Sunday, July 19, 2020

Battle of the Eras : 1990s vs 2010s

It has been almost 143 years since cricket was officially played as an international sport for the first time. It was in 1877, when an English team toured the Australian shores and played 2 test matches, which are now known as the ‘inaugural’ test matches. But it would surprise many to know that the first cricket match between 2 nations was played even before that – in 1844 between the US and Canada, at St. George’s Cricket Club in New York! The game has evolved a lot over the years, but the maximum expansion has been in last 30 years or so, with the advent of live television broadcasting, the massive amount of sponsorship money coming into the game, the coloured clothing in day-night matches, and many other changes. The rules of the game have also evolved, to make it more interesting for the viewers, and the dwindling interest of the not-so-die-hard cricket fans, led the cricket administrators to come up with a shortened version of the game – the T20 format, which reduces the duration of a match from 8 hours to 3 hours. The introduction of Indian Premier League (IPL) took the world by a storm and the game has only seen more money flowing into the game, and more viewers.
Change in Playing Conditions
From 1992 till 2005, only 2 fielders were allowed outside the 30-yard circle till 15 overs in an ODI, and then 5 fielders till the 50th over. This prompted the rise of swashbuckling openers like Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwithrana of Sri Lanka, who took the ritual of making the most use of fielding restrictions at the start of the innings by hitting the lofted shots. This trend was started by Mark Greatbatch of New Zealand and India’s own Krish Srikkanth. Currently, there are only 2 fielders allowed outside 30-yard circle till 10 overs, only 4 fielders allowed between overs 11-40, and 5 fielders allowed in last 10 overs. This had led to the batsmen having an upper hand and score more runs since there is 1 lesser fielder outside the circle for 30 overs. This prompted Shoaib Akhtar to comment that if this rule were in place earlier, a player like Sachin Tendulkar would have amassed thousands of more runs in his career!
Change in the Pitches
The rules are not the only factor of contention – the pitches have been made to be flatter and less hostile, even in test matches, than they were before the turn of this century. The reason being that the crowd wants to see fours and sixes being hit throughout the match, which makes the poor bowlers look even worse. Same has been the case in past few years.
The image below shows a flat pitch, which is effectively a ‘bowler’s graveyard’.
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The batsmen make merry on this pitch, giving a hiding to the bowlers. These are most common to find these days, since that is the demand of the crowd, to see the batsmen score heavily and get entertained.
However, the pitch below is a ‘green-top’, making the seamers lethal, giving shudders to many a batsman.
It is rare to find such pitches these days, but these were quite common to see in 80’s and 90’s decade, even in the Indian subcontinent, which is known to be conducive for spinners.
Next are the ‘dust bowls’, also known as the spinner’s paradise, which are usually seen in India and Sri Lanka. These make batting almost impossible in the last 2 days of a test match.
And then there are the ‘hard tracks’, which are conducive for both batting and bowling. They neither degrade like dust bowls to assist the spinners, nor are completely flat to dominate the bowling, although the fast bowlers do get a steep bounce, which helps them.
The Charm of 90’s
There are a lot of debate about whether the batsmen of today era would have succeeded in the same way against the bowling attacks of the 90’s. I feel there is merit in that debate
because of all the changes in the playing conditions since then, as I have mentioned above. I won’t necessarily comment that the bowlers of 2010’s don’t have the same quality as their predecessors – bowlers like Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada, Jasprit Bumrah, James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Nathan Lyon, Trent Boult, Mitchell Starc have shown that they have the capability to succeed outside home also. And if we consider that the conditions and rules are stacked against them, it makes their case even stronger. But to say that the threat of these bowlers is not the same as that was of the bowlers in the 90’s, would also be true.
There were some fearsome pacers in 90’s – The 2 W’s of Pakistan (Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis), The 2 C’s of West Indies (Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose), the South African predator Allan Donald and India’s Mysore Express Javagal Srinath can be touted to be fast bowlers, who at some point of time ended up hurting the batsmen physically also. The list grew by the end of the century, with the arrival of the Pakistan’s Rawalpindi Express (Shoaib Akhtar), Australia’s Binga (Brett Lee) and New Zealand’s traffic cop (Shane Bond). These 3 had an enticing contest among them, to decide who would eventually be the fastest bowler, which caused constant nightmares to the poor batsmen facing them. Such express pace, unsettling the batsmen, has been seen very rarely in the current decade.
