Pitches that offer little help and rules that favour the batsmen have reduced bowlers to mere support cast in ODIs.
MS Dhoni isn’t a soothsayer but his prediction early this year that one-dayers would soon resemble T20s is turning out to be true. As if the shorter boundaries and top-quality bats weren’t enough to make a bowler’s life miserable, a set of batsmen-friendly rules -- introduced over the last two seasons – is increasingly making bowling a hazardous occupation in the shorter formats.
A glance at the statistics in the four completed matches (three ODIs and a T20I) of the ongoing series against Australia proves that bowlers are nothing more than sacrificial lambs. A whopping 2294 runs have been scored in those four matches where even a 350-plus total hasn’t looked safe. What has added more misery to the bowlers is the flatter surfaces in the sub-continent.
But the opinion is divided about the modifications to the playing conditions. If you are a sub-continental team, which heavily relies on spinners and reverse swing, the two-new-balls rule per innings is designed to blunt their edge. And if it’s an Australian or an English side, that is packed with fast bowlers, then the rule is just perfect. There appears to be some agreement with five fielders inside the circle stipulation, a change that came into being November last effectively nullifying two bouncers per over, but the use of two new balls hasn’t helped India’s cause in home matches.
For an Indian side, which doesn’t have express fast bowlers, the two bouncers aren’t of much use. While commenting on the luxury of bowling more bouncers, Dhoni, in half jest, had said: “We are not using even one, where will we bowl two? That’s the reality.”
Suresh Raina was in sync with his skipper’s views. "You can bowl two bouncers, but there are four other deliveries to bowl also. The ball doesn't reverse much because it's quite new. The ball is only 25 overs-old at the most. Even spinners don't get that much turn. No doubt it's good for the batsmen, and we have no complaints,” he said forthright.
Australia have no complaints so far as using two new balls is concerned. Even on batting paradises in this series, they have employed three pacemen besides having Shane Watson to send down a few overs. With their extra pace and ability to bowl well-targeted bouncers, they have found some success and their performance will obviously be better in home conditions where pitches will have more bounce and carry.
So, does it come down to the nature of pitches then? Ravindra Jadeja has no doubt about that. “I don’t think the ball matters to spinners as much as the wicket,” he pointed out. “If the wicket offers help and is turning, then it doesn’t matter if it’s a new ball or an old ball. If you’re getting something from the wicket, you can be playing in England or Australia or India, and the newness of the ball won’t matter to spinners,” the left-arm spinner offered.
Aussie opener Phillip Hughes, who has consistently given good starts in this series along with Aaron Finch, feels it adds a new dimension to the game. “I think it’s good, what’s been going on is fantastic,” he remarked. “If you look around the world, different countries, it works in different ways.
If you come here, the wickets are quite good for batting and if you go to England and Australia, you could have wickets that could do a bit and with two new balls in a lot of games you could have 3/30 upfront. The great thing about touring around the world is that you just see different scores and you have seen a lot of big scores in this series,” the left-hander elaborated.
India’s title-winning performance in the Champions Trophy in England this June drives home the point that if there is something in the pitch, their pacers are capable of exploiting that assistance. Umesh Yadav, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ishant Sharma formed a potent three-pronged pace attack while R Ashwin and Jadeja were as effective. But on belters back home, the Indian attack has struggled to contain the Aussie batsmen. Come to think of it, India have lost six of their 10 completed one-dayers at home this year, coinciding with the introduction of new rules.
Stand-in Aussie skipper George Bailey summed up bowlers’ hardships on these pitches. “The wickets we have played on have been very good batting wickets. It’s very tough for the bowlers. It's hard to know what motivates bowlers on these wickets,” he noted while maintaining that he enjoyed batting with two new balls in operation. "I enjoy it actually. When it first came out, I thought scores would go through the roof. What we have seen is that bowlers have adapted pretty well.
England's a good example of how we had to work pretty hard to get through the first 10-15 overs without losing too many wickets. Then if you can reach the back-end, the ball tends to be a bit harder for the batsmen to cash in.”
As an opener himself, Finch said it was quite a challenge to play when two new balls are being used. “I think it’s something that we’ve had to adapt to,” he felt. “I think the end of the innings has become pretty crucial. The two new balls are still very hard, and there’s not much reverse swing in the one-day game now. The balls are still too new. I think that’s why we’re seeing such big scores in one-day cricket.
Obviously, there’s only four (fielders) out, but the balls are still hard at the end of the innings and guys are powerful enough to hit it over the rope consistently now. At the start of the innings it might be a little bit more challenging with a bit more swing every now and then, but I don’t think it’s a huge part of the game now, because the wickets are pretty good and pretty dry,” he said.
That the only two successful 300-plus chases since the four-fielder rule came into effect, have come in this series shows there is some merit in the argument that the bowlers problems are more to do with the nature of pitches than the changed rules.