviving swing bowlers but it’s only the odd occasion now when he finds the right conditions to be effective.
Bangladesh’s easy victory over one of the top teams, South Africa, on the slow turner in Guyana, followed immediately by a rout at the hands of the weakest team, Ireland, on the bouncy track in Barbados shows just how much of a difference the pitches make. Bangladesh’s strength lay in its left-arm spinners, who got some purchase from the spongy surface in Guyana, and Ireland’s in its tall pace bowlers, who got bounce from the hard surface in Barbados.
Guyana was an anomaly. The top five bowlers in the World Cup were McGrath and Tait, who are tall and strong, Murali and Hogg, who are uncommon wrist-spinners, and Malinga whom one can only describe as a sling bowler. No classic finger spinner or swing bowler in that lot, and that’s no surprise either as the wickets are becoming increasingly homogenised. Brian Lara caught all the flak for the Windies’ poor show, but Andy Roberts, the former great West Indian fast bowler, had a hand in it too by relaying the pitches before the World Cup, mixing in clay and grass to make them harder, faster and bouncier, which are not West Indian strengths these days.

Different Pitches
Time was when we had three broad categories of pitches: the flat, hard tracks in Australia, South Africa and the West Indies, which favoured bowlers who are tall and strong, and batsmen adept at pulling and cutting the rising ball; the green, moist conditions in England and New Zealand, where bowlers needed to exploit swing and seam, and batsmen required the technique of playing late and close to the body to negotiate those; and, finally, the rough, uneven wickets in the sub-continent, where both bowlers and batsmen had to be supple in wrist and nimble of foot – Oriental attributes ideally suited for spin.
As recently as in 2005, Australia lost the Ashes in England to the seam and swing of Harmison and Hoggard. Even in India before that, the Aussies won the series only because they were saved by rain in Chennai, and cricket board politics produced a green top in Nagpur to embarrass Sourav Ganguly.
For many years, teams from outside the sub-continent despaired at the thought of playing in India, where their fast bowlers would find no grass or bounce, and their batsmen would be left groping against a trio of crafty spinners. Then a pitch committee suddenly laid out fast tracks in Mumbai and Bangalore to help India learn to win abroad. All it did was to let a bemused South African team roll us over in back-to-back Test matches, our first defeat at home in more than a decade.

The Good, The Bad…
The notion that India must produce pitches suitable for fast bowlers in order for our players to do well overseas has always struck me as odd. Has anybody ever advised the Australians or South Africans to change their home wickets into slow turners in order to get used to sub-continental conditions or to nurture finger spinners in their countries?
Why are flat, hard pitches which favour taller bowlers and batsmen described as “good wickets”, and abrasive, dusty surfaces which favour smaller, quicker-footed and wristier players dubbed “bad wickets”? Good for whom, and bad for whom? Why not prepare pitches that are unapologetically spin-friendly? Isn’t it just as thrilling to see a spin trio at work as it is to marvel at a pace battery?

And The Astroturf
To have the whole world playing one brand of cricket is a stultifying prospect. This is what astroturf did to hockey, remember?
Traditional hockey played on a rough, uneven surface suited the wristier Indians and Pakistanis who were more adept at trapping and dribbling with a hooked stick than the Europeans. Legend has it that Dhyan Chand’s stick was suspected to contain a magnet, so closely did he control the ball. Astroturf negated those magical skills. With the ball now hugging the surface as if on a billiards table, trapping became a matter of laying the stem of the stick flat on the ground. Hard-hitting penalty corners gained ascendancy over field goals.
Can you imagine what it would do to tennis to dig up the grass at Wimbledon and lay out an artificial surface in its place? Right now you can expect Roger Federer to get more value for his shots on grass and thus get the better of Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon. Nadal would return the compliment on clay where he can leverage his athletic prowess to chase down anything Federer can throw at him and return it with twice the power. Obviously, if you were to make all the courts grass or clay or astroturf, one type of player will dominate everywhere.
That’s what is happening in cricket with “good wickets” being prepared or even imported and “dropped in” on more and more grounds. The result is a dying out of skills such as Boycott’s defensive technique on a seaming track in Headingley, or a nonchalant Azharuddin flick to square leg off a Murali fizzer. Now it’s mostly slam, bam, see you later, mate.

1 comment:

Chavi said...

Thanks for writing this.