“Yes, the changing times mean that a lot of upheavals are indeed taking place in the way cricket is being played, and that means Test cricket is undergoing certain changes”
Leaving balls. Letting them go outside the off-stump. Desisting the temptation to reach for it with an extended willow.
It involves a lot of skill. Control. Not being drawn into the stroke, shot selection, knowing exactly where the off-stump is, patience and judgment.
It has been an integral part of batsmanship. Especially in places where the ball moves about, or when the bowlers continually test you with that particular relentless line of attack.
It is the general consensus that batsmen tend to leave less nowadays. Not that there is any convincing study that points out that this has affected the effectiveness of the batters. There is, for example, Murali Vijay who continues to leave balls almost on principle but has a rather woeful away record in the recent past. Whereas, a notorious non-leaver such as Virender Sehwag ended his days with a pretty decent Test record, quite at par with that apostle of the leave-them-alone school called Sunil Gavaskar.
But it is indeed a fact that batsmen tend to leave the balls less … and score more quickly in modern times. And some argue that the skills required for Test match batting are deteriorating because of this tendency.
The debate was given a rather curious twist when England captain Joe Root was asked about this current trend during the pre-match press conference prior to the second Test match against India at Lord’s.
Root’s answer was fascinating.
“Social media came in.” he summarised, trying to explain this tendency.
Elaborating, he explained: “Without trying to get too much in depth into the way the world has changed, people want things more, now. People want things now all the time. I think that creeps into everything else that you do. Naturally, the (Test) game has got quicker. Twenty20 has come in and guys playing all three formats, it’s always going to have some impact in your game. It’s a general rule in world cricket. It’s the way that the game has moved forward.”
Change, to use a cliche, is the only constant
We have seen cricket change in various ways over the long history of the game. And all through we have seen it resonate to the beat of time.
In the ancient days of steam engines, followed by month-long voyages to far off lands for Test series, timeless Tests were the norm. The focus then was not on instant results. There were times when even First-Class tour matches were played to the finish. Especially in Australia.
There were exceptions. The First World War set England back a great deal in every department, and during the aftermath of the mayhem it wrought, people were prone to viewing three days of continuous cricket as a luxury they could scant afford. Two-day county games were experimented with. You see, keeping the formats abreast with the times is not a very modern concept.
Tests played over an eternity went out of vogue after the fateful 12-day monstrosity at Durban, which almost coincided with the first blast of gunfire of the Second World War. The society changed massively in the post-War era. Denis Compton’s brand of batting became more popular because it gladdened the hearts of the war-ravaged citizens, allowing them to believe in normal times and a brighter future. It was nothing about leaving balls. Compton used to walk out to meet genuinely quick fast bowlers.
Even Neville Cardus, that charlatan with magical words, singing paeans about traditional cricket, grumbled when batsmen played slowly. Yes, cricket was trying hard to adjust to the new age, a stage when voyages on vessels gradually gave way to the trans-continental flights. By the sixties more experiments were underway, even the blasphemy of single innings cricket limited by a stipulated number of overs.
One Day cricket became enormously popular. Specialists came quite a few decades later. Batsmen struggled to fit into the two formats. Sunil Gavaskar’s famous 174-ball 36 not out is a defining, if somewhat ridiculous, example.
Limited overs cricket took the centre stage in the subcontinent, especially after that triumph in 1983. It became increasingly popular.
There was a reason for that. People with increasingly greying hair can bristle at this particular observation, but Test cricket of the 1980s, especially in the subcontinent, was the epitome of boredom. The number of draws was ludicrously high, often entire matches running out of time before the completion of two innings. It was nightmarish. Cricket managed to survive that phase, slow boring cricket alongside one-dimensional dominance of the West Indians, by riding on the limited overs contests and tournaments.
It affected batsmanship. At least purists said so. The very names, pronounced now with reverence and an aura of impregnability, were singled out as turning increasingly vulnerable outside the off-stump with the propensity towards opening the face of the bat and running the ball down to third-man. Yes, this was a diagnosis of purists, who were the age of the current-day purists some 35 years ago.
Another major area that suffered because of One Day Internationals was spin bowling. Between the mid-1970s and the latish 1980s, very few spinners enjoyed good Test match records. The onus was on pushing the ball through, flatter and faster. Flight became less important. Quite a few of the spinners turned defensive, waiting for the batsmen to make mistakes.
We go gaga about Abdul Qadir. That is mainly because he did manage some of his best performances in England, a country where the best scribes of the 1980s congregated and typed up reports that serve as records of the time. His 236 wickets were claimed at an average of 32.80. Not really the greatest figures for a spinner.
So, this is not exactly the first time that departments of the game have suffered because of the changing face of cricket.
