Joe Root, possibly the best test match player of England in recent times, was nailed by Mitchell Starc with a nasty bouncer in November 2017. Jofra Archer has paid back the compliment, by felling Steve Smith, considered the best test batsman of Australia since Bradman. Of the four contemporary test batsmen, he has the best track record so far (65 tests, average 64.5), followed by Virat Kohli (77 tests, 53.7), and Kane Williamson (73 tests, 52.5). Smith had scored a century in each innings in the first test against top quality English bowling to win the match and was batting on 80 when the ball reared ominously from the pitch and hit him on the neck, causing concussion. Providentially he did not suffer the fate of Philip Hughes, who died of a blow on the neck by NSW pacer Sean Abbot on 27th November. Steve was valiant enough to bat again, to score 92 and help the team to draw the second test.
Many have compared Jofra Archer, who is born in Barbados and made England his home with Michael Holding. They have a similar quiet, smooth and slithery approach on the bowling pitch; with batsmen little realising when the 90+ miles thunderbolts are going to hit them! This incident reminded me of how Anshuman Gaekwad was hit behind the ears on a nasty Kingston Jamaica pitch in 1976 and bled profusely in the third test after India had levelled the series 1-1; with a historic win at Port of Spain chasing 406 in the second innings. It was Clive Lloyd, the captain, who egged on his fast bowlers, Robert and Holding, to have a full blast at the Indian batsman. Anshuman Gaekwad who was considered the ‘wall of India’ then, was undone by Michael Holding’s pace and bounce. Holding writes in his book “No Holding Back”: “I was not comfortable with the way we were asked to bowl, but at the same time it was country vs. country. If that is what the team and the Captain wanted me to do, so be it”.
Anshuman was not the first Indian batsman to be injured seriously. The dubious honour goes to Nari Contractor, who was hit on the back of his head in March 1962 to a bouncer from Griffith, at Bridge town. Tiger Pataudi recalls in his book “Tiger’s Tale”, how Frank Worrell, the West Indian captain donated blood for his surgery and Nari Contractor uttered the choicest expletives in Gujarati against Griffith!
The year 1976 was a repeat of 1932, when Douglas Jardine unleashed his fast bowlers, Harold Larwood and Voce, on the all-conquering Australian team. Bradman was considered a greater enemy of England than Hitler. Douglas Jardine, the English captain, had an almost carnivorous appetite to grind the Australians; and particularly Bradman. He asked Larwood, a coalminer’s son, to salvage national pride by unleashing ‘bodyline’ bowling, with a packed leg-side fielding. Jack Hobbs, are great English batsman with 199 first-class century to his credit covered the 1932-33 series between England and Australia and wrote: “Larwood’s bowling had shaken Bradman’s composure. He was drawing away, a sure proof that he did not like the bumpers”.
Bodyline bowling, however, besmirched the spirit of the game. Cricket has changed its character as a gentleman’s game to a competitive sport. The tag “Big Boys Play at Night” in the WSC cricket (1975-76) innovated by Kerry Packer with a rebel series changed cricket to commerce. IPL and its floodlights are the latest avatars! The uncovered pitches gave way to covered ones in the 1960s and the batsman started wearing helmets in the 1970s; beginning with Dennis Lillee in the World Series cricket.
In cricket, the bowlers often feel that it is loaded heavily in favour of a batsman. Ray Illingworth, the English captain, commenting on covered pitches had observed: “that they produce better batters and poor bowlers”. Richie Benaud, the great leg spinner, feels that the decline of wrist spinner is due to pitches being covered.
However it is a different ball game with trundlers bowling above 90 miles per hour as do Starc, Archer and Rabada now in recent times, and Thomson, Tyson, Akhtar, Lindwall and Marshall in the past. India’s Jasprit Bumrah is now a handful from a short distance, with stinging yorkers. T20 and One-day games have made pitches docile and batting friendly to harvest business in floodlight. Innovative batting and incredible fielding have reached dizzy heights. However, batting on wearing wickets with uneven bounce is a different kettle of fish. Neither should the batsman nor the bowler have an unfair advantage due to the pitch conditions. The best of gritty batsmen like Steve Waugh and Allan Border have recounted how harrowing it was for them to bat on uncertain wickets; against West Indian fast bowlers firing on all cylinders in the 1980s. It was like ‘double jeopardy’. Sourav Ganguly believes that had the rain not intervened in the semi-final match between India and New Zealand in the recent world cup, the top three Indian batsmen would not have been dismissed the way they were undone due to the rain-affected pitch. Cricket at the highest level is all about combining high skill with lack of fear. Viv Richards, the king of cricket won no helmet; nor did Sunil Gavaskar, the prince amongst openers. Franklin D. Roosevelt had observed that “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. By transcending fear, Smith has redeemed himself as a cricketer par excellence. All the same, the gentleman’s game should not be affected by a vicarious pitch; nor it should be doctored to help either a bowler or a batsman.
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