The changing face of ODIs
If the daring 350 plus run chases at Jaipur and Nagpur defied conventions, the final ODI in Bangalore was straight out of fantasy of a modern day batsman. Rohit Sharma and Mahendra Singh Dhoni went on a rampage in the death overs to propel India to a massive 383/6 and despite loosing wickets at regular intervals the Australian lower order managed to raise hopes of overhauling the seemingly impossible target.
While the purists, who crave for a fair contest between the bat and ball, might consider this lack of balance as improper, even vulgar, there is no denying the fact that the 50 over version of the game is going through a transformation. As bats get heavier and pitches get flatter around the world tall scores have become the order of the day and 300 has become the new par score.
So what has caused this transformation?
The bowlers have been rightly chastised for the inability to execute plans on a consistent basis. Also the pundits have identified the new fielding rules, which allow just four men as boundary riders, and the use of two new balls, which takes reverse swing out of the equation and assists the big hits in the end overs, as the two main determinants that compound the problem.
However, to attribute the glut of runs to just the external factors would be to undermine the super efforts of the batsmen. The changes in the rules have no doubt made life easy for the batsmen, especially in the subcontinental conditions, but what stood out in the recent series was the changing mindset of the batsmen.
Raised on a sumptuous meal of twenty20 cricket no target is out of reach of the willow wielders. Even required rates of even 10 or 12 an over in the closing stages don’t seem daunting anymore as the modern day batsmen unleash their stroke-play with a distinct streak of fearlessness.
Earlier there used to be designated hitters or sloggers whose job was to push the scoring rate but thanks to the exposure to the shortest form of the game almost all the batsmen of major teams have the ability to up the ante when required.
Contrary to the popular belief, tall scores isn’t just about hitting fours and sixes. Apart from the ability to summon the big hits at will there is also a need for meticulous planning to be able to sustain a high run-rate over three and a half hour period.
After his record breaking knock Rohit Sharma spoke about the importance of staying at the wicket till the end and forming partnerships during the course of the innings. That gives an insight into how the batsmen plan their path and wait for the opportune moment to cash in. Instead of looking to maximize the scoring in the power-play overs and run the risk of loosing wickets in the bargain teams now focus on building a solid platform from which a strong and effective counter-attack can be launched in the death overs.
In the Indian innings in the Bangalore ODI Sharma and Dhoni managed just 22 runs in the batting power-play, a measly period of play considering the eventual total that India posted. The emphasis was on preserving wickets and the decision was vindicated as the duo plundered a scarcely believable 116 in the final 6 overs.
The attacking mentality of the batsmen has ensured that even during the rebuilding phase batsmen look to score at a fair clip and don’t allow the innings to stagnate.
In the third ODI at Mohali India found themselves on the back foot at 76/4 and the need of the hour was to reign in the big shots and ensure safety. Virat Kohli, the set batsman on the crease, not only forged a solid partnership with Dhoni but also scored at nearly run a ball. This ensured that the scoreboard kept ticking and allowed India to reach a position from where they could push the total past 300.
Similarly in the following match at Ranchi, Australian skipper George Bailey and Glen Maxwell shared a 153 run partnership off just 136 balls while ‘resurrecting’ the innings from 71/4.
The limited overs version of the game has undergone a sea of changes since its inception and often it is the batsmen who have pushed the envelope. In the early 90s Dean Jones showed the importance of singles and New Zealand utilized Mark Greatbach as a pinch hitter to telling effect before the Sri Lankan pair of Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana revolutionized the way batting was approached in the power-play overs.
The bowlers, on the other hand, have been a tribe of great survivors by being able to react to adverse situations and come up with adjustments of their own to keep their validity intact.
Each of the innovations thrilled the viewers and was seen a a step in the positive direction for the game. Even the obscene amount of runs in the recent series was cheered lustily by the crowds though the skewed balance has left the custodians of the game in a fix. A decision to rollback the rules might bring some sanity back but the big scores are here to stay.
The bowlers will, once again, have to adapt themselves in the changing scenario to avoid being reduced to just props in limited overs cricket.