Sunday, 17 July 2016

Baxit

In the mid-1700s, the men who would emerge as the premier batsmen of their age were coming to a realisation. Tom Sueter, the great left-hander of Hambledon, broke free of the "heresy" that a player should stay back in his crease to ward off the many dangers of fast underarm bowling on pitches pitted with mud and stones, and began stepping forwards towards the ball. As John Nyren would write in Cricketers Of My Time, 'Egad, it went as if it had been fired'.

And in the fields around Farnham, 'Silver' Billy Beldham was taught by Harry Hall to present the bat to the ball with the left elbow high and play through the line rather than across it, and Billy became, in Nyren's words, 'safer than the bank'. At Churt, a few miles up the road, Harry Walker hit upon the cut shot (and Harry came from an inventive family; his younger brother Tom is credited with being the first to bowl roundarm).

Batting was making its response to the ball's early dominance. The shape of the bat standardised and handles were spliced in, rather than carved from the same piece of wood as the blade. The next great challenge would come when round-arm bowling became overarm, and Grace came to meet it as modern batting's overwhelming conceptual force.

The history of the game can be seen as the history of bat versus ball, one ascendent and then the other fighting back. Now, after a couple of decades in which almost every bowling record was broken, in which both spin and swing were reinvented, we have entered an era of the bat. Driven by the dawn of T20, it has been nothing short of a revolution in both mentality and technique, the greatest shift since Grace's famous declaration that he "determined to test" the conventional wisdom of defensive batting.

There is a tendency to view the era that you're living in as the apex moment, the point of the arrow, when in fact a better analogy is that the game's past, present and future is a river into which you dive at a random point, swim along for a while and then leave. The balance between bat and ball has always been contentious, from the Massive Bat Incident of 1771, through Bodyline, uncovered pitches, reverse swing and lots of other responses to one getting on top of the other. And yet the balance has always self-corrected as the generations come and then go.

The MCC Cricket Committee's report, Balance of the Game, (available here) is a more rounded document than the issue that it has been reduced to, and yet it doesn't really mention this ever-moving history. It's an apex moment document in that regard. It lays out the statistics of the new era of the bat (in Test cricket in the 1950s one ball in every 4,127 was hit for six, now it is one in every 189*), it considers anecdotal and scientific evidence (a study by Imperial College using recreations of bats from different eras) that the balance may have shifted, and examines the reasons why.

Those reasons cannot be unknotted from one another: techniques have changed; players are fitter and stronger; their intent is different; the bats are better... It is impossible to come up with some sort of ratio that allocates weight to each of these factors. Players cannot be limited in how they train or play or think, and so the only variables that can be adjusted are the bat, the ball, the pitches or the playing conditions. Of those, by far the easiest to change are the bat or the ball - and there's an interesting, somewhat overlooked section in the report on what manufacturers think they could do with the ball in terms of making it seam or spin more.

The bat, though, is the focus of the game, a totemic and potent object invested in part with the hopes and dreams of the player holding it: the batsman is alone with it when all's said and done. When, at the tail-end of the 1970s, the Scoop and the Jumbo saw the first real changes in its shape for a hundred years or so, it became obvious by the reaction to those bats that there is an emotional connection as well as a physical one. It's this connection which has perhaps made the debate more heated.

However much it may want to be, cricket is not isolated from time. The primary equipment in almost every sport has improved exponentially. Tennis no longer has wooden rackets, golf clubs aren't made of persimmon any more, footballs aren't of the cannonball leather sort hoofed by Bobby Charlton, and so on. It's unrealistic to think that cricket bats would not follow the trend, and their dynamic reinvention has improved the game. And bats and their materials are more closely governed by the Laws than most other bits of sporting gear, to the point that any sort of virus that affected the English willow Salix Alba in the way that Ash Dieback or Dutch Elm Disease affected other types, would decimate the industry.

The science in the MCC report is debatable: as someone who knows told me, "[it doesn't] want to say anything definite because of too much noisy data". The laws of physics cannot be cheated, and bats are not heavier now - if anything they're lighter. According to Imperial College, the biggest sweet spot on any of the bats they tested came from the 'scooped back' - ie a bat conceived in the 1970s. Instead, performance of the willow has been pushed to the max by good design and different pressing techniques. For every leading edge that flies over third man for six, there's another that carries to slip or is caught in the deep.

Yet there is merit to MCC's points about safety in the amateur game, especially for umpires (I've seen two hit by straight drives this year), and common sense says that there should be some kind of limit to the depth of a bat if there are limits on its width and length. Batmakers may have sighed wearily at the science, but many are relieved that the pressure to keep pushing a natural material to its absolute limits will abate. As Chris King of Gray Nicolls told me when I wrote about bats for EspnCricinfo: "If I have two bats of the same weight, same grain, that pick up pretty much the same and that sound the same when I knock them up with the mallet, the pro will always choose the one with the bigger edges. Always will. It's psychological."

Now that psychology can be contained by a maximum size. No-one with any insight believes that the way batting is going will change because of it. The ball will continue to be hit higher, harder and more often than ever before, because that's the intention of the players doing it. It will go just as far from a 35mm edge as a 40mm one because the performance of the bat will barely alter. What will change batting is a response from the bowlers of the next generation.

But the argument is settled. It's the right decision taken for the wrong reasons in our post-factual times.

* One six in every 189 deliveries = one per 31.5 overs, or not that often...

NB: Forgive the plug, but I've written about the bat and modern batting, along with other stuff, in The Meaning of Cricket, out now...

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