White Ball Bowlers: An Endangered Species

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News just in: Ben Stokes has been bought for the astonishing figure of $2.16 million USD in the IPL auction. The team that has paid this eye-watering figure, the Rising Pune Silly Nannies, obviously didn’t watch the World T20 final, when poor Ben was absolutely slaughtered by Carlos Brathwaite.

Needing an unlikely 19 off the final over, Stokes’ first four balls disappeared into the stands … 6, 6, 6 and then 6 again. It was an absolutely chastening experience for the Durham all-rounder that basically cost his team the title. One could argue that Brathwaite won the game rather than Stokes losing it – after all, only the first ball of the over was terrible – but the bottom line is that England’s newly appointed vice captain didn’t quite hit the right lengths … and was punished heavily as a result.

Now don’t get me wrong. I really like Stokes as a cricketer. I’m not writing this primarily to criticise him. He’s a multidimensional cricketer who’s also a destructive batsman and an absolutely awesome fielder. He’s also a real fighter who hasn’t show any mental scars after enduring such a public embarrassment. What I’m actually trying to do is make a broader point about the state of modern white ball cricket: there seems to be an acceptance now that T20 (and ODI cricket to a significant extent) are now purely batsmen’s games – and the bowlers are mere cannon fodder.

Pune’s attitude fascinates me. If they’re willing to spend a king’s ransom on a bowler who came up short when it mattered most, they’re effectively shrugging their shoulders and saying “so what … it happens … Brathwaite was brilliant and there’s not a lot a bowler can do when a batsmen is on fire”.

I personally think such a mindset would’ve been incredible ten or twenty years ago. Death bowling was a real art. But where have all the top-drawer finishers gone? Only Lasith Malinga, with his bizarre trajectory that must’ve been a nightmare to pick up, really stands out in modern times. I can’t think of anyone else who has produced the goods consistently over a long period of time.

One reason for this is that bowlers have no margin for error whatsoever anymore. Whereas yorkers were usually a safe bet at the end of an innings, it’s now incredibly difficult to get six deliveries in a row in exactly the right spot. Why? Because ‘the right spot’ is a much smaller spot than it used to be. Modern batsmen use the crease so well, and now have an array of ramp shots and scoops in their armoury, that pinpoint accuracy is everything. It’s a bit like trying to flick a penny into your mate’s pint from 22 yards away.

Many bowlers have consequently concluded that the risk:reward ratio with yorkers no longer adds up: unless a yorker is absolutely spot on, it’s a particularly easy delivery for batsmen to get under and hit for six. Therefore they’d rather try something else with a greater percentage chance of success. This usually involves either varying their pace, varying their lengths, or preferably both. Why else would coaches come up with such an ostensibly ridiculous concept as ‘the slower ball bouncer’?!

As bats get heavier, boundaries shrink, and batsmen become more powerful and innovative, bowlers now have nowhere to hide. Sometimes a bowler’s best bet is simply to hold their nerve, keep the batsmen guessing, and give nothing away. In effect, white ball cricket has become something of a guessing game. And if the batsman guesses right, there’s not much a bowler can do.

I’d be intrigued to know what you all think about the current stage of limited overs cricket. Are bowlers now an endangered species – nothing more than bowling machines for range hitters to dismantle at their leisure – or do you think there are ways bowlers can innovate too? Or perhaps you simply think that the current crop of professional batsmen are particularly good and the current crop of bowlers are unusually poor?

I have to say, however, that I am actually quite concerned. The authorities might think that high scoring games make cricket more compelling, and will attract larger audiences, but personally I’m not so sure. Surely what people want to see is an even contest between bat and ball? This is what creates the most tension and drama.

What’s more, if sixes become more and more common then surely they’ll become less and less special? And where on earth does cricket go from there – award a team eight runs if they can hit the ball into the stadium’s top tier? I’m obviously being a tad facetious here but the ICC (and MCC) will have to do something to ramp up the drama if every other delivery starts sailing out of the park. After all, it is possible have too much of a good thing.

