The conceptually flawed free-hit
A few years back, the idea of free-hit for front foot no-balls was floated around in cricketing circles and it did not take long for the ICC to ratify and implement the idea.
The objective of the free-hit was to curb the number of front foot no-balls being bowled in limited overs cricket and to bring in another element of excitement from the perspective of the cricket fan.
And then we all went gaga over the fact that the free-hit would empower a batter to whack the leather out of the ball and take maximum advantage of the free-hit delivery. As fans, we have got so entrenched into expecting the free-hit to disappear for a four or six that we tend to forget the primary objective of a batsman and a bowler.
Free-hit defies the purpose of playing the game
So what is the primary objective of a bowler? Why does a bowler strain every sinew to run in ball after ball, over after over? Pretty simple, isn’t it? To get the batsman out.
What is the primary objective of a batsman? Why does a batsman have to shut out the entire world and focus all his energies on that single ball that is hurled at him? Again pretty simple isn’t it? Not to give his wicket to the bowler. Scoring runs is an after-effect and by-product of not getting out. Basically, the primary objective of a batsman is to protect his wicket against the delivery bowled at him.
Now let us put all the pieces into place – the free-hit. A bowler runs into bowl knowing that he cannot get the batsman out. A batsman faces up to the bowler with the knowledge that getting out to that particular delivery wouldn’t matter. Dead bowl, dead bat, no contest – end of story.
This brings me to the very point: Is the free-hit conceptually flawed, in that does it rob the very essence of the game of cricket for that particular delivery? Doesn’t the free-hit defy the purpose of bowling? Doesn’t the free hit conflict with the basic objective of batting? In my opinion, it absolutely does so.
As a fan looking forward to a contest between bat and ball for each ball bowled in a match, it makes little sense for a bowler to run in hard and bowl a delivery that wouldn’t get the batsman out. The bowler might as well do an impersonation of Trevor Chappell’s underarm delivery, rather than going all out to bowl, only to ultimately be hammered to the boundary more often than not.
Essentially, the free-hit momentarily reduces the game to an abstract no-contest by stripping the bowler of his right to get the batsman out. Eventually, it defies the basic premise and objective of bowling – getting the batsman out.
Batting prowess hurt as well
The free-hit aides a batter as much as it hurts a bowler. This does not imply that the fundamental essence of batting is not lost during the free-hit.
To the fan, it is extremely exciting to anticipate a boundary off a free-hit. A free swing of the arms when a batsman knows that he cannot get out is easier to execute than a free swing of the arms when a batsman knows that the result of the match might be altered by his getting out.
Each ball bowled to a batsman should test his character, skill and temperament. All these attributes can be tested only if the batsman is subconsciously aware that the ball bowled at him might get him out. The free-hit delivery does none of these. If a batsman does not get tested by even one delivery (read free hit), we might as well get Lionel Messi to swing a bat for a free hit. Ultimately, the free-hit is not a contest.
Counter arguments might suggest that a bowler still has to prevent the batsman from scoring a boundary; that a batsman still has to score a boundary if the free hit delivery is a Yorker. But a by-product cannot replace the original contest, however exciting the by-product might seem to be.
The free-hit was conceptualized and implemented to reduce the number of front foot no-balls being bowled in limited overs cricket. The thinking of the ICC in this regard is spot on, but their eventual solution to mitigate the no-ball problem hasn’t been the best possible solution.
If the no-ball issue is as critical as it is made out to be, probably the batting team can be awarded two runs for every no-ball bowled. The free hit, I am afraid, is not the greatest of solutions to a front foot no-ball.
And then the ICC goes a step further and declares that any no-ball will be penalized with a free hit. For Christ’s sake, penalize the bowler and the team for having bowled a no-ball: do not reduce the following delivery to a farce for the bowler, batter, spectator and the die-hard fan.
The free-hit is eventually flawed in concept, isn’t it?