@ Getty Images (representational photo)
@ Getty Images (representational photo)

It is common for us, fans of cricket, the queen of all sports, to rubbish what they play in 2018. Steven Smith s superhuman numbers are typically not taken seriously. Virat Kohli faces the same treatment when ODI batsmen across eras are compared, and so on.

The balance between bat and ball is not the same anymore, they say. Superbats, smaller boundaries, and flatter pitches are killing the sport, they say. Batsmen of the past played on uncovered wickets without protective gear, while bowlers were armed with Molotov cocktails. Okay, maybe not the last bit.

The batting average in Test cricket has remained more or less the same since the Great War. In fact, the average in 1930s (31.88) and the current decade (31.97) are quite comparable. Barring a high (34.26 in the 1940s) and a low (27.38 in the 1950s), the number has always remained between 29.45 and 32.02.

But this is not the usual CricketCountry article that challenges myths and norms with data. This deals with the pre-War era, when batting was more difficult, mostly because wickets were not standardised. The average was below 19 in each of the first two decades of Test cricket and below 26 in each of its next three, so the difference is significant.

Were the pundits happy back then? Did they complain about the ball being the dominant force? Let me refer to a 1903 book here. Edited by Gilbert Jessop, Cricket had five contributors Jessop himself, KS Ranjitsinhji, CB Fry, Charlie Townsend, and George Brann.

Let me begin by quoting Jessop himself: The undue prominence bestowed on baiting is in a large measure accountable for the dearth of good bowlers. To set a batsman who has scored fifty runs on a good wicket on the same level with the bowler, who may have caused the dismissal of half the side, is unfair to the latter. Many County Committees award a guinea as talent money to any professional who scores fifty runs, and the same sum to a bowler taking five wickets, thereby encouraging batting at the expense of bowling. To score fifty runs is a simple matter indeed compared with the task of disposing of half a side, and it therefore stands to reason that a bowler who may possess some little talent as a batsman will endeavour to cultivate his batting, even at the expense of his bowling, when he sees it is manifestly to his advantage to do so.

It seems that the sport was tilted towards batsmen even at that point. However, Jessop merely touches upon the prize money here and not the sport per se. But then, remember how we critics and fans alike keep complaining that the Players of the Match are almost always batsmen?

Let us move on to Townsend. For the uninitiated, Townsend was a Gloucestershire and England all-rounder (9,512 runs at 30, 725 wickets at 23), and therefore had no reason to be biased towards bowlers.

Even then, Townsend wrote: There is no question that the general run of wickets that are played upon today are immensely superior to what they were even ten years ago. At that time, of course, there were many good ones, but still more bad ones. Nowadays, what with Nottinghamshire marl and various manure preparations, it is possible to make a perfect wicket on soils before considered hopeless, and it is hard to say where you will meet with a bad wicket in County cricket.

Ah, isn t this a common complaint these days? That wickets have got easier for batsmen that they are full of runs that ICC orders batting-friendly wickets for better television viewership ? It seemed they and we are not discussing ordinary fans here had the same issue well over a century ago, in an era when Test batting average was eight runs fewer than today.

This was also the era when wickets were left uncovered. Play resumed once rain stopped, at times on pitches that resembled gluepots. And yet, there were notions that wickets were good for batting: were the fans of bowlers ever satisfied? Will I be ever satisfied with the balance between bat and ball?

Townsend continued: The bats themselves have improved to a great extent. Every year they seem to bring out better bats, and to make them with better balance, better handles, and generally better shape. It is true that a good player in form would make runs with a broom handle, but the better his bat, the better he will play. There is nothing more delightful than having confidence in your bat, to know and feel that you have only to play forward and the ball will go for four, or that if you do have a hit up in the air it will sail over every one and land among the seats. Such a bat as this W. G. used in 1895, when he made his thousand runs in May. It was made by Nicholls, and the ball seemed literally to fly off it. Of course this was in a great measure due to the Doctor s marvellous timing; yet it was a wonderful weapon!

Remember that photograph of Barry Richards holding his own old bat (the one he had used to smash 325 in a day) and David Warner s? It is a tendency of ours to underplay batting feats of contemporaries for they use superior bats.

