What Ranchi tells us about bat sizes
The rearguard is a wonderful thing and not so retro as may be thought. While Peter Handscomb and Shaun Marsh dug deep on Monday, defying India's assumption that the match was theirs (assumption, they say, is the mother of all cock-ups), it was impossible not to wonder if such cricket would survive the 21st century, or even the first 30 years of it. And then the thought occurred that if four-day Tests are introduced, the rearguard might become fashionable again.
It's a cool part of cricket, without being a crowd-puller. In a rearguard, a big bat is irrelevant or, arguably, a hindrance, as edges may carry further. Sixes don't much matter (and neither do "slower-ball" bouncers or sliding boundary saves). What matters is whether batsmen have the mind and method to defend for hours on end; whether bowlers have the skill to outwit them; and that fielders hold on to their catches. During the period of a rearguard - the television viewer's dream, incidentally - you watch the people every bit as closely as the play. Each is under a spotlight controlled by the clock. As the clock runs down, so the tensions, frustrations and potential relief begin to show. It is as if the cricketer is being stripped to the bone.
Twice in recent memory, and famously on each occasion, Australia have been foiled by unlikely rearguards. Monty Panesar and James Anderson caused Ricky Ponting's team untold angst as the minutes ticked away in Cardiff in 2009, and Michael Clarke's men suffered all day long against Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers at Adelaide Oval in 2012. South Africans treated du Plessis' magnificent unbeaten hundred with the same reverence as the thrilling attacking innings played against Australia by their legends Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards at Kingsmead in 1969-70.
Ponting himself pulled off a belter against England at Old Trafford in 2005, though when he fell in the game's dying moments, the crestfallen look upon his face suggested he was sure the match had gone. Not so: somehow, Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath survived till the close. The ground was more than 20,000 full that day, with 20,000 more locked out. Most of them did not get the result they wanted and tore their fingernails to the quick. They will long remember the way the blood fizzed though their veins and their hearts pounded as the almost unbearable tension took hold. Such was the celebration on the Australian balcony that Michael Vaughan used it as motivation. "See," he told his men, "the mighty Australians are celebrating a draw with us!"
This aspect of Test cricket is a major part of its attraction: the argument that the draw is an anomaly doesn't wash. The nature of the long form of the game frequently demands extended, and relatively dreary, periods of engagement - there just aren't that many Adam Gilchrists out there - and four days' play, with considerably more overs packed into each day, may wear down bowlers and create further escape clauses for batsmen with the mind for the job. The message is: don't rule out the draw just yet.
Cricket is a game of opportunity and choice, and of patience and reflection. It is a game of charm that often comes alive through its elements of brutality; in summary it is a game driven by splendid uncertainty. There are so very many ways to go about it that both extrovert and dullard, mind and muscle, can prosper. It is sport but it is also art. These are the reasons why cricket has survived for more than 140 years at Test level. It is a game that began with stick, stone and a wicket gate in the 14th century and arrived at the IPL and Big Bash firework display it has become today. The game will survive as long as it survives its lowest common denominators.
These thoughts were crystallised when watching Handscomb and Marsh in the dark, early hours of an English morning. The colder light of day led to thinking about the bat, which is much talked about at present. The size of the bats used by these two Australians barely mattered; what mattered was how they used them. There was satisfaction, joy even, that their performance relied not on power but on precision and touch.
The MCC Cricket Committee - a body made up of wise and contemporary folk, whose number includes Ponting and Kumar Sangakkara, Brendon McCullum and Charlotte Edwards - has responded to growing concerns about the size of bats by proposing new limits on the dimensions: 40mm for the edge and 67mm to the spine.
"The time has come to restrict the size of bat edges and the overall depth of bats," said Mike Brearley, the chairman of the committee, a year ago. "It was pointed out to us that in 1905 the width of bats was 16mm, and that by 1980 it had increased to 18mm [by this he must surely mean the depth of the edge - amazingly little change over 75 years]. It is now an average, in professional cricket, of 35-40mm, and sometimes up to 60mm. That shows how fast the change has been."
Ponting said the imbalance between bat and ball had been a concern for a while, and that though some current batsmen were worried about limitations being imposed on their strokeplay, the overwhelming feeling was the need for the restoration of a balance between bat and ball. "The current players were surveyed by FICA, and over 60% of them were also concerned with where the size of cricket bats were going," he said. "We don't want to take the game back to the '50s or '60s, we are just worried about where it was going. So the average bat-edge size is now between 38 and 42mm. There are exceptions to it, some guys are using bats with edges in excess of 50mm, and they are the ones we are worried about. We are worried about the real extremes." By which he means David Warner's Kaboom, and the like.
The game needs protection from the lowest common denominator, which includes such extremes. T20 cricket gives us numerous examples of the immense power of the modern player but fewer illustrations of that same player's range. For batting to remain as art, it needs a full palette of colours and a wide range of brush. Any player who feels threatened by the proposed limitation in bat-size might be surprised at his own range of gifts were he to explore them further. Glenn Maxwell's first-innings hundred in Ranchi might be the perfect case in point.
The MCC proposal is about right. Effectively it suggests adopting the present status quo - or the current average size - into the laws of the game, thus ensuring that the extremes Ponting refers to are avoided. There is no need to go back in time, but equally, nobody wants a club to replace the bat, and if they do, they are unlikely to have enjoyed the patience and finesse shown by Handscomb and Marsh. The fact is that the edge and depth of the bat - and thus, the overall mass - has grown suddenly and out of proportion with "fixed" items such as the seam on the ball, the width and height of the wicket, and the length of the boundaries - which, come to think of it, are not fixed but have shrunk. Soon enough, the boundaries will not be able to contain the bats at all.
It is, as Martin Crowe called it, an Everest moment. The technology and craft behind the making of a cricket bat is at its peak. Bravo the manufacturers; time to move for the law-makers. If further evidence is needed, think of the poor old bowler. Small boundaries, cruel field restrictions, and the Kabooms in full force have combined to shred their confidence. They have worked hard at producing multiple clever and skilful variations to compete, but in trying to use them all have lost sight of many of the basics that are essential to their trade.
This is not about being a spoilsport, it is about protecting cricket. Sure, the old guys grumble that the records set back in time have no relationship to the startling events often seen today. But that is not so important as reeling in an aspect of the modern game that is out of perspective and control. For batting to remain aesthetically appealing, or artistic, it needs to be more than just powerful. Batting needs ripples of appreciation every bit as much as roars of approval. It needs both the kindest cut and the cut most cruel.
The ICC has indicated it will look closely at the recommendations made by Brearley's committee. This might lead you to wonder why the ICC is not duty-bound to adopt a new law of the game, but oddly, specific playing conditions can override the laws. Thus, in theory, we could see the new MCC law on bats written into the game by October, applied to first-class, Test and one-day international cricket after that period, but not to the T20 game. In reality, however, that is most unlikely. The MCC had something of a mandate from the ICC to investigate the future for bats and its verdict is overwhelming. Common sense, and a common ground shared by players past and present, should rule the day here. At least let us hope so, for art's sake.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK