THE COVERING OF PITCHES
Till the 1960s, it was standard practice to leave the playing area unprotected from the harsh effects of rain and sun. This led to wickets becoming ‘sticky’. The ball would grip, bounce and turn inconsistently. Batting to finger spinners on such wickets was nightmarish, so it needed great skill and concentration. The covering of wickets has significantly reduced the extent of damage spinners can cause.
Vijay Merchant, the man with the highest average after Bradman, thrived on wet wickets. What would he have averaged on the sleeping beauties of the modern era that are accorded Z-category protection? Sadly, fans since the 1970s haven’t had the pleasure of a riveting contest on a ‘sticky dog’.
THE AVAILABILITY OF PROTECTIVE GEAR
Before the arrival of helmets and the assortment of protective pads, cricketers had little more than skill and instinct to rely on while facing dangerous bowlers. It was a life-and-death situation. In the 1962 Barbados Test, India captain Nari Contractor’s skull was fractured by Charlie Griffith’s bouncer. Contractor was comatose six days. He recovered but did not play Tests again. Such events made the invention of protective equipment necessary.
This is why we marvel at players of those times. Sunil Gavaskar made over 10,000 Test runs without a helmet. And he scored them against some of the most feared fast bowlers of all time: Holding, Marshall, Roberts, Imran and many more. Batsmen had courage then. They have chest pads and visors now. We’re not advocating blood-sport but merely praising the courageous heroes of yore.
FLAT WICKETS, SHORTER BOUNDARIES
A huge share of cricket’s revenues comes from television rights. It is natural then that the broadcast right-holders would want cricket to be TV-friendly. More people would then watch it, ensuring greater revenues for the right holders, and in extension, for administrators and players. One way to make cricket TV-friendly has been to ensure lots of fours and sixes. This has been done by bringing in the boundaries and preparing batting friendly-wickets.
This week, West Indies and New Zealand played two T20s at the CBRP Stadium in Lauderhill, Florida, USA, where the boundaries were about 65 metres on all sides. West Indies struck 12 sixes in the first match and 13 in the second. Even checked drives cleared the ropes easily. There was a time when sixes were a rare treat batsmen helped themselves to after getting their eye in. Now, they go for it from the first ball. The dessert is now the main course.
NEW BAT TECHNOLOGIES
Short boundaries and flat wickets combined with new-age sticks have empowered batsmen like never before. Earlier, batsmen needed real strength and timing to clear long boundaries with lightweight sticks. Now, modern bats have thick edges and enhanced sweet spots. They pick up better and vibrate less. The result: the ball travels longer off the bat.
These days, a well-struck shot goes several rows back into the stands. But even poorly-timed hits and edges carry all the way. Remember the wimpy, slightly-built tail-ender who couldn’t hit a big one if his life depended on it? He’s history.
ECONOMIC & MENTAL PRESSURES
In the amateur era, cricket was a pastime, a handy side income and a distraction from the hardship of war and economic depression. In the first five decades of the 1900s, international cricket remained largely suspended while wars raged around the world. Most well-known cricketers supplemented their cricketing incomes with orthodox careers. Cricket brought them fame and respect, but it didn’t pay so well. They played for their land and they played for pride.
The great Australian cricketer Keith Miller, also a World War II pilot, put the pressure of sport in its rightful place with this immortal quote: "Pressure? I'll tell you what pressure is. Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, playing cricket is not." Today, cricket is professionally run and offers players millions of dollars for three hours of work a day. Tony Greig commented recently, “The England players even have food tasters and someone to tuck them into bed at night.” The sport sure has come a long way.
THE END OF REVERSE SWING
The dark art is all but dead, particularly in limited overs cricket. Not too long ago, the likes of Waqar and Wasim were giving batsmen hell, making the ball move in magical ways. Online video sites are replete with nostalgia for their wizardry. Now, most international cricket is played with the Kookaburra ball, which reverse-swings the least of the balls available for international cricket. It is just one of the many legislations that has protected the interests of batsmen.