Wednesday, May 22, 2024

How the world of cricket went six mad

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There have been some eye-popping performances by England players in the IPL, with Jonny Bairstow hitting nine sixes in the space of 36 deliveries en route to an unbeaten 108 from 48 balls for Punjab Kings, and Will Jacks a barely credible ten sixes from his last 24 balls during a 41-ball hundred for Royal Challengers Bangalore. All very encouraging with the T20 World Cup only a month away.

The surprise is that these feats were not greeted with more fanfare. But while Bairstow and Jacks led the list for the most sixes in an innings at the tournament, numerous other batsmen have been on similar rope-clearing rampages. In fact, Shashank Singh, of India, struck eight sixes in 23 balls in the very same innings as Bairstow.

This phenomenon goes beyond an IPL tournament in which, two-thirds of the way through, the tally of maximums already tops 900; five months ago, England and West Indies slugged 120 sixes between them in five T20s in the Caribbean, the most for any bilateral 20-over series. A six — an event once guaranteed to excite for its novelty — has never felt more mundane.

This devaluation is not the immediate concern of batsmen. Their job is to capitalise on the opportunities presented to them, and goodness how they have done so.

Many factors at the IPL have served the bat’s domination over ball — good pitches, small grounds, hot and dry weather, and an expansion to ten teams that has exposed a lack of depth in bowling talent — but there is no hiding the upward trajectory batsmen are on.

Jake Fraser-McGurk, the 22-year-old Australian who has taken the IPL by storm, hitting 23 sixes from 111 balls for Delhi Capitals, typifies the new breed of ball-striker. He has spent as much time in the gym as on a cricket field since he was 16 and has only one aim: to hit the ball as far as possible.

Aaron Finch, who led Australia’s T20 World Cup-winning team of 2021, likened Fraser-McGurk to a baseball batter: “He holds his bat up really high so anything that is back of a length he’s in a really good position [to hit]. He’s standing upright, almost like a baseballer. He’s saying, ‘Come at me, I’m ready to take you down no matter where you bowl.’ ”

After Bairstow and Shashank had masterminded a world record run chase of 262 against Kolkata Knight Riders, Sam Curran, captaining Punjab, drew a similar comparison: “Cricket has turned to baseball, hasn’t it?”

Trent Woodhill, an experienced batting coach and now high performance consultant of the Hundred, says: “Players now are fitter and stronger. Fraser-McGurk is fitter and stronger than a player the same age ten years ago. Also, there’s more practice around taking bowlers on from the start without fear of failing.

“In IPLs gone by, you were more dependent on a Chris Gayle or AB de Villiers having a good day out. Now you’ve got five or six guys in your line-up consistently hitting 80 metres.

“I did a T20 series for Australia in India last year, and I hadn’t been to India for four years, and was shocked at just how strongly built many of the Indians were. They all have the ability to unload. It’s quite frightening really.”

Playing in his first IPL season, Jacks scored a 41-ball hundred which included ten sixes from his last 24 balls

PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Top-order T20 batsmen, looking to go through the whole innings, have almost become three players in one: relatively orthodox at the start, aggressively finding the gaps in the middle, before going into all-out hitting mode from the twelfth over.

“DeVilliers was the first touch-hitter,” Woodhill says. “He would train at a tempo where he was able to hit the first throw-down for six, or stop an in-swinging yorker, whereas others would want to warm up. Players would be told, ‘Give yourself time.’ Now you’ve got to be ready to take down that first half-volley, because there may not be another for five balls. Recognising a ball to hit is definitely improving.”

The wide yorker, patented by Stuart Broad, was once a useful defensive weapon, but has lost effectiveness as batsmen have learnt to step across to clear the cover and cover-point boundaries. Almost no area on the field is now safe from attack.

The biggest influence on scoring in this IPL is the “impact player” ruling which allows both sides to bring in a mid-innings substitute, who is allowed to bat and bowl. It was introduced in 2023 to prevent games being effectively decided by the team batting first losing three wickets in the powerplay — the last thing administrators and broadcasters want.

Many influential figures, including the India captain Rohit Sharma, have criticised the rule on various counts, including the way it subverts the age-old skill required to select a balanced XI. It also discourages the selection of all-rounders (typically chosen to help achieve that balance) and the use of anything but the best spin bowlers.

Jasprit Bumrah has been among the few bowlers to keep a lid on scoring but even he said: “A bowler becomes half what he actually is because of this rule.”

The rule has come into its own this year when teams, under pressure to score big in favourable conditions, began amassing and chasing massive scores, bolstered by the additional security of the extra available batsman. Batting first, Hyderabad posted scores of 277, 287 and 266, but were still made to sweat for their wins. Against Delhi, their openers, Travis Head and Abhishek Sharma, hit 11 sixes and a record 125 runs in the six-over powerplay.

The impact player may not survive but many insiders believe it has lit a flame in the minds of batsmen that will not be extinguished.

“When you see scores regularly in excess of 200, there’s not time to get your eye in, you’ve got to go from ball one,” says Carl Crowe, an assistant coach at Kolkata Knight Riders. “60 off a powerplay used to be good, now it’s 75-80 plus.

“It might be that we’re in a goldilocks zone of great pitches, small grounds, fantastic players and the impact sub rule combined, but what batsmen have learnt is that playing with ultimate freedom — which playing with that extra batter might give them — has opened up another part of their game. They think, ‘You know what, we can just keep going. We can achieve more than we thought.’ ”

Whether this mindset can transfer to other tournaments remains to be seen. In the Hundred, if a quality bowler such as Narine is bowling a block of ten balls, he can suppress scoring in a way not possible at the IPL. Nor are pitches likely to be as uniformly good at the T20 World Cup, where new grounds in the United States are unproven. Woodhill expects batting sides to overreach themselves. “You’ll see some capitulations,” he predicts.

What can administrators do? MCC’s limit on bat sizes in 2017 now appears to have done little to curb the game’s biggest hitters. MCC’s influential world cricket committee, chaired by Kumar Sangakkara, next meets in July. “The balance of the game always remains on our radar,” Fraser Stewart, MCC’s head of cricket, said. “We can’t stop anyone going to the gym and becoming stronger. Sports science has changed a lot. But we continue to keep the whole game under review and if we feel that things have got out of hand we’ll look to see if there’s anything we can do to redress the balance.”

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