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By Suresh Menon
In the Adam Sandler movie Blended, an American boy who can’t get his baseball swing right plays the great fast bowler Dale Steyn. Egged on by Sandler, the boy swings Steyn out of the park, rather in the manner of even ordinary batsmen who have treated Steyn thus in the IPL.
Sure, this was a movie, Steyn was playing a character, Sandler and friends were on holiday in South Africa, and anyway Hollywood doesn’t do cricket well. Still, this was too close for comfort. One of the most depressing sights at the IPL is the contemporary great being treated like a journeyman by batsmen fully aware the ball will not do much, the pitch is a batting beauty, the boundaries are short and mishits can carry for six.
In the final of the IPL, the decisive ball in the penultimate over was bowled by Mitchell Johnson, who only recently had caused an established international batsman to return home shattered in the middle of an Ashes series. Johnson bowled short and the leg spinner Piyush Chawla struck him over midwicket for six. It was a poor delivery, but considering this was a batsman at number eight, it put the bat-ball balance or lack of it in perspective.
Sunil Gavaskar has said that he would push for larger boundaries in the IPL, a tournament which seems to be based on the premise that spectators come to see sixes and nothing else. This over-sixed tournament has to work harder at - even if artificially - giving the bowlers a chance if it is not to be viewed as cricket porn.
Certainly in the seven years that the IPL has been played, skill levels have gone up. Batsmen worked out early that getting their front foot out of the way aids the free flowing swing that sends the ball into the crowds. Fielding has been spectacular. In the final, George Bailey dropped a catch off Manish Pandey that was more stunning than some actually taken.
First he leaped at cover and managed to get his right hand to the ball. Then he half-turned as the ball was dropping to just get a left hand to it. Finally he swiveled around quickly enough to throw both hands at the ball which fell just out of reach. To be able to get three bites at the cherry like that requires amazing fitness and ball sense.
Bowlers have been seen as the labourers of the game; the ones who do all the dirty work while the aristocrat batsmen earn such epithets as “effortless” for their style. Unlike in Tests, where the bowlers have to take twenty wickets to win, in limited over formats it is the batsmen who win games.
If Twenty20 cricket is not to be drowned in its own apparent “spectator-worthiness”, bowlers will have to be given some artificial aid. The thinking will have to be out of the box: reduce the length of the pitch, add an extra stump, allow a leg before to a ball pitched outside the leg stump, allow the fielding side one or two extra fielders. All these sound excessive and drastic. And in any case, the spectators are not complaining that there are too many sixes being hit. Yet, in the long run, you can have too much of a good thing. One good custom, as the poet pointed out, can corrupt the world.
Would spectators fill the stadiums for a tournament where the highest score by a team is under 100 but invariably at least 15 wickets fall during a match? Would you rather watch a great bowler struggling rather than a great batsman looking out of sorts? Cricket, most fans will tell you, is a batsman’s game.
If things are allowed to continue untouched, will matches become essentially absurd? Already a score of over 200 – and a chase to top that – hardly surprises. There is no “safe” score in Twenty20, as the Kolkata Knight Riders demonstrated on Sunday. In another couple of years, will the bar be raised to 250, then 300? Do you really want to see scores of over 300 regularly in a Twenty20 game?
You might as well remove the bowlers and have bowling machines do the job instead.