Cricket for Americans: 21 Feb. 2019: Gayle reconsidered

Scoring in cricket is one of the simpler rules to understand. You get a run every time one of the two batsmen runs from their end to the other without the fielding team returning the ball. In this way you can score one, two or three runs at most, usually, per hit. But if you hit the ball over the boundary rope after it takes a bounce, you get four runs. If you hit the ball over the boundary rope on a fly, it counts as six.

And so the “six” isn’t a new thing to cricket. It’s been around for ages. But before the invention of limited overs cricket, it really didn’t happen all that often. It was an aggressive and foolhardy shot in a game that rewarded patience and discipline. But now the short formats reward lightning fast piling up of runs. And so the six has become the SIX. And batsmen are being bred with more brute force. Some say it’s the natural progression of the game in a modern entertainment era. I say the game is not just evolving, it’s morphing into a completely different sport. But that is neither here nor there.

Yesterday I watched the highlights of Chris Gayle’s innings against England in Bridgetown. Six after six after six not just over the boundary rope but out of the stadium. And for the first time it really struck me how much the game has changed, even since I started paying attention. The players are bigger and stronger and can hit the bar with more force and for greater distance than they could even just 10-12 years ago. It’s not about the pure cover drive, it’s about pure strength, muscle.

In fact the game is changing so fast, and so much, in that regard, that soon it might require rule changes. They would be similar to football’s recent change to protect against helmet to helmet hits, or back in the 80s when they reconfigured the javelin because the elite were able to throw it too far and they were landing on the running track. Because that’s the thing: it isn’t just about changing the rules to encourage fewer sixes, or moving the boundary rope like they did with the college 3-point line, or anything like that, they are going to need to change the rules because someone is going to get hurt, or even killed. And it has already happened: in 2014 an umpire in Israel was killed after being struck by a straight drive.

Sixes and big hits over the shed are fun, but cricket’s governing body might need to step in and do something before it spirals out of control and becomes too dangerous for the players and umpires on the other side of those big hits.

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Speaking of Gayle. The always astute Independent sportswriter, Jonathon Liew, tweeted this yesterday after the Windies loss to England in the first ODI:

To cricketing newbs, including me, that seems ridiculous. His century was the only thing that made it interesting, and he got them to a par score of 360 that took England all but eight balls to chase down.

But Jonathon’s point is a valid one, and goes to show how complex the game really is, despite how simple it seems on the outside. Gayle’s innings, some might say, strangled the West Indian batting lineup. He batted too long, and too slowly, and let too many balls drift by his bat. Compare his innings to that of England’s opener, Jason Roy: 123 runs off of 85 balls for a strike rate (the the average number of runs scored per 100 balls faced, the higher the strike rate, the quicker a batsman scores) of 144.7, while Gayle needed 129 balls to score 135 runs for a strike rate of just over 100.

44 more balls — 7.2 overs of a 50 over match, or nearly 15% of all deliveries the West Indies faced — to score just 12 more runs. Despite all those sixes, all those big hits, all those oohs and aahs, Gayle’s effort was a stranglehold, and he focused too much on those sixes. Roy meanwhile only scored three sixes, but hit 15 fours. Gayle’s numbers were almost opposite.

And so while the six is fun, and can help batters score lots of runs very quickly, it doesn’t always win matches, and sometimes it can even lose them.

Cricket, eh?

The game has changed, but not completely, and maybe not forever.

Until tomorrow.

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