Saturday, January 19, 2008

Bowling vs Batting

Most of us believe that the bowler is more important in Test matches than the batsman. They are there to win you Test matches. Perhaps the great bowling sides of 70's and 80's have also supported this 'bowlers are king' theory. Today we will explore the validity of this assumption.

For all their runs the batsmen won't get you the 20 opposition wickets you need to be a victor. To get the 2 points you need 4 good men to handle the red cherry. The value of bowlers can not be undermined in any way.

But the coin has another side. The batsman can score 600+ in an innings and make sure that the opposition will never win the game. For all their wickets, the bowlers cannot ensure that the draw is the worst result for their team. Fundamental difference is good performances from bowlers shorten the game while competent batting ensures greater length of play.

Let us put it this way: a team requires a good bowling arsenal to turn (i) a potential loss to a win, and (ii) a potential draw to a win.

However the bowlers cannot turn a potential loss to a draw. You need the batsmen there. And the only time a self-respecting team considers a draw a decent result is while playing a better team. That is because against the better team a loss is more likely than a win, and when the former looms large the draw seems more honourable. Batsmen must stand up and be counted against higher ranked opposition.

But then the need to opt for a draw depends on the game situation. The importance of the batsmen's performance, therefore, is a dynamic quality. Are the bowlers allowed to think likewise? Are they exempted from performing in the 3rd innings when at the end of the second innings the team will be happy to earn a draw by batting out the 4th innings? They are not. We need the bowlers to do well regardless. As long as a team keeps winning as the first option the bowlers will have to strive for wickets irrespective of quality of opposition and game situation.

That is where the bowlers are important: they drive quality through the very nature of their role. They bowl to win. Their primary role is to aim for the ultimate result - a win - while the batsmen's primary role is to support bowlers by giving them time and runs to achieve the aim.

We tend to think of big 4th innings chases where the batsmen are apparently 'batting to win'. Are the batsmen too not winning us games there? Well, are they? There may be the odd instance when they actually are winning games that could only be won by them (Brian Lara scoring 15o odd against Australia in 1999 comes back to my mind). At all other times in 4th innings chases the batsmen may only be playing catch up, covering up for their deficiencies in the first innings and / or their bowlers' inadequacies in the two opposition innings.

The ongoing Test match in Perth is a case in point. At the end of the 3rd day the Australian batsmen are battling to make up for their bowling and batting drawbacks. The Indian bowlers are bowling to win. And the best thing about it is the draw being taken out of the equation.


Where does the fielder (the catcher, to be specific) figure in that hierarchy? Well he supports the bowler directly. He is no less important than the batsman. Their positions in the field must also be wisely chosen, much in the way batting orders are for batsmen. Asking Sourav Ganguly to field at point while hunting for wickets is a far bigger indiscretion than asking Rahul Dravid to open the batting in Australia without an adequate notice period (or even not selecting the more compact Dinesh Karthik ahead of Wasim Jaffer as Sehwag's opening partner for Perth).

You may have taken 600 wickets, Mr. Anil Kumble. You are even allowed to bear a grudge that your phenomenal Laxmanesque feat of taking 100+ Aussie wickets at around 5 wickets per match in an era dominated by them has gone virtually unattended in the media. But you cannot put fielders at wrong positions in a match where you need to hold on to all your chances and forget worrying about all other things.

Update: This post was made before start of 4th day's play at Perth. The task turned out to be too steep for Aussie batsmen.