Bowlers under the cosh in ODIs

Bowlers under the cosh in ODIs

Bowlers under the cosh in ODIs

While on the one hand there is an emphasis to protect the primacy of cricket’s most enduring format, Test matches, the administrators can’t seem to have enough of T20s, the game’s youngest and most robust product. Stuck between these two, the 50-over format appears to be facing an existential dilemma.

Notwithstanding the unqualified success of the 2011 World Cup in India and the Champions Trophy in England in 2013, both incidentally won by India, one-day internationals are increasingly being deserted by fans. While the popularity of the Indian Premier League needs no authentication, the Big Bash League, Australia’s equivalent of the IPL, is progressively catching the imagination of the fans too.

That 52,633 flocked Adelaide Oval to witness the BBL semifinal between Adelaide Strikers and Sidney Sixers on January 24 amply reflected the changing face of the game. The contrast can’t be starker when compared with the crowd attendance of around 25,000 for the tri-series ODI between India and Australia on Australia Day on Monday.  

The reality isn’t lost on the International Cricket Council and in its effort to keep the format relevant, it has periodically come up with innovations and rule changes -- from Super-subs to power plays to free hits for no-balls to ball change after 34 overs to the current only-four-fielders-outside-the-circle during non power-play phase and two new balls per innings. But most of these changes are heavily loaded against the bowlers.

The bats have become bigger and better, the boundaries are increasingly getting shorter while pitches have become more batsmen-friendly. Only degrees may vary but it’s a universal phenomenon. To their credit, bowlers have tried to develop new skills to negate the batsmen’s advantage by inventing slower balls, slower bouncers, wide yorkers and such. But there is only so much they can do.    

The latest rule that came into effect in October 2012, making it mandatory for a bowling side to place five fielders inside the circle, hasn’t gone down well with many sides. Since the introduction of this rule, captains have found it difficult to contain the batsmen while spinners have been rendered mostly ineffective, particularly on pitches where there isn’t much turn on offer.    

Take the case of India. Between April 2011 after the World Cup and September 2012, India had conceded 300-plus totals on only two occasions in 36 matches. Post the rule change, as many as 13 times the opposition sides have scored 300 or more in 62 matches, which is an increase of 15 per cent. The rule has hit India the hardest as they have been forced to shun their tried and tested method of playing seven batsmen and four bowlers while using their part-timers to complete the other 10 overs. However, with five fielders stationed inside the circle, it becomes essential to play with five specialist bowlers, especially in a place like Australia where big grounds open up a lot of gaps.

Dhoni, who thought it better to have bowling machines instead of bowlers during Australia’s ODI tour of India in 2013 when totals of 300 were chased down nonchalantly, felt the situation could be interesting Down Under. While having only four fielders on the line is tough, the two new balls will swing longer than they would otherwise. On the flip side, though, there won’t be much of reverse swing while spinners will find it difficult to turn the ball.      

Under the circumstances, teams have been compelled to shut one side of the ground completely and encourage the batsmen to take risks in a bid to get wickets to stem the flow of runs. “So far that’s what it seems like,” MS Dhoni noted when asked if that’s the way forward. “On big outfields, that is definitely one of the better options to do so that you are pushing the batsman to clear the big boundary. And also, you push the batsman to play on the side where not many fielders are around which means he will have to take slightly more risk. Again, the execution will be the key factor. It is important to plan out, that’s something that we definitely are doing.”

Australian skipper George Bailey felt that while the four-fielder rule was tough on the bowlers, the two new balls sort of balanced things out. "I think with four fielders out and two new balls being used in Australia can go both ways,” he pointed out. “It rewards teams and captains who are aggressive in their hunt for wickets and I think it rewards batting sides who are able to build big partnerships and score hundreds at the top of the order,” he explained.
With Dhoni showing the willingness to experiment with seaming all-rounder Stuart Binny, India would hope to strike the right balance.