Long before the popcorn entertainment of T20 and the chicken butter masala diet of the 50-over game, cricket was blessed with a form of the sport that isn’t quite easy to define even in gastronomic terms: the 60 overs per side contest. Too long for today’s generation, too short to really whet the appetite of the Test cricket romantic, this was the format of the first three World Cups, including the Indian win in 1983. It was almost like a full day of languid Test cricket with an assurance of a winner at the end of it. The great Sunil Gavaskar, the original master of the five-day Test, seemed so befuddled that he, rather notoriously, scored 36 not out in 60 overs in the first World Cup in 1975.
Now, four decades later, Gavaskar in the commentary box must wonder what sport he was watching as the 2015 World Cup unveiled a form of cricket that is both dramatic and disconcerting. Think about it: three totals of over 400 runs, fifty per cent of the innings resulting in 300-plus scores, 38 centuries, two double tons, the fastest fifty, the fastest 150, 31 sixes in just one game, a strike rate of almost 90 per 100 balls. Batsmen have never had it so good, fans have never seen so many balls cross the rope: it was fast and furious, but was it really cricket as we knew the sport, an even contest between ball and bat where skill sets went well beyond just raw power?
In a sense, the 2015 World Cup marks cricket’s AstroTurf moment. Or tennis’ graphite racket equivalent. Just like hockey changed almost irreversibly in the late 1970s with the change in turf and tennis altered with the new rackets, limited overs cricket has been transformed with only four fielders allowed outside the 30-yard circle and just three in the second powerplay of five overs, and with two white balls used through the match. As Sachin Tendulkar told Headlines Today in an interview with a hint of a wink: “I wouldn’t have minded playing in this World Cup!”
The new rules effectively placed a premium on power hitting and aggressive fast bowling. While the great Sri Lankan Kumar Sangakkara showed there is still space for the wristy artist in the era of muscular wood-cutters with four centuries in a row, the fact is that batsmen like him could soon be an endangered species. This is the era of big bats and the “big show”. The prototype of the emerging one-day cricketer was captured more accurately in the batsmanship of Australia’s Glenn Maxwell who appeared to redefine the art of cricket technique and take it into an entirely different planetary system.
Against Sri Lanka, Maxwell scored a century in just 51 balls with the most audacious strokeplay. It was exhilarating to watch: not only did he reverse sweep the spinners, he even seemed to reverse hook the fast bowlers! It was almost as if the stumps did not exist as he would repeatedly step on either side of them and then crash the ball to different parts of the ground. And he played his shots from the very first ball, a confirmation that the fear of getting out had simply not registered in his cricketing brain.
I grew up in a cricket family. My late father, Dilip Sardesai, played with some success for India. Like Gavaskar, he was reared in the Mumbai school of batsmanship that has a long, pedigreed history from Vijay Merchant to Sachin Tendulkar. The basis of this education was that batsmen were expected to play with a straight bat, keep the ball along the ground and, for the first hour at least, focus on playing in the ‘V’ between mid-on and mid-off. Coaching young batsmen, my father would constantly remind them: “If you don’t hit the ball in the air, you don’t give the bowler a chance!”
The likes of Maxwell have swatted those cricket theories into worn-out history books. Perhaps it is the influence of T20 cricket but the fact is, batsmen now look to play what is best described as “360 degree” cricket: they don’t hit the ball in the V, or any alphabet for that matter, but to every corner of the ground, often from the very outset. They take chances that border on recklessness but their strokes seem to come off more often than not, suggesting that there is a unique method to the seeming madness.
Perhaps, even superior exemplars to Maxwell (who may be seen as a bit of a ‘freak’) of this art of new batsmanship are two other highly successful World Cup batsmen, the New Zealand captain Brendon Mccullum and his South African counterpart A.B. de Villiers. If Sanath Jayasuriya brought a fresh dimension to opening batting in the one-day game in the 1996 World Cup by attacking the fast bowlers in the first 10 overs, Mccullum has gone into turbo-charged mode from ball one. It didn’t pay off in the final, but in other games he almost seemed to intimidate the opposition with his sheer aggression bordering on crazy bravado.