It was not just the pacers breathing fire at the batsmen, the 90’s saw its fair share of bowlers
with guile and skill to make them greats, even without having express pace. The likes of Australia’s Glenn McGrath and Damien Fleming, India’s Venkatesh Prasad, South Africa’s Shaun Pollock, Sri Lanka’s Chaminda Vaas, the Kiwi Dion Nash and England’s Darren Gough and Dominic Cork are some of the exponents of quality seam and swing bowling, who were equally effective and deadly as the other express bowlers of their generation.
And I am yet to mention the 3 spin wizards, who bamboozled the best of batsmen with their craft and mastery – the Sri Lankan Mutthiah Muralitharan, the Aussie Shane Warne and India’s Anil Kumble. Not surprisingly, they are the 3 leading wicket takers in test cricket, with 800, 708 and 619 wickets, respectively. The record itself speaks volumes about their class. No wonder, tackling such greats of bowling with equally surreal display of masterclass batting made the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara, Rahul Dravid, Ricky Ponting, and Jacques Kallis legends too. 
That is where the comparison between the 2 decades becomes starker. When you have world class batsmen, competing against equally skilled bowlers, in conditions favouring the opponent, while playing in foreign conditions, and still coming out on top, made the contests even more exhilarating to witness. It is not just about wreaking havoc on the batsmen on a green top pitch or a dust bowl or plundering runs against the hapless bowlers on a flat track; it is about showing character and grit in adverse conditions. Bowling an extraordinary spell of fast bowling or laying a trap of spin when the batsmen are well set, or overpowering the bowlers single-handedly when they seem to be running through the batting line up are the traits of greats of the game, and 90’s witnessed a lot of such events. 
The Memories
The events with most recall value in 90’s would be Sachin’s desert storm innings in Sharjah against the invincible Aussies, Brian Lara’s twin tons against the Aussies to win the test matches on his own, Sachin’s heart-breaking effort of 136 against Pakistan at Chennai in a losing cause and Kumble’s 10 wickets in an innings in the next test match to name a few. But there were also some innings which were played in extremely adverse conditions, when the chips were down – case in point would be Sachin and Azhar scoring magnificent quickfire hundreds at Cape Town when the team score was 58/5 and saving a certain follow-on, Azhar’s century in 74 balls against the Proteas at Eden Gardens when the rest of the batsmen had surrendered, and Steve Waugh’s innings of grit and determination  (after being dropped by Herschelle Gibbs) to see the Aussies through against South Africa in a do-or-die match in the 1999 world cup. 
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In the bowling domain, Shane Warne’s magical spells to turn the semi-finals of the 1996 and 1999 world cups on their head, his man of the match winning performance in the 1999 final, and Muralitharan’s figures of 16-220 against England at the Oval in 1998 are forever etched in cricket lover’s minds.
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But in between these epic performances, there were also moments of sheer competitiveness and intensity. There are 2 bowling spells of Allan Donald, who was also known as  ‘White Lightening’, which are a testament to this statement. His spells to Michael Atherton at Trent Bridge and to the Waugh brothers at SCG are moments of pure joy and exhilaration, the kind of adrenaline rush you would get while watching an F1 race! And it is also a fact that these moments came in test matches, which were considered boring and unexciting to watch. But it cannot be denied that without the presence of gritty players like Atherton, Alec Stewart, Steve Waugh, and Rahul Dravid, who used to put an extremely high price tag on their wicket, such battles would not have been possible.
Watch those scintillating spells here:

I mentioned fast bowling spells here as it takes not just skill, but courage to face a hard leather ball coming at your body at close to 100 miles per hour. Any kind of protective covering is not enough to save you from physical harm if you are inept at facing such quality fast bowling. Wasim and Waqar were infamous for their toe crushing yorkers and Ambrose and Walsh for their lethal bouncers. Not to mention that it wasn’t any easier to face the trio of spin wizards, but at least the batsmen only lost their wicket against the spinners, not a part of their body or even worse, their self-belief.
