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Opinion

Bowlers versus batsmen: Whose game is it really?

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Roar Rookie
31st July, 2020
15

A talking point that often comes up regarding the state of cricket is the balance between bat and ball.

Many people say that in modern times cricket is becoming too much of a batsman’s game, and their usual arguments are somewhat convincing: smaller boundaries, bigger bats, the minimally swinging white ball and tight restrictions on bouncers. On the other hand I’m sure I’ve seen articles and statistics showing that average scores have dipped a little in recent years, as pitch curators have moved away from lifeless roads and have given the bowlers a little bit more to work with.

So who is really favoured – bowlers or batsmen? Given cricket’s rich statistical resources I’m sure it’s entirely possibly to answer this with numbers, but I’m not going to. I’ll leave that to people who are much better at data mining than me. I’m instead going to dive into a fun hypothetical that might half answer the question but more importantly should lead to some rollicking debate.

The hypothetical: select an XI of the best current Test bowlers and an XI of the best current Test batsmen, then pit them against each other in an imaginary match. Do the same for ODIs and T20s. Whichever side wins tells us which discipline is favoured by that particular format.

As I said, this really isn’t a scientific or definitive way of proving the balance, it’s more of an enjoyable exercise in imagining both the make up of the XIs and which side would win. I think it does give us a fair indication of how each format is balanced, but not a conclusive one.

Needless to say it’s also very subjective, so please don’t rip into me if you don’t agree – just tell us your own thoughts!

Australian seamer Josh Hazlewood.

(Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

A couple of final notes on my rules of selection, before getting into them.
• I gave each XI a generic keeper instead of selecting real-world keepers, mostly because the bowlers XI wouldn’t have any realistic selections. I also didn’t want any team to be favoured by one keeper being a better batsman.
• This means that each team is really the top ten of either bowlers or batsmen, but that’s fine. A nice round number.
• I selected my teams with an eye to being flexible in response to changing conditions. This is more applicable to bowlers, where I made sure to include spinners in case of spinning tracks, but it could also be relevant for batsmen (such as selecting David Warner even though he’s rubbish overseas).
• I’ve put the teams in rough batting order, not in excellence order. I admit it looks a bit weird but it isn’t the most important element.
• In deciding the ten best bowlers or batsmen, I’ve used the ICC rankings, stats from 2019-2020 and a sprinkling of intuition.

Without further ado, here we go!

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Test bowlers
1. Ravi Jadeja
2. Jason Holder
3. Ravi Ashwin
4. Pat Cummins
5. Mitch Starc
6. Kagiso Rabada
7. Generic keeper
8. Neil Wagner
9. Tim Southee
10. Nathan Lyon
11. Stuart Broad

Test batsmen
1. David Warner
2. Mayank Agarwal
3. Marnus Labuschagne
4. Steve Smith
5. Virat Kohli
6. Ben Stokes
7. Generic keeper
8. Babar Azam
9. Ajinkya Rahane
10. Ross Taylor
11. Joe Root

I would pay a considerable amount of dollarydoos to watch this match. ICC, can we make this happen? Perhaps these pandemicky times are the best times for an awesome exhibition match like this.

Anyway, the teams. The bowlers have variety in their spinners (Jadeja: accurate left-arm orthodox, Lyon: traditional, bounce-extracting offie, Ashwin: tricks and turn), variety in their pacemen (Starc: outright pace, Holder and Southee: swing, Broad: seam, Wagner: bouncers, Rabada and Cummins: everything) and fairly good batting ability. The batsmen have blasters (Warner, Agarwal, Stokes), accumulators (Azam, Rahane, Taylor, Root) and outright freaks (Smith, Kohli, Labuschagne).

But who would win? Let’s start with each side doing their specialty, batsmen batting and bowlers bowling. The first important things to be considered are that you could find a match-up for pretty much any of the batsmen, and the bowlers could rotate so frequently they’d never get too tired. Secondly, even stars have failures, so I think you could expect maybe three cheap scores from the XI. The others would get in and probably get to 40-odd, but the constant churn of new, fresh and world-class bowlers would stop them ever running away with it. Therefore I’d say the expected team score would be around 300.

