Column | All not hunky-dory amid run feast

Travis Head and Abhishek Sharma
SRH openers Travis Head and Abhishek Sharma have been in sensational form in IPL 2024. File photo: AFP/Noah Seelam

It will be an understatement to state that records, especially those in the realm of batting, have been set with ease during the current edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL). The latest one to disappear is the one relating to sixes struck during a particular season. The record of 1124 sixes, created during the 2023 season, was bettered during the game between Delhi Capitals (DC) and Lucknow Super Giants (LSG) on May 14. The tally of sixes struck appears all has crossed the 1200-mark by Sunday.

This is not the only batting record that has taken a beating during the current edition of the IPL. A total in excess of 250 runs in 20 overs was traditionally considered to be a very safe one in a T20 game. In fact, during the 16 years of the championship played till 2024, only twice could a team score a total in excess of 250 runs. However, in the present season, total scores in excess of 250 runs were reached on no less than eight occasions. And even more shocking was the fact that Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) could not defend a total of 261 in the match against Punjab Kings (PBKS), who reached the target in style with eight balls to spare. Not surprisingly, a record number of 42 sixes were struck during the course of this game.

This season also saw the highest total posted by a side. Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH), who have been making waves in this edition with their adventurous style of strokeplay, piled up 287/3 in their allotted 20 overs against Royal Challengers Benagluru (RCB) when the two sides met on April 15. This eclipsed the previous highest score 277/3 recorded by them against Mumbai Indians (MI) on March 27. However, RCB came back strongly to defeat SRH  by a convincing margin of 35 runs when the two sides met again 10 days later. Incidentally SRH have totalled more than 250 thrice this season, a tribute to the firepower displayed by them.

The average runs scored by the sides during the powerplay has also gone up considerably in the present season. In the past, one used to expect 55-60 runs in the first six overs when field restrictions were in place and only two fielders were allowed outside the 30 yard circle. However, this edition has seen a virtual explosion of runs in the powerplay with the average runs scored jumping to more than 12 per over. Here also SRH takes the cake with an astounding accomplishment of 125/0 during the powerplay in their match against Delhi Capitals (DC). This was the game where Travis Head smashed 89 off 32 balls, while his partner Abhishek Sharma scored 46 off just 12 deliveries as SRH ended up with a total of 266/7. During this massacre, SRH reached 100 runs off a mere 30 balls! 

Another interesting aspect that has emerged is that scoring rate during the post powerplay period has also picked up in 2024. Average runs per over used to come down to six-seven in the nine overs (7-15) following poweplay. This has gone past 10 per over as batsmen have decided to go after the bowlers with gay abandon. The strategy of consolidating the innings without the loss of too many wickets in the middle overs so that an all out assault could be launched at the end has been discarded by almost all the IPL franchisees. Instead, the batsmen use the the start gained in the powerplay as a platform for further pushing the scoring rate! 

Mohit Sharma
Mohit Sharma, right, ended up with the most expensive bowling figures in IPL history. File photo: AFP/Arun Sankar

One’s heart goes out for the bowlers who have borne the brunt of this collective offensive from the batters. How will it feel to be a bowler when a run feast of gargantuan proportions is in progress? The worst bowling spell in the history of IPL took place in the match between Gujarat Titans and DC, where Mohit Sharma, normally a reliable bowler at the death was  hit for 31 runs in the last over and ended up conceding 73 runs in his quote of four overs. Five of the 15 worst bowling spells in IPL took place during the present edition. 

It is this glut of runs that prompted Sam Curran, acting-captain of PBKS, to wonder whether cricket was becoming more like baseball. Pat Cummins, skipper of the ODI World Cup-winning Aussie squad and a leading fast bowler himself, who is currently at the helm of SRH, also lamented the plight of the bowlers. He said that till five years ago going under 8 runs per over was good in powerplay and in death overs but it felt like a good day if one went for less than 10 in an over during these phases presently.

Most observers blame the concept of Impact Player for the sudden increase in the dominance of the bat over the ball. The availability of an extra batsman gives the sides the freedom to indulge in pyrotechnics without any reservations. The batsman who comes in as the Impact Player is asked to perform the task of accelerating the scoring rate and disrupting the bowlers. He invariably seeks to do this by throwing the bat at the ball without any pressure or fear. Bowlers who lose their rhythm in the face of such relentless assault find it difficult to regain it, which leads to leaking more runs, thus setting up a vicious cycle that ends with batsmen gaining complete dominance over the proceedings.

It will not be fair to blame the Impact Player rule alone for this run feast. There has been an attitudinal change, which has enveloped the game since the onset of T20 cricket, which has affected not only the players, but even the coaches and administrators. The coaching methods, which were based on manuals issued by the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) in the past have undergone a radical change and players, especially the batsmen, are encouraged to innovate and improvise. Big-hitting is not frowned upon and taking risks no longer bring the sharp retorts from coaches as it used to in the not too distant past. Officials encourage curators to prepare placid tracks where ball does not rise above knee level and comes on to the bat, thus encouraging easy strokeplay. Quality of bats have improved, which assists power-hitting, and even the evening dew that prevents bowlers from getting a good grip on the ball, aids the batsmen. It is a confluence of all these factors that has led to the present situation. 

Ashutosh Sharma
Punjab Kings' Ashutosh Sharma proved his worth as an Impact Player. File photo: PTI/Vijay Verma

What does this development mean for the future of the sport? Everyone, from the television broadcaster to the lay follower of the sport, seem to be cheering the flow of runs from the bat and the flurry of sixes that are struck in each game. But is everything really hunky-dory? Or is there some cause to worry even amid the glitter of packed stadia and surging revenues?

Ian Chappell, former captain of Australia and a keen student of the game, has noted his disillusionment with this development. He has observed pithily that when batting becomes equated with  big-hitting, it ceases being an art. Further, he also asked the pertinent question as to whether administrators will reduce the duration of the game even further if spectators grow weary of T20 cricket. It should not be forgotten that one-day cricket was the rage till about a decade ago when T20 replaced it in the popularity charts. Hence the possibility of officials looking at an even shorter  duration version cannot be ruled out. Chappell feels that this would bring in restrictions even on the role of batsmen, which would be disastrous for the game. 

While the revenue-generating potential of T20 and IPL cannot be ignored, it will not be prudent to allow this version to take over the entire game. Cricket is a hard game played using a bat and a ball and upsetting the equilibrium in favour of the former, at the expense of the latter, will destroy it. The bowlers are already constrained by limitations on the number of overs they can bowl, the restrictions on fielders and the general bias against preparing sporting pitches. Any further emasculation will bring down their significance considerably and lead to them being reduced to the role of pitchers in baseball, where there is little guile or art involved and all it takes is a powerful throwing arm. If the scope available for batsmen to demonstrate their prowess also comes down then it will take away all the remaining charm and challenges and reduce it to a mere hit-and-run sport.

It would be a sad day for old-fashioned followers of cricket if this fascinating game evolves into a glorified form of baseball. One hopes that such an eventuality will not happen and all stakeholders awaken and take required actions to prevent cricket from taking this self-destructive path. Lure of the lucre and short term thrills should not be allowed to bring about permanent wreckage of the sport.

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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