Amol Rajan: Bowlers need help to make batting heavy work

Rajan’s Wrong ’Un

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The Independent Online

If my mailbag is anything to go by, this column's suggestion last week that the advent of covered pitches has reduced the quality of the spectacle for many fans is a widely-held view.

Such wickets have particularly disadvantaged spinners, but all bowlers have justification in feeling the game's administrators have been engaged in a decades-long conspiracy against them, of which flat (as well as covered) wickets are a major part. Bowlers also bemoan shorter boundaries and bigger bats, usually in that order. But I'm beginning to think that order should be reversed.

When Albert Trott, a distant relative of Jonathan's, became in 1899 the only player to clear the three-storey pavilion at Lord's, he produced a shot of almost unimaginable strength and timing. As the cricket writer Ivo Tennant has noted, the Victorian pavilion is 210ft from the crease at the Nursery End, and over 50ft high; but what is more, the bat Trott used wouldn't have been nearly as good as today's willow wands.

The moisture content from Trott's bat has evaporated to the extent that it's hard to be certain what it weighed when he used it, though the consensus is it was around 2lb 3oz. These days most bats have a moisture content of between 12 and 15 per cent; for old Albert, it would have been closer to 35 per cent, making the wood a third heavier. Manufacturers today leave the bats to dry in open air to extract the moisture. But the drawback of this method, as Marcus Codrington, chief executive of the bat-maker Mongoose, told Tennant is they "become brittle, lose elasticity, and don't last as long". In Trott's day, a bat lasted years. Some of today's players have more bats than hairs.

Mongoose, founded two years ago, aroused controversy by inventing a bat for Twenty20 with a very long handle, and extended sweet spot. The Mongoose MMi3 is 90 per cent English willow, 10 per cent Kashmiri willow, and looks like a wooden paddle. Matthew Hayden used a heavy bat (over 3lb) in Test cricket, but used a slightly lighter Mongoose in the Indian Premier League.

The latest generation of bats combine lightness with strength, a kind of holy grail for the man in the middle. They come after a prolonged period in which bats at Test level got heavier. Clive Lloyd, Ian Botham and Graham Gooch each used a bat of over 3lbs to bludgeon spinners around the ground. Sachin Tendulkar uses a bat over 3lb, and the South African Lance Klusener reportedly used a bat weighing 3lb 4oz. Paul Collingwood practised in the nets with a bat of over 4lb, so that when he got to the middle his proper bat felt very light. Andrew Flintoff was rare for a modern player in using a very light bat.

Heavy bats incentivise power over skill. They prioritise the bottom hand over the top hand. A quarter of runs in the IPL are scored with sixes, and no wonder. But as bats got heavier, something precious in batting was lost. "The bats got so heavy," said Tom Graveney a few years back, "that the game lost all the top-hand players." Duncan Fearnley, the bat-maker, recalled that when Len Hutton picked up one of Ian Botham's bats, "he said it was the nearest he'd come to holding a railway sleeper".

The latest technology means that bats have bigger sweeter spots, and can be huge, light and powerful at the same time. The old play-off between weight and power is defunct. The top-hand players Graveney so cherished will return in force. But what of the bowlers, the great slaves of the game who no administrator will show concern for? What technological or rule change will advantage them? I suppose suggesting a bigger, more raised seam, or just a smaller ball, would be considered heresy. But heresy is the beginning of wisdom – and progress. Bowlers of the world, unite!

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