Proposing a rule change to help the ignored species - Spinners
On 18th January, India kicked off their 2015 World Cup preparations with their first match of the Tri-Series against Australia at the MCG. As has been the case throughout the Australian summer, India’s batsman put up a respectable score, 267, on the board and our bowlers were letting it slip once again. So halfway through the second innings, I tuned into Channel 9’s commentary (mostly former Australian cricketers) to hear a different perspective on the game.
10 overs later, the batting powerplay began and David Lloyd (former England cricketer and coach) was on commentary discussing how difficult it is to explain the powerplays to people who are unfamiliar with cricket. He was right. We have a mandatory powerplay during the first 10 overs of an innings and then 5 overs of batting powerplay to be mandatorily taken between overs 16-40. Now, you can imagine the number of questions which would pop-up in the minds of people unacquainted with cricket.
The evolution of powerplays
However, I’ve been following cricket for more than 18 years now and it set me thinking in a totally different direction. Why do we have the first 10 overs of an ODI innings as a mandatory powerplay with field restrictions? Let us go back into the history of cricket to find out how the rules have evolved over time.
Starting with the 1992 cricket world cup; the fielding-circle rules were refined, allowing only two men outside the 30 yard circle in the first 15 overs; after the first 15 it was as before: a minimum of four inside the circle. However, this rule often meant that there were extremely dull phases during the middle overs (16-40) of an ODI innings where batsmen just milked the bowling for singles or twos without much excitement for cricket fans.
This rule continued till 2005 when the ICC decided to introduce powerplays for the first time. Thus, the fielding restrictions were split into three blocks: the mandatory 10 overs at the start of the innings and two further 5 over Powerplays with the bowling team choosing the timing of both. Even with this rule change, most bowling teams often took the two blocks of bowling powerplays immediately after the mandatory 10 overs of restrictions, effectively leading to a single block of 20 overs of fielding restrictions.
Hence, in 2008, the ICC further tweaked this rule and gave the batting team the option to choose one of the two blocks of 5 overs of powerplay – commonly known as the batting powerplay. The batting powerplay was often taken by the batting teams in the last 5 overs of the innings which still led to boring mid-innings phases during overs 16-40. In October 2011, the ICC made additional changes to the rule such that neither the batting nor the bowling powerplays can be chosen during overs (11-15 and 41-50).
The last major change to this rule came in October 2012 where the number of powerplay blocks were reduced to two; the first occurs during the first 10 overs of an innings, restricting the team to two fielders outside the 30-yard circle. The second block, the batting powerplay with a restriction of three fielders outside the circle, must occur by the 40th over. The number of fielders outside the 30-yard circle in non-Powerplay overs has also been reduced to four (from five).
I think you can now imagine what David Lloyd meant on commentary about explaining all these rules and frequent changes to people unfamiliar with cricket. Anyway, I’m sure you’d be getting as impatient reading this as I’m writing about all these rule changes over the last few years. So let me come back to my original question.
Getting rid of the mandatory first 10-over powerplay
If you’ve been intently reading the rule changes highlighted above, you’d have noticed that the first 10 overs of an ODI innings has always had fielding restrictions enforced for the batting team to take advantage of. Through the past two decades of ODI cricket, this is one thing that has remained a constant and I would like to question why? The first thing that comes to my mind is that it allows batsmen to take advantage of the hard new ball with the fielders inside the circle and get value for their shots.
The other balancing argument is that fast bowlers can swing/seam the hard new ball and look to take early wickets with attacking fields. But what about teams who’s main bowling strength lies with their spinners? Either they have to hope that their fast bowlers don’t get taken to the cleaners in their first spells or their spinners have the unenviable task of bowling with the hard new ball?
Both these things give an unfair advantage to the opponents of such teams as the poor quality of their fast bowlers allows the opposition to score quickly early in the innings or the spinners aren’t at their most effective with the hard new ball.
Therefore, leaving aside the existing batting powerplay I propose that the mandatory first 10 overs of powerplay in an ODI innings be changed into two blocks of bowling powerplays of 5 overs each, with the bowling team choosing the timing of both (but before over 41). This would provide an equal opportunity for both batting and bowling teams to strategize and make optimum use of the powerplay overs for the benefit of their team.
The spinners have been ignored far too long
Think about this – currently, in most match situations only top notch fast bowlers like Dale Steyn or Mitchell Johnson get to bowl their quota of overs during the mandatory first 10 overs of powerplay and then again in the batting powerplay? Why shouldn’t a team get the opportunity to bowl their best spinners, a Saeed Ajmal, a Sunil Narine or Rangana Herath, during 10 overs of bowling powerplay (eg:- overs 16-25) and then again during the batting powerplay?
As discussed earlier, most spinners struggle to spin the ball in the first 10 overs and bowl negative lines only looking to contain runs. As we are all noticing around the world, there is a huge dearth of quality spin bowlers and I don’t believe this would get any better with the amount of T20s currently being played. However, a small rule change could bring quality spinners at the forefront of ODIs again and this should even the playing field for all cricket playing nations with different bowling strengths.
A new ruling like this would open up so many different strategies and tactics which teams can and will be forced to adopt. Given how most pitches in Asia behave, most sub-continental teams would be reluctant to take the bowling powerplay during the first 10 overs of an innings. It would make other countries think about ways to score quickly early in the innings and they would probably take the batting powerplay within the first 10 overs (which is impossible with the current rules).
Even outside Asia, bowling captains might not take the bowling powerplay in the first 10 overs if there are openers like Warner/Finch. Also splitting the 10 overs of powerplay into two blocks of five overs each would give some breathing space to bowling captains if batsmen like Chris Gayle or David Warner get off to a flying start. Most ODIs over the last decade have been very predictable even after the numerous changes in rules but here exists another opportunity to expel that predictability from ODIs.
There have been several rule changes in the past specifically favouring both batsmen and fast bowlers. There are so many examples of the rules being changed to favour the batsmen. The fielding restrictions have become more and more batsmen friendly over the years and currently just 4 fielders are allowed outside the 30 yard circle in non-powerplay overs. Also, replacing the bowling powerplay with the batting powerplay a few years back is just another example.
Rule changes like allowing two bouncers in an over is only aimed at benefitting the genuinely fast bowlers like Dale Steyn, Steven Finn and Mitchell Johnson. You wouldn’t often see Dwayne Bravo or Bhuvneshwar Kumar bowling two bouncers in an over in ODIs and you can just forget about any spinner bowling bouncers.
I believe the spinners have been ignored for far too long in the modern game and it is about time that cricket’s administrators had a long hard look at changing that. Reviewing the mandatory powerplay overs in an ODI might well be the first step towards that.