Are specialist bowlers losing their place in the shorter formats of cricket?
In the aftermath of the Test series involving Sri Lanka and England, England’s head coach stated that he was old school and hence would prefer the best wicket-keeper to be the Test wicket-keeper, irrespective of how good a batsman he might be. England’s Test keeper, Johnny Bairstow, was adjudged the man of the series as he notched up two centuries, but his wicketkeeping saw him put down as many as four chances behind the stumps.
Even though this sired an interesting debate as to whether a good batsman with poor hands behind the stumps should be vested with the responsibility of keeping wickets or the best keeper should keep irrespective of his batting credentials,comparing the past to the present, it won’t be too difficult to discern the paradigm-shift that has taken place in the way wicket-keepers are looked at, which was pioneered by Adam Gilchrist and Kumar Sangakkara who raised the bar prodigiously for wicket-keeping batsmen.
In the contemporary era, exclusive keeping skills cannot take you anywhere beyond the first-class level at the most and it can only be a supplement to your batting skills in your resume as expounded by 5 wicketkeeper batsmen playing in the first ODI between Sri Lanka and England.
Bowling is undergoing what keeping has
A perfunctory scrutiny on the proceedings in the cricket world during and after the World Cup in 2015, makes one wonder whether the bowling too is undergoing a revolution not too dissimilar to what wicketkeeping underwent almost two decades ago.
Numbers aren’t needed to vouch for the fact that the 2015 World Cup was a run fiesta. Though bowlers like Mitchell Starc and Trent Bolt managed to hit the headlines, it was exclusively batsmen who held sway as they piled up double centuries for fun. Since then, it could be observed that the role of a bowler has considerably diminished in the shorter formats.
A decision that Sri Lanka took in their game against England in WT20 could be cited as a moment of epiphany in modern cricket. The struggling islanders decided to shelf one of their bowlers to play an extra batsman, who could bowl.
The logic was that on good batting tracks against hard hitting batsmen even specialist bowlers are more likely to go the distance and hence, by playing a batsman who can bowl, one could increase the probability of chasing down a tall score. The ploy almost paid off as Sri Lanka came millimeters within reaching the target, something that could not have happened had there not been an extra batsman.
If you look further, the West Indies’ victory in the WT20 final was very much due to their long batting line up. They had in their ranks Andre Russell, Dwayne Bravo, and Carlos Brathwaite, all of whom are hard-hitting batsmen who could bowl.
Only Samuel Badree and Sulieman Benn were the specialist bowlers in the side and their positions too would have become gratuitous had it not been for the spinner friendly track.
With a long batting line-up, the West Indies instilled in themselves the ability to chase down any target. After all, when you are going to have your specialist bowler go for nine runs an over, wouldn’t it be better to have an all-rounder in place of him, who wouldn’t do worse with the ball, since it gives you that extra chance with the bat?
England too had a similar lineup, but that was due to their specialist bowlers’ ability to bat in contrast to West Indies banging on their batsmen’s ability to bowl. Come what may, this leads us to the question as to whether exclusive skills with the ball will become redundant in the future. If bowlers are going to hone their skills with the bat as it is the case with England, or if teams are going to rely on their batsmen to win them games as it is the case with the West Indies, are we going to lose specialist bowlers?
Bowlers’ skills have become irrelevant
On flat decks that are neither going to offer any seam movement nor any spin and in conditions where the ball is not going to do much in the air, how relevant would the skills of the bowlers be? Ravichandran Ashwin, in Tests, was at the peak of his skills in the recent past, but all that he could manage during the semi-final match between India and the West Indies on a dead Mumbai pitch was bowling a mere two overs at ten runs per over.
How pertinent were Ashwin’s skills of deceiving batsmen in the air and spinning the ball copiously on that pitch? How long before teams start thinking that they would be better off playing a batsman who would do only a little worse than a specialist bowler, thus strengthening their batting?
It would be erroneous to assume that all specialist bowlers might become sacrificial lambs. Bowlers like Sunil Narine and Mitchell Starc would find themselves a place in the team on any day, but this what makes the lives of other bowlers difficult.
The Australian southpaw has the pace to his credit and Narine, even after his actions going through a plethora of modifications, is still able to possess batsmen with his sorcery. Both of these bowlers have x-factors, a luxury which most of the other bowlers are divested. Hence, orthodox spinners and fast bowlers who bowl slower than 90 mph on flat decks and fast outfields, with heavy bats and shorter boundaries might turn out to be an unnecessary burden on the team.
The extinction is conspicuous
Thus, the seeds for the extinction of specialist bowlers can be seen being sowed. And it is not just cricket becoming lopsided with batsmen ruling the roost that has become a contributory factor. As it is the case with England, with the specialist bowlers taking their batting seriously, the ability with the bat might become the deciding factor in choosing between two equally matched bowlers.
Test quality bowlers like James Anderson, Tim Southee, and Dale Steyn often find themselves left out of shorter formats because orthodox skills have already become irrelevant. It is just a matter of time before the orthodox role of bowlers become gratuitous too.
Sri Lanka has seen it and is already playing 9 batsmen in their lineup. Farveez Maharoof’s ability with the bat has earned him a place at number 8 since a specialist bowler in his position is not going to perform any better with the ball.
Suraj Randiv, despite being a better bowler than Seekkuge Prasanna, has been left out as on flat pitches neither of them is going to be exceptional and hence the logical way forward is to play Prasanna who can at least contribute with the bat.
Whether the cricketing world is going to embrace such a cultural change or whether it is going to challenge it is moot. But there are clear signs that bowlers who cannot bat might not find themselves a place in the shorter formats in the near future. It won’t be a shocker if, in another decade, teams start playing eleven batsmen with five of them having the ability to roll their arm over.