Australian fast bowler Pat Cummins.

(Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Then what happens when they swap around? Well, the bowler’s top three have 19 first-class centuries to their names, genuine stroke-making ability down to number nine and a number 11 with a Test top score of 169. The batsmen have Stokes, and that’s about it. The loopy leggies of Smith and Smith 2.0 might tempt a couple of the more impatient ones into ugly swipes, but really there’s nothing stopping the bowlers going past the batsmen and putting up 400-plus.

And that for me seems to answer the question. The amount of bowling required in a Test is just so much that a team of bowlers should normally beat a team of equally talented batsmen, across all Tests and not just for these particular XIs.

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Having dealt with the grandfather of the formats, we’re jumping straight to the cheeky young whippersnapper, T20s. Don’t worry, I’m deliberately leaving ODIs for last.

I’m not as much of a nuffie with T20s as I am with Tests, so don’t crucify me if I’ve missed someone in these XIs. I’ve had to rely on stats more than my general knowledge, and traditional stats are less helpful for T20s than the other formats. Anyway, here are my teams.

T20 bowlers
1. Sunil Narine
2. Chris Jordan
3. Rashid Khan
4. Mohammad Nabi
5. Kagiso Rabada
6. Adam Zampa
7. Generic keeper
8. Lasith Malinga
9. Sandeep Lamichhane
10. Mujeeb Ur Rahman
11. Imran Tahir

T20 batsmen
1. David Warner
2. Chris Gayle
3. AB de Villiers
4. Virat Kohli
5. Babar Azam
6. KL Rahul
7. Generic keeper
8. Glenn Maxwell
9. Andre Russell
10. Kieron Pollard
11. Nicholas Pooran

The most significant difference here is that not all of the bowlers will be able to have a significant influence. You could easily have the situation where one bowler gets on a roll and deserves all four overs, thereby totally taking another bowler out of the attack. That’s just with one – if you gamble by bowling out a few others it means not using three or four of the world’s best bowlers, without a guarantee of success.

This limitation of opportunity doesn’t apply so much to the batsmen because two or three batsmen can get on a roll and bat for the entire innings, which is a near certain guarantee of success, and if not then all the other batsmen are trained to be explosive with very little preparation time. Basically, in a T20, a team of bowlers is structurally limited from displaying all their brilliance while the batsmen can theoretically contribute all they have.

Also, bowler-batsman match-ups in T20s become far more vital and are curiously also weighted more in favour of batsmen. If you pick a certain bowler precisely for a certain batsman in a Test match and it goes pear-shaped, you can pull them from the attack and not suffer too much damage. Hell, you can even afford to give them another over just to see if things change.

In a T20, there’s no such luxury. Just one bad over is a significant chunk of the game and can seriously swing momentum. And if you do get the wicket? Well, there’s a new batsman and your match-up is now meaningless!

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Glenn Maxwell.

(Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

So the upshot of all this? When the batsmen have a swing I think they’ll be able to amass a decent total (whatever that is nowadays, 160?). Knowing their depth down to 11, each batsman knows they only need to each hang around for a minimum of two overs, and will probably last longer, so you’ve got 20 overs of unrestrained explosive batting. The bowlers are good, of course, and will pick up a few wickets, but I can’t see them hauling in this power-packed line-up for the entire innings.

Now to reverse the roles. Among the batsmen is some decent bowling experience (Maxwell, Russell, Pollard, Gayle) and the bowlers’ top four can seriously swing. I think the batsmen have it easier though. Unlike in Tests, they don’t need to create opportunities though good skill – they just need to land the ball in good enough areas and watch the RRR creep up. On the other hand the bowlers need to be proactive in their non-specialist skill. They can’t just keep the balls out, they need to take risks and find the boundaries.

For these reasons I think the batsmen win this match, while also revealing the deeper T20 imbalance in favour of the bat. The compressed nature of the format amplifies the value of taking risks and the importance of luck – in a T20 innings a batsman can swing wildly and get lucky for two overs, which can seriously influence the match. In a Test match luck might get you a quick 20 runs but you won’t decide the match with that.