Virat Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan during Indiaâ€™s match against South Africa on February 22; (Far Right) Australian pacers Mitchell Starc and Mitchell Johnson.De Villiers was equally devastating in the middle and late overs. If an average of 10 runs an over became the norm in the last 10 overs of the game in this World Cup, the flag-bearer of this destructive streak was the South African skipper. He could conjure up shots off every ball, some orthodox, others wonderfully innovative. In a sense, de Villiers offers hope that you don’t have to muscle the ball over the boundary every time; there is still space to combine a fine eye with a still head, strong wrists with quick footwork and become well-nigh the complete player. That de Villiers is just as successful in Test cricket as he is in the one-day game is a good reason to believe that not everything about the reinvention of cricket should be scorned at. Indeed, even McCullum scored a match-saving triple century against India a year ago, more proof that a good player can always make the transition from one format of the game to another. And there is also the brilliant Steve Smith, with his Bradmanesque Australian summer, to savour the joys of true batting being a melting pot of the old and the new.
But while 2015 has been a batsman’s World Cup in terms of statistics, the final word was with the bowlers. Not all bowlers are willing to be pensioned off so easily. What the World Cup has shown is that only quality wicket-taking bowlers will now survive a mauling from batsmen on the rampage. Australia won the cup because they had the best fast bowling combination in the tournament: Mitchell Starc and Mitchell Johnson were left-arm fast, accurate and hostile and were backed by equally sharp compatriots. Some crafts of this game may be dying out, but the ability to bowl at nearly 150 km per hour will always have high value. If New Zealand too made the final, it was because their fast bowlers, especially the outstanding Trent Boult, had a mix of speed and swing, a potent combination, especially on their home wickets. If India performed better than expected, it was primarily because the pace duo of Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav found some rhythm and wickets. And if, for at least two overs in this World Cup, Pakistan looked like a threatening side, it was because Wahab Riaz rolled back the years by bowling arguably one of the most ferocious spells of fast bowling in the history of the tournament.
The worry though is for the future of spinners. R. Ashwin was a standout bowler for India, and Imran Tahir and Daniel Vettori had their moments of success, but the fact is that smaller grounds, bigger bats and the new rules do push a spinner towards redundancy at times. On slow, turning Indian wickets, spinners will perhaps have a greater role to play, but in most other conditions they will struggle unless they have a truly special skill.
So, should India be concerned that cricket will go down the hockey route where AstroTurf gave an unfair advantage to the brute strength of the Europeans over the soft dribbling skills of the Asians? We don’t have a pace battery like Australia, we don’t have power-hitters like a David Warner or a Chris Gayle, and we don’t really have many top-class spinners on the hori-zon either. Yes, we will continue to do well at home in conditions that suit us, but can we really venture abroad with any sense of confidence?
Maybe, all is not lost for Team India, as they showed by winning seven matches in a row. Virat Kohli is our answer to a de Villiers, Shikhar Dhawan’s muscles can compete with a Warner, Rohit Sharma and Suresh Raina can hit a ball very long, a gently greying Dhoni still knows how to finish a game, our fast bowlers are improving and, best of all, our fielding is better than ever. And yes, we still do produce batsmen like Ajinkya Rahane who might convince Gavaskar and my old man that in the age of Maxwell, there is still space for the classical purist.
In the end, the evolution of cricket is a bit like your music collection across generations. You may like to dance to Abba, your mother to Beatles, maybe your grandmother would listen to Elvis (or even Beethoven). But when your son puts Black Eyed Peas or even Maroon 5 on the playlist, who says you won’t put on your dancing shoes? Let the music, and the cricket, simply play on.