What we do forget is that superbats are nothing new. Bats have evolved over time, and the evolution has been a continuous process. Had Fuller Pilch lived till 1895, a photographer might have captured him holding his own and WG Grace s a la Barry Richards

But let us get back to Townsend, who had suggested a remedy. He wanted the wickets to be two or three inches taller or an inch wider, though if given a choice, he would prefer the former. If the stumps stood too wide, a fourth stump (and hence three bails) could be used.

Note: Townsend s suggestion turned out to be prophetic, though not immediately. MCC changed Law 6 in 1931. The eight-inch-wide stumps could now be not less than eight inches and no more than nine inches in width . The height, previously 27 inches, was modified to not less than twenty-seven inches nor more than twenty-eight inches . The bails were adapted accordingly. Law 4 had been changed four years prior to that. The diameter of the ball, earlier fixed between 9 and 9.25 , was reduced to a range between 8.8125 and 9 .

In other words, there has been nothing new about the batsmen gaining undue advantage in cricket. It has always been there, as bats and wickets improved over time and protective gear has arrived.

A leg-side wide or a free hit may sound unfair, but they have only helped reduce extras a field very few spectators have cared for. As for protective gear, Eric Rowan cared for neither the gloves nor the box, but is seldom credited for that.

A word or two on headgear

The 1970s and 1980s had witnessed the arrival and spread of helmets. Several cricketers refused to don the clumsy headgear, but that was by choice not by compulsion. There is no reason they should be deemed superior batsmen simply because they refused to wear protective headgear while Dennis Amiss and Graham Yallop took the safety-first path.

Cricket gear has increased in quantity and improved in quality. There cannot be anything wrong in that. Whenever the need had arisen, cricketers have improvised. Patsy Hendren s 1933 helmet was ridiculous, but there was no doubt that he was in desperate need for a proper alternative.

Even before that, back in 1870, George Summers was felled at Lord s (it took his life). Richard Daft, next man in, wrapped his head in a towel when he came out to bat. Pads became mainstream after 1836, when Alfred Mynn received a blow that resulted in near-amputation.

Every single bit of cricket gear had to be invented but that does not necessarily mean that batsmen before the invention were superior to their successors.

In conclusion

We keep forgetting that batting is a reactive science. However equipped he may be, a batsman has to adjust according to what the bowler hurls at him.

Three years before the book was written, Bernard Bosanquet had bowled the first important googly in a county match. The art was imported to South Africa, who beat England at their own weapon with a band of four googly bowlers.

Roughly around the same time, George Hirst was taking the swerve (what we call swing these days) to new levels: poor Sammy Woods asked in despair: How the devil can you play a ball that comes at you like a hard throw-in from cover-point?

The batsmen adapted accordingly. When Douglas Jardine unleashed his Bodyline brigade, Don Bradman was reduced to a mortal but still averaged in excess of fifty, a chunk of his runs scored by moving away towards leg and hitting towards off. There is no doubt that he would have improved, even against Bodyline. And anyway, the strategy was too dangerous to continue

But the innovations kept coming, the flipper, reverse-swing, the doosra, the carrom ball. And batsmen responded to every single one. The ones that failed succumbed to natural selection. With fielding also improving with every passing day, batting became increasingly difficult unless the batsman adjusted.

And he adjusted. The reverse sweep and later, the switch hit, were excavated from behind 19th-century mothballs. Just like WG Grace had dared to play both forward. Ranji had popularised the stroke behind the wicketkeeper on the leg-side. Victor Trumper played shots around the park.

Batsmen, many of them, moved down the pitch to fast bowlers. Eddie Barlow mastered the uppercut. Douglas Marillier made the scoop popular a shot later improved by Tillakaratne Dilshan. Brendon McCullum cross-batted his way to glory. AB de Villiers demonstrated how the yorker was not a safe option anymore by getting under it. And Steven Smith refuses to accept any norm.

They keep evolving, batsmen and bowlers. They always have. Throughout the course of time the bowler has tried to find new ways to get at the batsman, the most significant of which was over-arm bowling.

One may argue that some tactics (Bodyline, ball-tampering, chucking) have been outlawed, but then, as we have seen, the ball was made smaller and the stumps larger.

The batsman has tried to adapt, to counter, to combat, to score despite all these innovations. Obviously, they needed to innovate, too, and the evolution of gears and pitches were only inevitable. Things have not really got batsman-friendly the average, you see, still hovers around the 31-mark, the same as eighty years ago.

The greatest bowlers and batsmen have always stood the test of time. Smith and Kohli will, too, as will other champions of the era.