And what about our poor bowlers? What incentive will kids have to be the next Jimmy Anderson or Graeme Swann if even mishit shots are going the distance – like they frequently do these days. Totals could get higher exponentially if the quality of emerging bowlers diminishes.

James Morgan

PS Thanks to Feedspot for naming us the 13th best cricket site in their top 60 rankings. We’re nestled somewhere between Island Cricket and The Cricket Paper. I promise I didn’t bribe them … although I have subsequently agreed to link to their site. Apparently we’re now the 1,970,762nd most visited website in the entire world according to Alexa. I’ll let you know when we break that magic top one million 😉

25 Comments

  1. I think that there was a point when the bowlers seemed to gain the upper hand, and par scores seemed to come down towards 150 for a while, before climbing up towards 180. ( I can’t find any stats on this)

    Things will no doubt swing round again.

  2. Definitely think we need some new stats on bowlers, economy rate just doesn’t mean anything when some games are 140 par score and others are 200. Its not perfect but I would be interested in the economy rate – the match rate. Obviously the overs bowled makes a difference, death overs will be more expensive than middle orders but think its still an improvement.

    Did anyone see Fleming’s reaction to the Ben Stokes signing? Didn’t look pleased to spend that amount. As much as I rate Stokes it can’t have made sense from a Money ball point of view.

    Glad Bairstow wasn’t signed not just as a Yorkshire fan but I think there will be enough drinks carrying at the CT without adding extra at the IPL being the 4th Keeper and spare batsmen

  3. 4 changes would redress the balance between bat and ball without affecting the entertainment of T20 cricket;

    Limit bat weight to 2lb 8oz. Using a 3lb to 3lb 8oz bat, with the ultra drying of the willow for T20 bats, means even a mishit will go for 6.

    Require a minimum water content of 10% in bats.

    Require a minimum boundary of 60 metres (and if this means some grounds cannot be used…..tough).

    Institute random drug testing of 2-3 players in every T20 game except pure domestic (and there should be testing there); testing to be carried out by an international body, not the domestic drug authority.

    One other change would help but will never happen. Ban helmets and balls over shoulder height. This would see who has the guts to play a ramp shot without being protected like an American footballer.

  4. “Surely what people want to see is an even contest between bat and ball? This is what creates the most tension and drama”.

    I want to see variety more than an even contest (whatever that is). I don’t mind some Jo’burg style run gluts but all the time just becomes dull. Cricinfo’s report about ECB plans to use artificial pitches for the new domestic T20 tournament shows alas where their thinking is heading.

    • That section you’ve quoted – i think that’s written from a Test cricket fan’s perspective. Part of the seeking point of T20 we’re told is that it brings new, younger, audiences to cricket. I’m not sure how many of those fans do want to see a contest between bat and ball rather than their team scoring more runs than the other team.
      Also not sure how anyone raised on T20 would view their first Test match. It’s a different “product” aimed at a different market. Sadly.

  5. Does anyone use a 3lb+ bat nowadays? I thought those things went out with all-button down shirts. No-one has used one since Graham Gooch.

    • As mentioned Gayle uses one over 3lb. Tendulkar used to use a 3lb 5oz(!) bat in tests, never mind T20. Dhoni uses one a few grams short of 3lb. Pollard uses a 2lb 12oz. This is why I suggested an upper limit of 2lb 8oz. You should remember that although players such as Clive Lloyd and Lance Klusener used even heavier bats in the past, it was before ultra drying of the willow, which will make todays lighter bat hit further than yesterdays heavier bat.

      • The fashion is to use heavy bats with a light pick up. I guess technology makes this possible now. My 2lb 8 bat looks like a matchstick compared to most new bats these days.

        • I would also go for a maximum thickness.

          Somebody may correct me but I was under the impression that bats weren’t pressed as many times now so there’s more ‘spring’ in them which makes the ball go further.

          It would be interesting to see how the modern cricketer fared with my old DF Magnum.

          Would be interesting to hear what TFT readers’ favourite bats were. Mine between the aforementioned DF Magnum and GN powerspot.

          • You can find about 20 videos on YouTube of this exact question. The and is that the ball flies just as far I’ve the stands, because it’s the batsman that hit the sixes, not the bat.

