By Madan Mohan
The upcoming India-England ODI series may or may not be a particularly appetising prospect. Irrespective of that, it will surely be a watershed tournament for ODIs as a new set of ICC rules will be made applicable starting with this series. Some of these rules apply to all international cricket and some only to ODIs. The intent behind ODI-only rules appears to be an effort to make it a more attractive format. It is, at any rate, the last ace international cricket can play to counter the emerging league-based set-up. If international cricket is to stay alive, ODIs must thrive.
Will these rules really make such a significant difference, and in a positive direction, to the format? The most significant and far-reaching of the rules is to have a new ball for each end. It has been observed that the white ball loses colour and shape rather quickly and a ball change is required by the 35th over for the sake of visibility. Two new balls will ensure the ball stays harder for long. How much of a good thing is it, though?
It is argued that the move would encourage swing for longer in the match and keep the bowlers in the game. That depends a lot on the playing conditions. In conditions like those where Sachin Tendulkar struck the first double ton in ODIs, there wouldn’t anyway be much swing to speak of and a harder ball will come on to the bat nicely for longer.
Perhaps, the ICC believes scores in excess of 400 would make ODIs more exciting. It may well make batting harder in England and Australia where the new ball tends to be tougher to see off. But in the subcontinent, batting would likely become easier in the overs 20-40 when the older ball stops coming on to the bat.
In a double whammy, both the batting and bowling powerplays will have to be utilised between the 16th and 40th overs. This means 10 overs of field restrictions at the juncture when teams attempt to consolidate and stem the run flow. Typically, teams have been electing for the bowling powerplay right after the mandatory powerplay of 10 overs and the batting powerplay within the last 10 overs. Squeezing both powerplays within the middle overs, as they are called, will allow batsmen the opportunity to break free.
In Indian conditions, this rule combined with the previous should see a rise in average innings scores. Both rules appear to me to be well intentioned but I am not sure to what extent they will achieve the objectives. Assuming, that is, that the objective is to have a more engrossing contest between bat and ball.
Some of the other rules, which would apply to all international cricket, will however make life more difficult for batsmen. Firstly, Mankading - bowler running out a non-striker standing outside the crease before release - is back. To state the obvious, this will make pinching singles harder and force batsmen to take more risks. I also expect that in this day and age, actual enforcement of the rule will be more consistent and most bowlers wouldn’t be inclined to do a favour a la Courtney Walsh.
The concept of runners is also to be abolished henceforth. Batsmen have been requesting runners even when they are, as the phrase goes, less than 100% fit and not necessarily hampered in their movements. This move hasn’t come a moment too soon. But, better late than never.
Lastly, let’s look at the most contentious and confusing new rule. Batsmen can be given out for obstructing the field if they change their course without a reasonable cause so as to place themselves in the trajectory of the fielder’s throw. It would be immaterial if a run out would have been affected but for the batsman doing so. A batsman can also be given out for obstructing the field if the umpire believes that any other of his actions suggest he intended to obstruct the field. The umpire will be allowed to consult the third umpire to adjudicate on such calls.
Irrespective of that, “Obstructing the field” might well become the new lbw of cricket, given that it is subjective and ambiguous. There is also a possibility that fielding teams may attempt to manipulate such decisions in their favour, especially if they have really big guys doing the bowling.
I don’t know that controversy is necessarily a bad thing, so my view on this is rather ambivalent. However, I have not noticed obstructing the field to be such a significant issue in recent times to require such a stringent rule. So, it is also harder to anticipate how and in what way it will impact the game.
So, irrespective of how closely contested or not the upcoming India-England series will be, it will be a closely-watched series, especially for officials. How these rules pass their first test has significant import for ODI cricket and we must hope there are more answers than questions for us from this series. India is not the most ideal venue to put the two new balls rule to test and we must hope its initial reception is not disastrous and discouraging.
(Madan Mohan, a 25-year old CA from Mumbai, is passionate about writing, music and cricket. Writing on cricket is like the icing on the cake)