As India embark for the limited over series in England from the end of this month, the signs are deliriously exciting for the Indian batsmen, as recent one-day internationals there have witnessed nothing less that run gluts of fantastical proportions. But not so much for the bowlers, who must have already started dreading the nature of some of the pitches they might encounter.
Sample these. On June 8, 2016, at the end of a game between Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire at Trent Bridge, where 794 runs were looted in a 50-over List A game at Trent Bridge, the umpires gave marks to the pitch. It was expectedly high, positive. Just two days before that, 870 runs were amassed at the same venue by Nottinghamshire and Northamptonshire. The runs kept flowing so much that Trent Bridge averaged 5.96 in 2016. Six is the highest, and in the words of Gary Barwell, chief curator at Edgbaston, “I can foresee a day when 5.9 is rated only 18th in country.” That day is here, now.
Till four years ago, Trent Bridge had an average ODI score of close to 230 in the first and the second innings of ODIs. All that has changed now. Steve Birks, head curator at Nottingham, has been awarded as “The Best Groundsman of the year” twice in a span of seven years by the English Cricket Board (ECB). Incidentally, the pitch where England shock-and-awed Australia with 481 runs was the same track where England smashed 444 for 3 against Pakistan in 2016.
That in nutshell is the story of English ODI cricket. It’s not just that the national team has changed as evidenced by the recent plundering of Australia; English cricket has changed.
Flat pitches have been awarded the highest pitch marks — the idea that flatter pitches and run fests produce better performance appraisal of the curators has led to the dramatic rise of English ODI cricket. So much so that last May, Barwell told Cricinfo that if England wins the Champions Trophy, “I’d like to think the groundstaff around the country will have played a small part in their success.”
On June 9, 2015, England raked up 408 against New Zealand. The floodgates were opened and runs have continued to burst out. For years before that, England’s ODI cricket was a yawn. Out of tune with rest of world, crawling away anonymously, and there was even a hint of condescension about pyjama cricket as the limited-overs variety was called. Only two English batsmen had even managed to score over 5000 ODI runs. And one of them, the one right at the top, is originally an Irishman.
Suddenly, the mood and intent has swung the other way and they have decided that to kickstart England out of ODI slumber, tradition had to die. The romantic notions of swinging ball that would tease out the best of the batsmen had to be buried. Instead, flat pancakes were served.
For years, English batsmen wouldn’t even dare to hit through the line even on flatter tracks elsewhere in the world. As they weren’t accustomed to do it. You would hardly see a free bat flow from Englishmen. There would be a stutter, a wait, and perhaps a punch. Not those freeflowing monstrous bat swings that we see from the likes of Alex Hales. They had to even push an aging Ian Botham to open in the early 90’s as he was the only one who could swing. The changing nature of English cricket can be best seen through the career of Johnny Bairstow. In his first 23 ODIs, he had 514 runs at 32.12 at a strike rate of 86.67. In the next 22 ODIs, he has blasted 1,251 runs at average of 70 and a strike rate of 109.77.
Not a single Englishman featured in the top 15 fastest ODI centuries list till three years ago. Now there are 4 entries: Jos Buttler, Jason Roy and Bairstow. Then there is Alex Hales. He has scored at strike-rates over 200 in the last two years at Nottingham.
Put it down to pitches. Between 1999 and 2014, only 30 scores of over 300 were registered in those 15 years.
In the last three years, there have been already 33 scores over 300 — and 8 over 350 and 3 over 400. There have been 7 scores over 200 in last year’s Natwest T20 Blast at Trent Bridge. Even India doesn’t produce such patta tracks even in IPL. Lungi Ngidi, South African who played for Chennai Super Kings, even publicly commented about how he was surprised by the bounce on offer at IPL. He had expected flat tracks but found that he didn’t have to dramatically change his bowling style. He would have to in England.
Along came the Kookaburra, and changed English ODI cricket. They play with Dukes ball in the Tests but the adoption of two new Kookaburra balls in ODI and English domestic cricket has changed the landscape.
No swing for Kookaburra
The kookaburra hardly swings, and doesn’t get too soft later in the innings, and with two new balls from either end, they hardly go soft anyways. Dilip Jijodia, the man whose factory produces Dukes ball, told this newspaper that it all came down to commercial interests.
“They stopped using Dukes in one-day cricket on English soil in 1999. What happened is in 1999, Readers, which is owned by Kookaburra now was the other UK manufacturer then. They did tests. They said we’ll go to the nets in Lord’s and Canterbury and they tested them. Everybody was there. After performance, they said we choose Dukes. There was no money or anything. Just a straightforward choice.
“The next World Cup was in South Africa, and Kookaburra was supplying balls anyway for them. They got in and said we’ll pay you and give you some cash back to the ICC. Once you start doing that you devalue the product. Where is the money coming from? Then they went around telling everybody this is the official World Cup ball. All the southern hemisphere. It became more a marketing thing rather than a product thing. So, the ECB then started saying that everybody else is using it so we’ll also start using it.”
That was it. Kookaburra ball and flat pitches have dramatically turned around England’s ODI cricket, and there is no end to the run fest in sight. Years ago Tony Grieg made the line “Look at the white ball fly” popular during games in subcontinent; now it’s more apt to be used in the country that used to snob about pyjama cricket in the not-so-distant past.