By Tim Wigmore
The revolution continues. The bedlam of England’s 481 runs against Australia at Trent Bridge did not feel like the culmination of the transformation in batting, but rather its next stage. All the while, inexorably, ODI batting’s four-minute mile – a team score of 500 – is reaching closer into view.
So how on earth did we get here?
It is a tale of ceaseless improvement, physiology, sports science and T20 cricket engendering a new belief in what is possible.
In the last 20th Century World Cup, in England in 1999, Lance Klusener was known as the only cricketer to do specific, targeted six-hitting training. Other tried to slog a few balls in the nets at the end of training; Klusener had a systematic approach, focusing on how he could inflict carnage from his opening delivery.
Such a scientific approach to six-hitting is now the norm. In preparation for T20s and ODIs today, batsmen have honed a range of techniques to improve their ability to hit sixes – including range-hitting, and using differently weighted bats and balls, thereby improving their swing and hand speed.
Specialist hitting coaches, like England’s Julian Wood and Australia’s Trent Woodhill, focus on decluttering the minds of batsmen, and liberating them to attack; they have thrown off the old orthodoxies that declared that a solid defence underpins all else. As Stephen Fleming explained to The Cricket Monthly last year, the approach is now: “Learn to be aggressive and then I will teach you defence.”
As run rates in the two limited overs formats have soared, a great puzzle has become apparent. Batting, of course, is evolving at a rapid rate. But why should its pace of change manifestly be far greater than bowling?
The answer lies in physiology, which is underpinning the increase in limited overs scores. Simply put, there is a very limited amount that bowlers – especially quicks – can train in the nets without putting too much strain on their bowlers. Batsmen can face many times more balls in the nets – four or five times, in many cases – than bowlers. So they have more chance to improve – and, in an increasingly professional age, they are using it.
“Bowlers will have limited capacity to practise, whereas batsmen can practise almost as much as they like,” the sports scientist Timothy Olds explained to me last year. So while bowlers have very limited time to hone variations – or reliable yorkers, say – batsmen have been able to increase the time they devote to both orthodox shots and shots of the new age: ramps, scoops and reverse-sweeps.
The difference in physiological capabilities is creating a fundamental asymmetry between bat and ball in limited overs cricket. Ironically, one of the ways in which this is most apparent is in the batting ability of bowlers. A series of bowlers – most notably Sunil Narine – have morphed into formidable T20 hitters.
This reflects the truth that it is easier to become a batsman capable of hitting, say, 30 off 15 balls with some regularity than to develop a defence too. And as batting line-ups extend, so teams are able to attack earlier and with more intent. In the IPL this year, the average number of wickets taken per innings increased – but so did the number of runs scored.
Modern sports science has also abetted the rise of six-hitters. Against Australia at Trent Bridge, England scored more sixes than in the entirety of their 2015 World Cup campaign. At their facility at Loughborough University, they collect data on the speed off the bat, launch angles, and final distance that balls are hit in training. This helps batsmen become more aware of what they need to get right to hit the ball 90 metres or more.
T20, of course, is also central to this story. The format has led to a new emphasis on six-hitting. Even more than that, it has recalibrated the value that batsmen place on their wickets, creating a new more liberated approach. In ODIs, batsmen are learning that it is possible to attack relentlessly, and yet with such reliability that they can reject the traditional trade-off between scoring quickly and consistently.
If T20 is the frontline of the revolution, the format is transforming norms in ODI cricket. Consider that, in 2003 – the year T20 launched – a six was hit every 119 balls in ODIs. Last year, one was hit every 58 balls.
When Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile at Iffley Road, Oxford in 1954, he gave a prediction. “Après moi, le déluge,” Bannister said, foreseeing that, after he had shown what was possible, a spate of runners would break the mark soon after.
Bannister was right. Forty-six days later, the Australian John Landy – who had once declared that “the four-minute mile is beyond my capabilities” – set a new world record. Today, more than 1,000 runners have completed a four-minute mile: breaking the mark has long ceased to be a noteworthy event. Perhaps this is a harbinger of what is to come in ODI cricket: the first 500, when it finally comes, will be the first of many.
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