With newer cricketing formats slowly making inroads into mainline cricketing arenas, it’s the middle-order batsmen whose roles seem to have evolved the most. Gone are the more sedate, laidback batsmen, content to take singles and two’s interspersed with a few boundaries while trying to pull the run-rate to a decent tally. The present-day middle-order batsmen are aggressive, coming down the pitch to belt sixes and fours with a regularity that’s not just indicative of upping the run-rate but also of the change in the predictability associated with being a middle-order batsman.
Predictability – the word sums it all. In the past, middle-order batsmen were predictable when they took a few balls, at times even a few overs, to get into the rhythm of their actual game. Middle-order batsmen were predictably customised; these people provided the much-needed stability of staying solidly at the crease, without losing their focus or throwing their game away because bowlers sledged ferociously. These batsmen had a unique style statement of their own. They could cut and drive, making even the most difficult of shots easy and flamboyant, run-and-dive as though their life depended on it and then go for the big shots when the time was appropriate or when things started to get dull. These were the go-to guys, guys who never failed and more than that – players who could never fail. And while the middle-order batsmen of the present generation do indeed provide the stability factor and the much-discussed eloquence their predecessors were known for, their ability do all of these with so small a ‘settling’ window makes their role seem larger than before. Not so unlike a mirage.
Custom-made today’s middle order batsmen might be, but their customisation is not just restricted to them filling the shoes of a past legend. On the contrary, today’s era of middle-order batsmen are required to be adept in all formats of the game. And where in the past selection processes seemed more complicated, choosing the best suited player to play down the batting order – at times, different players for different playing formats – seems to be quite easily achieved today. The concepts of mediocrity and waiting-and-watching a cricketer to evolve with the playing format don’t find a place in present-day cricketing scenario, just as there are no second chances offered or available to the cricketers in case their performance starts to falter and they need time to regroup.
Perhaps this is the biggest difference between the past and the present. Where once cricketing commitments never over-burdened players, making them waver on the fulfilment of their professional obligations, the number of tournaments packed in a year contemporarily, makes cricketers think twice about prioritising the choices available to them. Not in terms of quitting or shirking their professional responsibilities naturally, but in terms of trying to find the right balance between national level EQ-based tournaments and the ones that are important at the highest of levels, internationally. And with so limited a time-gap between various tournaments there seems to be no other prioritising recourse available to them – either they play consistently at all tournaments without complaining or they are sidelined to play where it matters most, till a selector deigns to offer them a passing glance at his convenience.
At the first glance, this ‘entirely black or entirely white’ premise does seem harsh. But then, the thought strikes that if it were not for such stringencies, then the entire team’s qualitative value would suffer. And emotional attachment or not, between the team and the players – for the great good – somehow the former always prevails, no matter how reversed one would like the situation to be.
The larger picture however is that this phenomenon is not just restricted to the middle-order batsmen but is true of each and every cricketer who forms a part of a team, any team in any country or county or franchise for that matter. In the whole imagery of competition and survival-of-the-fittest, it’s the weakest who find themselves letdown by the system.
Weak who once might have been strong or those who might indeed improve with time, if time was plentifully abundant but for whom both options and time run-out even before they could open up horizons.