“Clearly, bowlers have done their hard-yards and to penalize them in such a way won’t be an ideal reward for their ascendancy in recent times. The MCC committee’s other recommendations are very much welcome but, as of now, Free-Hit in Test cricket is not a done deal”

Innovation is a good thing. In sports, it helps in keeping up with the changing times. But only positive innovation is good for a sport. An innovation which seeks to destroy the very essence of that game should simply be unacceptable for the stakeholders of the game. Something similar is happening in our beloved traditional form of cricket i.e. the Test Cricket.

A committee headed by former English batsman, Mike Gatting, under the aegis of Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) has recommended a series of innovations to speed up the game along with making Test Cricket exciting for spectators. The recommendations include a timer of 45 seconds (60 secs for a new batsman) in between the overs for teams to get ready failure in which will result in five penalty runs for the opposition, similar timer for the fall of wickets, cutting short the DRS operating procedure, standard ball across all cricketing nations from the start of the Test Championship and a Free-Hit to be awarded to batsmen in case a bowler bowls a no-ball.

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 The recommendations like setting a time-limit for getting ready between overs or after fall of a wicket are in the true interests of the game as ‘slow over-rates’ have now become a nuisance in modern-day Test cricket. The problem is more compounded in SENA countries i.e. South Africa, England, New Zealand, and Australia, as the conditions were conducive for the pace bowling, spinners don’t really bowl much leading to the dissatisfaction of slow over-rates among 25% of fans in these countries, according to an MCC survey.

Another good initiative, as recommended by the committee, will be the standardization of the ball used in Test Cricket across the countries. Currently, the SG ball is used in India, Kookaburra in Australia and South Africa while the Dukes ball in England and West Indies. This seriously leads to uneven playing conditions which aren’t in the better interests of the game. The committee vouched for a standard ball to be used across all the Test playing nations and that too from the start of the Test Championship later this year.

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The recommendation which is contentious is that of a Free-Hit being awarded to batsmen in case the bowler oversteps. This is too harsh a punishment in the name of making the Test Cricket exciting for the viewers. The legendary leg-spinner, Shane Warne (also a part of the committee) was very vocal about his support to the Free-Hit for a no-ball bowled, saying that it serves the twin purpose of bringing the excitement in the game while also controlling the no-ball habit of the teams.

Warne cited the example of English team which recently bowled its first ODI no-ball in almost three years in the ODI series against Windies, but on the contrary, their bowlers were guilty of bowling as many as 11 no-balls in the Test series. The problem with such a recommendation is that it tries to further tilt the game in the batsmen’s favor. Also, Free-hit was a kind of T20 innovation and bringing it into the Test arena will further deepen the effect of the malaise the shortest format has already infected upon the other two formats.

T20 has already changed the players’ approach to batting in the other two forms of the game. It is because of this changed approach that one will hardly ever see another Hanif Mohammad master-class to save the game. A master-class where time bided at the crease gets the priority and adulation over the runs scored. Every young player wants to score runs but doesn’t want to do the good old graft and the introduction of a penalty like the free-hit upon the bowler will further bolster such graft-less and grind-less batting.

Over the past 18 months or so i.e. from the start of the Ashes 2017, bowlers have given a tough time to the batsmen as barring New Zealand, no team has recorded a batting average of more than 30.71 runs (Australia) per dismissal in the given period. Teams like South Africa and England have managed even less than 25 runs apiece in this period and mind you they are very good teams going around in the Test arena. Apart from England (31.68) and Sri Lanka (30.27), no other team’s bowling attack (min. of 5 Tests played) averages in the 30s since the last Ashes.

Clearly, bowlers have done their hard-yards and to penalize them in such a way won’t be an ideal reward for their ascendancy in recent times. The MCC committee’s other recommendations are very much welcome but, as of now, Free-Hit in Test cricket is not a done deal.

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