But spin made a comeback. Through some mighty practitioners like Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan, it found ways to succeed in the changing world. Then such innovations came in, such as the doosra, the carrom ball and so on.
With the likes of Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson, Steve Smith and Joe Root himself, there is no reason for batting to evolve further in spite of the apparent lack of batsmen proficient in the art of leaving the ball.
As satellite television, internet and cable operators became popular, limited overs cricket did take the center stage. The game was reaching more remote corners of the world, it was not limited to an elite group of viewers. The majority wanted a particular brand of cricket.
And following that came the social media that Root was talking about. It meant that people were not passive consumers of whatever the few privileged ones reported from the ivory towers of their press boxes, with the accreditation cards hanging like medallions from their necks. Each individual was now capable of making his or her own content on the web … and float opinions across cyberspace. Plenty decided to leverage this new-found sense of empowerment.
And even the greatest of sportsmen started interacting with fans over Twitter.
The world has now become faster. The concept of instant gratification is there everywhere. People have live match streaming available on their cell-phones, they buy things off Amazon with one click. Products are immediately visible and available. Waiting time has been reduced, for apparel, appliances, books, movies …
Perhaps that is what Root meant when talking about social media. People want things now. They want runs now. They want wickets now. They want action now. And these opinions and demands are made known first hand to cricketers themselves.
However, according to Abhishek Mukherjee, the Chief Editor of Cricketcountry.com, social media does not really play a very important role in this. “Even if a batsman is trolled on Twitter for leaving balls, why should that affect a professional out in the middle? He is not even following the tweets real time,” he says.
Besides, slow cricket being criticised is not really a modern phenomenon either, he feels.
True. From William Scotton and Alec Bannerman of the 19th century to Geoff Boycott and Chris Tavare of the 1970s and 1980s, stonewallers have been always been associated with chronic boredom and insufferable cricket.
Even the famed “Shastri hai hai” chant from the 1980s and 1990s was due to the strokeless batsmanship of the current Indian coach. This writer had watched his first international match in 1991, when Ravi Shastri had opened the innings for India against a rampant Alan Donald in a historic ODI in Calcutta. Fearing a long innings by Shastri, I had actually taken the brick-like tome titled IIT Chemistry to the Eden Gardens. Thankfully, Donald had got Shastri caught behind for a fifth ball duck.
Abhishek Mukherjee thinks that leaving balls is an acquired taste for the viewer. There are several who love watching batsmen leaving balls on merit against bounce, swing, and spin. Their opinions or tastes have definitely not changed over the years. “I am personally a huge fan of an intriguing contest between bat and ball, where leaving the ball frequently plays a significant role. However, like most fans, I am averse to stonewalling for the sake of it.”
Perhaps for the good
There is another matter to consider.
Whatever has been the history of the world and cricket, the changes that have come in have always benefitted the game, making it more suitable for the spectators.
Be it for the general audience, television audience and, perhaps, for the internet crowd.
For example, with the spread of satellite television, Test matches have become tailor-made as a television sport, with inbuilt slots for advertisements amounting to 90 breaks per day over five days.
And the changing rate of scoring etc have actually helped cricket. From the 1960s we have been hearing that Test cricket is boring and on the verge of death. In 1990 even a book was written about it being the end of the road for the long format. But it has survived, and thrived.
The number of spectators in the stands notwithstanding, Test cricket has perhaps never been so popular in terms of following and people who invest their time and interests.
In this regard, discussions in social media actually help Test cricket enormously because seldom has this sort of engagement been seen across different demographics and different populations.
Abhishek Mukherjee agrees here: “See, a wicket falls every 63 balls today in Test cricket and 3.11 runs are scored every over. Compare this to the 1960s, when a wicket fell every 81 balls and they scored at a horrible 2.38. This means that 280 runs are scored a day now, compared to 214 in the 1960s. Similarly, about two more wickets fall every day than they did fifty years ago. Runs are being scored at a quicker rate. Wickets are falling more frequently. What does the audience want to see? Isn’t it runs and wickets? Haven’t fans always be drawn towards fours and sixes and wickets, the more per day the better?”
Changes are very much part of the spectrum. Real-time audience reaction is part of the process now. Test cricket is being played under lights. More runs are getting scored, more wickets falling. Cricket is adapting to survive.
Just like the case of spin-bowling in the 1980s, the art of leaving balls may undergo a deterioration for some time. But great batsmen will adapt back and the art of batting will evolve. At Edgbaston, Kohli did show that the best can still survive in demanding situations. They will continue to do so.
Yes, the changing times mean that a lot of upheavals are indeed taking place in the way cricket is being played, and that means Test cricket is undergoing certain changes. But, history does indicate that changes to the way Test cricket is played go on to help the game fit into the changing landscape of time, as well as making it stronger as it evolves to the next version.