Such spells in this decade have been far and few. The only prominent ones have been Wahab Riaz’s inspired short-pitched bowling to Shane Watson in the 2015 world cup and of course, Mitchell Johnson’s thunderbolts against England at home in 2013-14. His bouncers tore apart the English batting line-up, and even caused Jonathan Trott to leave the tour mid-way and eventually retire, since he found himself at sea against such quality short-pitched bowling, while already struggling with mental health issues. It was a sad incident but again highlighted the fact that fast bowling can trouble the best of batsmen, in different ways.
Below is the link for Wahab’s spell:
Check out Johnson’s fireballs here:

The Conclusion
There is no doubt that quality of cricket has increased in the past decades. There have been many nail biting contests in this decade – let it be the match winning last wicket partnerships in test cricket, headed by Sri Lanka’s Kusal Perera in South Africa or England’s Ben Stokes at Headingly, or probably the greatest cricket match ever – the world cup final 2019. The skills of bowlers like Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada, James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Trent Boult, Jasprit Bumrah and batting greats like Virat Kohli, Steve Smith, Kane Williamson, Rohit Sharma have taken the game to new heights. The fielding standards have also increased massively from 90’s, and now each team is extremely competitive in ground fielding, saving runs and taking extraordinary catches. However, one thing is not as prominent as it was in the 90’s – the match saving innings in adverse conditions in test matches.
For a cricket connoisseur like me, test cricket is the real deal. As the name signifies, it is a true test of skills, determination, and character. The greats of 90’s truly deserve all the praise heaped on them as they had to overcome the difficult conditions and world class bowling to save the matches, which they did manage to accomplish sometimes. Such instances can be counted on fingers in this decade – be it Gautam Gambhir’s marathon innings at Napier in 2009, which saved the match for India and helped to win the series or Faf du Plessis’ century in his debut test match, scoring  110 not out off 376 balls on final day of Adelaide Test in 2012 to save the match for his team. 
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Lastly, a valiant effort by Hashim Amla and AB De Villiers in Delhi in 2015, who played a ‘blockathon’, where ABD scored 43 runs in 297 balls and Amla scored 25 runs in 244 balls. Although India won the match, but such innings show the true skill set of these players, their determination and grind, especially ABD, who holds the record for fastest 50 and 100 runs as well as 150 runs in an ODI. 
Such moments of competitiveness have been very few in this decade, along with the absence of fearful bowlers like the ones in 90’s. The presence of Wasim and Waqar was almost certainly a death knell for the tail enders, so was the reputation of Kumble, Warne and Murali to run through a batting line-up. Ambrose and Walsh were infamous for cleaning up the top-order on the flattest of tracks. Such reputation of bowlers has been hard to find in this decade, and the change in rules, favouring the batsmen is also to be blamed for it.
But again, the cricket fans who witnessed the 70’s decade would feel the same way about the 90’s decade, as there were even more fearsome and dangerous fast bowlers in the 70’s era. The famed pace quartet of the Windies – Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Joel Garner and Colin Croft was almost unplayable as well as Australia’s Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee were equally fast and ruthless. The fact that the batsmen in that era played with even lesser protective covering, without a helmet for most of their careers, and faced the bouncers of these bowlers at their prime, yet scored thousands of runs, makes them seem even more skilled than their successors. West Indies pacers have been renowned for causing fear in the minds of the batsmen. Charlie Griffith nearly killed India’s Nari Contractor with his bouncer in 1962. Malcolm Marshall was one of the toughest bowlers to face and used to bowl vicious bowlers even with his short height.
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Roberts, Holding, Croft and Garner – The fearsome foursome
Eventually, it is all about celebrating the game and relishing the riveting contests between bat and ball. Growing up in the 90’s makes me a bit biased towards that era, but I still enjoy the competition on the field between bat and ball, with performances that would seem nearly impossible in the 90’s era. But records are meant to be broken. As far as comparison of eras is concerned, well, it is always good for a banter and discussion, but it will always be difficult and unfair to compare legends from different eras. Late Richie Benaud also quoted that “a champion from one era, can always be a champion in another.”
By DHCF Nishant Raizaday