My Two Hundred Dinars: It’s a Batsman’s Game (unfortunately)…

Posted on July 29, 2014

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On the first day of the third test between England and India, currently taking place at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton, Pankaj Singh was bowling to Gary Ballance. A sign of the new dawn that is slowly taking over international cricket, Ballance is playing in only his sixth test match. Pankaj is on debut, and was unlucky not to take the wicket of England captain Alastair Cook early on, a wicket that would have increased the pressure on the beleaguered captain’s shoulders. As it was, the edge was shelled, and Cook went on to make a 95 that will allow him to breath a little easier.

Pankaj was bowling to Ballance, and the Indian debutante’s bad luck continued as he got one to move away from the Zimbabwean-born left hander, who could only produce a thick edge that flew over the infield and landed safely. The commentators at the time, former England captain and opening batsman Andrew Strauss and former West Indian fast bowler Michael Holding, segued into a short discussion about the size of bats in the modern game. Holding argued that because of the enlarged bat sizes seen today, the concept of an ‘edge’ no longer exists as it used to. This delivery to Ballance 20 years ago would have produced a genuine edge, bringing the slips into play and creating a chance, as opposed to creating runs from a false shot. Strauss countered with an often heard argument in cricket (especially with the advent of Twenty20 cricket), that sport is entertainment and that the paying public want to see runs scored. He also mentioned that the increased size of the bats now lead to what we know as edges producing more chances in the outfield, but it was the ‘people want to see runs’ argument that pricked my interest.

It really has been the claim for a long time now. The first exposure I had to it was the 1996 World Cup in the sub continent, as fielding restrictions in the first 15 overs made for some lightning starts, most memorably from the Sri Lankan pair of Sanath Jayasuriya and Roman Kaluwitharana (although looking back, it was mostly Jayasuriya). The game seemed to be skewed in favour of batsmen, and things have only gotten better for those holding the willow since. Field restrictions grew and grew, boundaries have been shortened dramatically and, as said, the bats are now so big that you don’t really need to time the ball particularly well and it’ll go flying over the ropes for six. Twenty20, with its almost-psychotic obsession with runs runs runs, is a perfect picture of that. The people want runs? We’ll give ’em runs!

But do they? Whilst sport may fall under the entertainment bracket in 2014, it is still sport first and foremost. Cricket is a unique sport because of the many formats in which it is played, something which has created differing spectator demographics through the three. Look at your average crowd at a T20 and it’ll lean in favour of youth. A 5 day test match will still be attended mostly by adults and up, although some of these will still be groups of drunks in fancy dress. The money from the sport gets poured into T20, and not a year goes by without long discussions about how to make test matches relevant, whether test match cricket is dying or not. Contradictorily, test match cricket is still considered the pinnacle of the sport, and nothing is more dangerous to the appeal of test match cricket than a run-fest.

Ironically, this is also something that pundits crow on about. On one hand, they will say that runs bring in crowds. This is then followed by analysis of such games as the first test in this series, where 1,344 runs were scored over the five days for the loss of 29 wickets, and no result in sight, which was deemed bad for cricket. A test match where the team batting first scores 450+, followed by the team batting second doing the same, followed by a third innings of 300+ before running out of time is a test that is all about run scoring, and makes for utterly turgid viewing. In fact, the most exciting games of cricket are often the opposite. When wickets fall quickly, things get exciting.

One thing that all cricket fans will acknowledge regarding the sport is that not much really happens, especially when a team is piling on the runs. Boundaries are good and all, but there’s only so long you can watch the same two players spanking around an increasingly tired bowling attack before it gets too much. A wicket falling is always the most exciting part of an innings. Sure, as someone for whom bowling was their stronger suit it might be a bias, but I also believe it to be true. Entertainment isn’t constant run-scoring, entertainment is wickets.

I’m not saying that test matches should involve both sides being bowled around for around 150 and the game lasting three days. My general point, and as usual I haven’t exactly done well in getting to it, is that runs don’t equal entertainment. Like all sport, what entertains people is the contest. If both teams are piling up the runs, why should anyone care? The England/Sri Lanka series at the beginning of the summer was fantastic test cricket, the second test in particular. In this match, almost as many runs were scored as in the first England/India test, the only difference being that wickets fell consistently as well, making for a good contest between bat and ball that went down to the very last ball of the game. A more extreme example would be the match between South Africa and Sri Lanka that concluded yesterday. On the final day, South Africa scored only 121 runs in 94 over, for the loss of seven wickets. Fielders surrounded the batsman, every single ball looked like it might produce something, an edge, a catch, anything. More often than not it didn’t, but it was the chance of something that kept the interest levels high. It was riveting stuff, as team survival took precedence over individual records.

Test Cricket is unique. An even contest allows for five days of tension building, culminating in a last day that can see either a side scratching their way to survival or slowly moving towards a seemingly improbably victory target. In many ways, it is a sport that excels in the imagination, where the feeling that something might happen takes precedence over anything happening. As bats get bigger, pitches get flatter and runs continue to dominate wickets, this special standing could be lost. Give me five days of survival over five days of Ian Bell cover drives any day of the week.

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