Sport

Cricket: Limited-overs play puts batsmen on the back foot

Andy Bull

Fear of pain is called agliophobia and fear of speed tachiophobia. The fear of Dale Steyn? That is called common sense.

Dale Steyn. (AFP)

True story: Steyn once went fishing on the Limpopo River and caught a crocodile. "It was a total accident," he said afterwards. "He was a little naive one and he went for my lure. We rolled him into the boat and took some photos of it."

Lured in and rolled over, Steyn does it to batsmen as well as beasts. His two spells in the first innings at the Wanderers last weekend brought him, as you all no doubt know by now, six wickets for eight runs in a touch over eight overs. The nine batsmen who faced him mustered all of three scoring shots between them, putting up all the defence of a paralysed prey against the snake that is about to consume it. They were dismissed for 49.

Sixteen fast bowlers in history have taken more Test wickets than Steyn. Five have done it at a lower average and none at a better strike rate. With apologies to James Anderson and Zaheer Khan, Steyn is the one fast bowler of his era who demands, rather than invites, comparison with the very best of his forebears.

In fact, with Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan putting down their feet and pulling off their slippers only for the occasional stint on the T20 circuit, it would be fair to say that Steyn is the only truly great bowler in Test cricket at the moment.

Which makes the fact that, in the past three years, the best Test teams have been bowled out for under 100 on 12 different occasions all the more startling. In the entirety of the 1960s, it happened only nine times. In the 1970s, 13 times. In the 1980s, 14 times. And in the 1990s, 15 times.

Bangladesh and Zimbabwe are excluded from those statistics on the grounds that they are the Laurel and Hardy of Test cricket, constantly beset by calamities. So the figures are for the top eight Test nations and they show a definite trend. Batting collapses are more common now than they have been at any time since the 1950s.

Steyn and his three fellow fast bowlers, war, famine and pestilence, otherwise known as Jacques Kallis, Mornè Morkel and Vernon Philander, have bowled three teams out for under 50 in the past 14 months. England bowled the opposition out for under 100 five times in the space of a single year between July 2010 and June 2011. Credit is due to both teams, the best around at the moment. But most fans would agree that, right now, the standard of Test bowling around the world, with many attacks made shallow by injury or callow by inexperience, is weaker than it was in either the 1980s or 1990s.

Team dismissals
Break the data down further, into three-year chunks. This last spell, from 2010 to the end of 2013, is the only one in recent history in which there have been more than eight double-digit team dismissals in Tests. Between 1990 and 1993, there was only one. Since then, the number has ranged between four and eight.

In the 2000s, the frequency started to increase, a result, possibly, of the more aggressive style of play that Steve Waugh's Australian team introduced, which sought to minimise the likelihood of matches being drawn and did it by accelerating run rates. The reward was greater; so were the risks. In that decade, there were 24 innings when a top team was bowled out under 100.

Still, we are less than a third of the way into the 2010s and we have already had half as many instances. And it seems to be infectious. In the past five years, Pakistan did it to Australia, Australia did it to South Africa, South Africa did it to India, New Zealand and Pakistan, Pakistan did it to England, England did it to Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka and the West Indies did it to England. Time was when a Test team being skittled for under 100 was such a rare event that everyone would stop to rubberneck. These days it seems almost routine.

Why? Possibly it is a reflection of greater parity between the teams. Perhaps it is to do with pitches, which, after the pleas of fans and players alike, could have become better to bowl on. More likely though, it seems to me, the increase in batting collapses is a result of the influence of T20 cricket on the technique and temperament of modern batsmen.

Limited-overs cricket and T20 in particular have sharpened up fielding standards, encouraged bowlers to develop new skills and helped batsmen to hone new shots. No one disputes that T20 has had an undeniably positive influence on some aspects of the sport.

The inevitable flipside of that is that in other areas its influence has been deleterious. I picked the five-year timespan mentioned above because it starts just after the inaugural World T20, the point at which that version of the game began to be taken seriously. We are not casting runes anymore. Five years is enough of a span to judge the impact that T20 has had on Test cricket.

It need not be that young players are deliberately attuning their technique to the shortest format at the expense of the skills required to play Test cricket, though some undoubtedly are. Other, older players, may simply be discombobulated by the demands of switching between the three formats of the game. It takes time to make the mental adjustment required to deal with the very same delivery – a good length on off-stump, say – in two different formats of the game. In T20, the batsman best whack it. In Tests, he would best block it. And time is the one commodity in short supply with modern schedules the way they are. – © Guardian News & Media

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