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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Steyn spot on - Cricket chiefs must act to make fight between bat and ball more fair

South Africa bowler Dale Steyn right to question if fielding teams push limits of rules, and beyond, to make up for being at disadvantage with some laws

Dale Steyn believes recent cases of cheating in cricket could have been driven by the perceived imbalance in favour of batsmen with modern rules in the game. Reuters
Dale Steyn believes recent cases of cheating in cricket could have been driven by the perceived imbalance in favour of batsmen with modern rules in the game. Reuters

Bowlers have always had the wrong end of the stump. The job that no one wanted.

All innovations over the last century from the helmet to the bouncer rule have conspired to favour the batsman. In fifty-fifty decisions, the batsman enjoys the benefit of the doubt. What's harder? To hit a ball? Or to make someone else miss one?

When the game was introduced to the colonies two centuries ago, the fat masters batted all day, while the emaciated slaves bowled. At charity amusements, the lady folk were relegated to bowling, their impractical hoop dresses leading to the invention of the over-arm action.

Centuries later, bowling still remains a thankless job. But thanks to a few it may also have become something of an art.

– Excerpt from Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, by Shehan Karunatilaka.

It is unlikely that towards the end of that excerpt, Karunatilaka was talking specifically about Dale Steyn.

But Steyn, a modern example of someone who has elevated bowling to an art form, echoed the Sri Lankan novelist's thoughts earlier this week when he spoke about the urgent need to redress the imbalance between bat and ball in cricket.

Interestingly, the South Africa paceman cited the two cases of 'ball tampering' to have rocked the sport this year as symptoms of the problem.

"It's obviously not on," Steyn said during an interview, referring to separate actions by three Australia cricketers and a Sri Lanka captain. "But if you think about it, it's almost like a cry for help."

There is much in favour of batsmen these days, the 35-year-old cricketer said, leading possibly to a temptation for bowling sides to cheat.

"Fields are small, two new balls, powerplays, bats have got bigger than they used to be, the list can go on," Steyn lamented. "You bowl a 'no ball' and it's a free hit. But I have never seen a rule change that favours the bowler."

Shehan Karunatilaka peppers his book of fiction with interesting facts and insights into the game. Agency
Shehan Karunatilaka peppers his book of fiction with interesting facts and insights into the game. Agency

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Read more

Tearful Steve Smith apologises for 'big mistake' over Australia's ball-tampering scandal

Graham Caygill: ICC must let umpires dish out yellow and red cards for all situations

Chitrabhanu Kadalayil: Win-at-all-costs mentality driven by player power and nationalism

After Dinesh Chandimal punishment, Sri Lanka Cricket seeks 'clear rules' on ball tampering

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There aren't many contemporary players better equipped than Steyn to comment about the state of the sport. And by connecting the issue of imbalance with ball tampering, the man with 659 wickets from 246 international appearances in a career spanning nearly 15 years may be on to something.

For sure, it is an assertion that can be argued both ways.

Tampering is a form of cheating which involves using unnatural means to alter the condition of a ball so that it swings more violently than usual in the air, thus making it more challenging for a batsman to face it. It usually arises from the bowler or fielding team's desperate need to take wickets or to stem the run flow, especially when the opposition is batting well or if the pitch is flat.

A case in point is the first instance of alleged tampering to have gained the media's attention.

During their tour of India in 1977, England seamer John Lever was found to have worn gauze tape smeared with petroleum jelly across his forehead, purportedly "a means of stopping sweat from running into his eyes".

Lever, who swung the ball prodigiously to take 10 wickets in the Calcutta Test, got into trouble for allegedly smearing the greasy substance on to the ball's surface.

Why, according to those who charged him, would he have felt the need to alter the condition of the ball? Presumably because the Indian pitches were not conducive to his style of bowling. Lever was eventually cleared of wrongdoing, but more legitimate cases have come to light ever since.

Whether tampering is indeed a symptom of the imbalance between bat and ball, or not, Karunatilaka is right to point out that cricket is an unequal sport. But he is not entirely accurate to surmise that all innovations over the past century have favoured the batsmen.

Former Australia captain Steve Smith, left, and David Warner were both banned for a year following Australia's ball-tampering scandal. AFP
Former Australia captain Steve Smith, left, and David Warner were both banned for a year following Australia's ball-tampering scandal. AFP

After all, the history of cricket is littered with examples of inventions bowlers came up with to challenge batsmen – some legal, others illegal – ranging from England's controversial 'Bodyline' tactics against Australia in the 1930s, to Pakistan's introduction of 'reverse swing' nearly half a century later.

The 'googly', the 'doosra', the 'carom ball' – even 'chucking' – are innovations.

At the same time, batting has evolved in only some ways – the kinds of shots being hit by modern-day batsmen are truly spectacular – but it has regressed in most other aspects.

Statisticians are likely to attribute the troubling trend of low scores in recent Test matches to a lack of patience or staying power, and often poor technique, on the part of batsmen increasingly used to playing Twenty20 cricket.

That much has been done to keep chucking in check, for instance, confirms Steyn’s point that the deck has been stacked against the bowlers, a reason why cricket continues to be a batsman’s sport.

And given that – as a consequence of it – cricket has become a slug-fest, something needs to be done to reduce the inequality.

Sachin Tendulkar suggested reverting to the use of one ball for the full 50 overs of a team's innings in one-day internationals from the mandatory two. The hope is that the older the ball gets, the harder it is to hit it.

There has also been some regulation with regard to the size of bats being used, which should at least result in fewer sixes coming off the edges.

More can be done, of course, such as switching back to bigger fields and ensuring that curators prepare pitches that give bowlers something to work with.

Perhaps new laws can be introduced to give bowlers more leverage, such as permitting two bouncers per over – as opposed to just the one. The distasteful 'free hit', which doubles up as a punitive measure and a means to entertain, can surely be done away with.

That said, rule changes throw up two problems.

Firstly, the reason regulations favouring batsmen were implemented in the first place was because people liked, and continue to like, watching fours and sixes being hit. It is the sign of the times that spectators want to see as much awe-inspiring action in as little time as possible.

Also, there is no guarantee that levelling the playing field will deter bowlers or their captains from trying to cheat.

If a pitcher-dominated sport such as baseball can have its fair share of tampering controversies (called spitballs), it is unrealistic to expect cricket's powers that be to eradicate this problem altogether.

And it is not as if only bowlers cheat. Batsmen do, too (remember Dennis Lillee’s aluminium bat?). A sad fact of life is that there is bound to be some corruption in the face of competition.

Nonetheless, it is a good thing that high-profile players such as Steyn are speaking up. Acknowledging that there is a problem and suggesting solutions are both steps in the right direction.