Does England’s 481 Against Australia Sound the Death Knell for Bowling?
Illustration: Akshita Monga
When I played Brian Lara International Cricket on our Pentium 4 PC as a kid, I was an addict who had figured the game out – quite the way Nirav Modi had figured out the loopholes in the banking system. If the computer bowled a good length delivery outside the off stump, I had to move my batsman a bit, press Shift + Right Mouse Button (RMB) and it would go for a six. Every single time. Perhaps it was a game bug but I couldn’t care less as I smashed 250 runs in 20 overs and became the gaming nerd of my society.
To put things in perspective, it was 1999 and these were humble times. A time when good batting line-ups would struggle to chase 250 runs in an ODI game.
As I watched England take Australia to the cleaners at Nottingham yesterday, amassing 481 runs in a 50-over game, I realised that Codemasters, the developers of Brian Lara International Cricket, had actually made a prophecy all those years back. It wasn’t a game bug after all. Every good length ball outside the off stump was quite literally disappearing out of the ground. Only, this time around, it wasn’t a video game. This was real life and the Australian bowlers couldn’t just throw a fit and press “Quit Game”.
In a recent episode of the web show Breakfast With Champions, Afghan sensation Rashid Khan narrated a funny story where he cheekily asked a pitch curator during the IPL to prepare a turning track. The curator told him, “If I make a bowling track, no one will come to watch the game.” The quick-witted Rashid immediately shot back, “If you make a batting track, I won’t be able to come next year.” They both had a good laugh about it but the story captured the popular sentiment quite aptly: Bowlers don’t matter, everyone just wants to see big runs scored.
Cricket is no longer a contest between bat and ball. Remember the old days when tours were promoted as a contest between Imran and Gavaskar, Sachin and Warne, Lara and Murali? Today, cricket is a contest between my batsman and your batsman. It’s a dick-measuring contest. If you can score 350, I can score 351. If you can score 400, I can score 401. It’s Virat Kohli vs Steve Smith vs Joe Root vs Kane Williamson. Bowlers do not exist to create their own legacies, they merely exist as a hindrance to a batsman’s legacy.
The assault on bowling has been institutional and relentless. To paraphrase the poetic brilliance of German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller:
First, they changed the fielding restrictions, and I didn’t speak out. Because I wanted to see more runs.
Then, they allowed bigger, better, wider bats and I didn’t speak out. Because I wanted to see more runs.
Then, they invented the T20 format with shorter boundaries, flat tracks and I didn’t speak out. Because I wanted to see more runs.
Then, they started penalising bowlers with free hits and I didn’t speak out. Because I wanted to see more runs.
Then, there were almost 500 runs scored in an ODI with no one left to speak for the bowlers.
The ICC would quite simply argue that it is giving the fans what they want. If people love Race 3, Bollywood will keep making Race-like movies. If people want to see fours and sixes, fuck the bowlers, we’ll give you fours and sixes. It is a beautiful advertisement for the World Cup to be held in England next year. Come to the stadiums, pay for a ticket, we promise a run feast. As for the bowling, we’ll get cement tracks or replace humans with AI machines if we have to.
Even though the ICC believes it’s market demand and it is good for the game, let me try to argue otherwise. I might perhaps be in the minority, but I’m confident I’ll get you on my side as time passes by. You see, flat tracks and run-scoring machines not only harm bowlers, but they also harm batsmen. Remember when scoring a Test hundred used to mean something? Now, it’s merely a statistic. You had to grit it out in the morning session, counter the early moving ball, and negate spine with sturdy technique.
Test hundreds are now like MBAs: Everyone has one and it’s too easy to get, and so it has now ceased to mean anything. Less than a decade back, it was astonishing when a batsman scored 150+ for the first time in an ODI. And then it started happening every other week. A new Taimur Ali Khan picture gets more eyeballs than a 150 in an ODI.
Soon, 200 will be the new normal, or even 250 perhaps. But cricket as a sport is losing its essence as the audience is normalised to more and more runs.
When you think of exciting moments in cricket, you think of Sachin hitting Shoaib for a six over third man and then Shoaib knocking him over with a bouncer. You think of Shane Watson trying to ride it out against Wahab Riaz on a pacey wicket, or Mitchell Johnson and Kevin Pietersen going hard at each other in the Ashes. The reason these battles stick in our memory is because there was an air of unpredictability about them, and that is what sport is about. Both the batsman and bowler had equal opportunity every single ball, and that made it exciting.
Kids of the future will grow up watching batsmanship being glorified disproportionately. Crowds love batsmen, sponsors love them; they will have the likes of Kohli and Root and Williamson as role models to look up to.
But no bowling heroes, with quality dipping with every generation because of the balance being heavily skewed. My generation had Wasim, Waqar, Warne, Murali, Lee, and Walsh and it seems unlikely that the trend will be replicated over the years. Who wants to be a bowler in this environment? Especially, with every other ball sailing over your head for a maximum.
And just like that, the fine and nuanced art of bowling will keep getting eroded, approaching its slow and timely death.
“Beta, batsman ban jao, bahut scope hai,” a coach is telling a seven-year-old somewhere.