Onto our final format. I left it for last because I think it is the most finely balanced and hardest to pick. Again, when picking the teams I made sure to have a good look at the stats and not just my own assumptions, which has brought up a few lesser known names. Here they are.

ODI bowlers
1. Pat Cummins
2. Chris Woakes
3. Mitch Starc
4. Rashid Khan
5. Mohammad Shami
6. Kagiso Rabada
7. Generic keeper
8. Kuldeep Yadav
9. Mustafizur Rahman
10. Trent Boult
11. Jasprit Bumrah

ODI batsmen
1. Rohit Sharma
2. David Warner
3. Jason Roy
4. Virat Kohli
5. Ross Taylor
6. Babar Azam
7. Generic keeper
8. Shai Hope
9. Kane Williamson
10. Faf du Plessis
11. Joe Root

Again this would be an enthralling contest to watch in real life. The bowlers are mostly pacemen but still have great variety, while the batsmen again have blasters and accumulators. Apologies for the strange order for the batsmen, three openers is okay but everyone else was just a three or four. It doesn’t really matter, but Root at 11 does look strange.

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Let’s get into the match. The first thing I notice is that the bowlers have enough time in the match for each person to make a decent contribution, unlike in the T20s, but not so long that they can dominate the batsmen’s innings. With an average of five overs each, they can work up a good rhythm and try to set up a batsman, but conversely it’s just short enough for the batsmen to bunker down and see them off without damaging the run rate too much. Obviously some bowlers will get more overs as they get on a roll, but unlike the T20s this doesn’t completely take out the rest of the team’s bowlers. They may still chip in with an over or two. Overall it’s a fine balance for the bowlers, as they’re given some breathing space to settle in to their work, but not much.

It’s also a very fine balance for the batsmen. Knowing the unending depth of quality in the bowler’s line-up they can’t be too reckless with their wickets, but the limitation of time also means they can’t sit around for too long either. In this situation I think the batsmen would need to get more of their runs by pinching singles and twos than smacking the bad balls for fours and sixes. There will be some bad balls to put away, but not many at all. Also, this suffocating bowling will last the entire innings, so I don’t think the batsmen will be able to have as much of a slogging period at the death as they usually do.

David Warner after being dismissed at the Cricket World Cup.

(Photo by Henry Browne/Getty Images)

Because of all this, I think the batsmen will post a score of around 200-210, for the loss of around eight wickets. It will be an intense, delightfully combative innings all the way through.

And now to swap around the final innings. The bowling batsmen (not a confusing phrase at all) have an interesting tightrope to walk. They don’t have the skill to blast out wickets, so they’ll focus mostly on containing the runs, keeping it accurate and letting pressure create wickets. But they can’t be too passive. The RRR is not high, and they need to stop the game drifting away from them. So at times they’ll need to set attacking fields, which will give the batting bowlers more opportunities.

In terms of who can do most of the bowling, I’m sure Root and Williamson will be bowling their full ten each, and Kohli’s weird military mediums should get a decent showing too.

For the batting bowlers, they face the other side of this conundrum. There’s the temptation to start slogging and knock over a good chunk of the runs by the 20-over mark, but if they lose wickets four or five wickets then 30 overs is a long time to survive until the end. There is some proper batting talent down to Rabada at six, but after that things get a bit iffy.

So the final result? My thoughts are… no idea! Instead I’ll let everyone else tell me what they think. I really can’t pick it, which for me shows how perfectly balanced this format is. Both bowlers and batsmen get just enough opportunity to really show off their talents, but only if they squeeze out all they’ve got in the limited time. I’ve always thought the most competitive and interesting ODI scores are in the 220-300 range. These are games where both batting and bowling excellence can be rewarded, either with a run-a-ball century or incisive six-for.

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The original question was whether cricket is a bowler’s game or a batsman’s game. My final answer is that it depends on the format: Tests favour bowlers, T20s favour batsmen, and ODIs are split.