            I’ve experienced this myself. Hit a few sixes, and everyone accused you of having a huge, expensive modern bat. When I told them it was a £20 bat from sports direct they didn’t believe me.

            If you swing hard and get under the ball, it will carry 50 years easily. The bat is irrelevant. The difference is, batsmen simply didn’t use to try to do it, now they do, and the cat will never go back in the bag

          • I still have my original DF Magnum. The first bat I scored a century with. It’s no good now (big crack) but I keep it as a souvenir. Definitely my favourite bat of all time 🙂

        • The only way you can have a heavy bat with a light pick up is to put all the wood in the splice. Which would be patently absurd.

  6. Norman Dugdale on

    Cricket balls were always made of red stained leather that could be polished to give a bowler some help in trying to move it in the air. One day or T/20 cricket balls are painted, cannot be polished and hardly move in the air! Making batting (smashing) so much easier. Anyway, unless supporters are into and understand Test Cricket, they will not be wanting to see a ‘fair contest between bat and ball’ because their mentality wants nothing but ‘maximums’ and a few beers!

  7. I’d suggest that Joel Garner’s economy rate in ODI’s (3.09) is probably as far out of the reach of modern bowlers as Bradman’s batting average is to everyone (even Virat Kohli). Talking of great West Indian bowlers, have you seen Michael Holding asked if he ever bowled a slower bouncer? “No”, with a “look”. In answer to your question on bowling standards, I’d say the 1970’s and early 1980’s were a golden age of genuine fast bowling (Lillee, Thomson, Roberts, Holding, Garner, Croft, Marshall, Imran). Very few these days come close in terms of speed.
    There’s no doubt, I think, that the current obsession with T20 means cricket will stay a batsman’s game, but maybe the bowler can get some latitude on wides, particularly if the batsman is moving around. Secondly, as Norman says, get a properly made ball, that will swing.
    Is part of this, though, the workload on the modern player? No one would have expected Thommo to last a modern player’s schedule, and bowlers may believe that sheer speed (and the effort to produce it) doesn’t have an upside, so bowl within themselves.

    • I am not so sure of past players not lasting a modern schedule. I checked a couple of (what I think) are comparable bowlers – Jimmy Anderson and John Snow. Allowing 5 days per test/ 3 days per FC other than test and one day each for ODI, List A and T20 it seems Anderson has played 1144 days of cricket in 15 seasons whilst Snow played 1318 days in 16 ( a few days were after his 16th season, but only a few). I recall (as a teenager) Snow being consistently fit and hardly ever throttling back his pace (not his way). I also saw him play for Old England when he was in his late 50s and his action had not changed (and Geoff Humpage was still standing well back to him).

      I accept there was less travel and more winter breaks in the past, but they also had much less medical support. It seems to me that the ability to last the schedule depends more on a bowlers action and natural resilience.

      • You’re right. My creaking memory recalls that bowlers like Trueman bowled a huge number of overs per season in the days when 100 wickets was the norm for the top guys. That was at the time when they bowled for their counties in between tests.

        As for standards, we’re frequently bemoaning the lack of spinners in England and very few top fast bowlers. I’ve always been puzzled why it is that a professional bowler does often have difficulty pitching the ball in the right place. These are guys who are 100 times better than you or I, who are entitled to get it wrong now and then. I understand that Malinga’s success is down to him practising a lot – placing a boot on the yorker length and aiming at it. Maybe there’s a message.

    • Were they faster or is it down to the protection the batsmen now have? Lee and Akhtar pushed the speed gun up to c100mph and not sure any of the greats of the 70s were quicker than that.

  8. It’s easy to forget that Stokes bowled the last over in the 2 previous matches at the World T20 against SL & NZ and did a great job – particularly vs SL when Matthews was on 60 odd and they needed maybe 12 to 15.

    I think if he bowled exactly the same over again, Braithwaite would get the runs 1 out of 15 times. It was a case of Stokes being slightly off and it being WI’s day.

    Still think it’s a lot of money. Would have thought Roy/Buttler would be the most sought after English playerdictionary.

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