The six-hitting revolution is only getting started
At Loughborough last summer, the ECB hosted a brainstorming session discussing the future of batting. The brave new world envisaged by Graham Thorpe, Mark Ramprakash, Trevor Bayliss, Paul Farbrace and Andy Flower was of batting becoming even more powerful, with more sixes hit than ever before, and bowlers struggling to keep up.
Batting's direction of travel is already obvious. The salient question is just how far it will go.
"Watching our players doing range-hitting out in the middle, you realise they're clearing the boundary by 20 or 30 yards," reflects Thorpe, now England's lead batting coach. "It's about having a range of strokes, not just targeting one area."
Across T20Is and ODIs, teams are rejecting the traditional categories of batsmen, and the compromises inherent in selecting between hitters and more reliable anchors. Now everyone can hit. "You need your batsmen to be able to clear the ropes. That's a good starting point," Thorpe says.
Initially, the onset of T20 did not lead to a spate of sixes. From 2006 to 2012, the number of sixes per T20 innings remained steady, at about four; the same was true in ODIs, where the number of sixes per innings remained at about three. In the years since, though, there has been an explosion of maximums, in both limited-overs formats. In ODIs, the number of sixes per match rose from 6.09 in 2012 to 8.73 in 2016 - almost a 50% increase in five years. In T20Is, the number of sixes per innings rose from 4.23 in 2012 to 5.18 in 2016. In both formats, sixes were more common in 2016 than ever before, according to the statistician Ric Finlay.
|Year||Balls per six||Sixes per match||Sixes per 100 fours|
|Year||Balls per six||Sixes per match||Sixes per 100 fours|
And there is no reason to believe that the six revolution will halt anytime soon. "I can't see why this trend wouldn't continue - maybe not at the same pace, but certainly in the same direction," says Flower, the England Lions coach, who has witnessed the belligerence of the next generation.
Modern players "know they have the power and ability," says the power-hitting coach Julian Wood. "Mindset is key. They set themselves up to clear the ropes first, then work back from that to a four, a three, a two or a one."
The very existence of Wood, who has done regular consultancy work for the England Lions is evidence of how hitting is now given a greater emphasis than ever before. "As coaches, we're always trying to get players to grow their self-awareness and to push their boundaries," Flower explains. "A lot is geared towards hitting the ball more powerfully and more confidently."
The rise in batsmen's fitness, strength, and tailored six-hitting practice has come in an era when most substantive changes to the game have been advantageous to batsmen. The introduction of free hits for front-foot no-balls (extended to all no-balls in 2015) in limited-overs cricket, a greater emphasis on policing the 15-degree limit for bowlers straightening their elbows, and advances in bat technology, which have helped psychologically as much as physically - all have combined to embolden batsmen.
Professionalism also means that teams bat deeper than ever; where sides might once have had five players who could be reliably expected to clear the ropes in the death overs, now they have a full team's worth. England have used Adil Rashid, a man with ten first-class hundreds, at No. 11 in ODIs and T20Is. Such depth is not only important in its own right, it creates a wider "team confidence", leading to "greater freedom" among all batsmen, Flower believes.
Advances in fielding might also have expedited the rise in six-hitting. As modern fielders have become so much more athletic, it has become harder to hit through the field, and thus more attractive to hit over it - and the modern player is not deterred by the presence of a fielder. "Players don't mind seeing someone on the boundary and just hitting it over them. In days gone by, the general attitude would have been to find areas where people weren't on the boundary," Flower reflects. In ODIs in 2006, there were 12 sixes for every 100 fours; by 2016, there were 22 for every 100 fours.
Some tinkering around the edges - like restricting bat sizes - will make little difference. "I can't see the introduction of limits on bat depths affecting the outcome much; I see batters just becoming better at hitting the middle of the bat," Wood says. Even within the new regulations, bat manufacturers reckon that they can build even more powerful bats than those that are used today - and, in any case, the bats themselves have only a limited impact on the distances that modern players now hit the ball.
Perhaps most ominous for bowlers is the notion that batsmen have an inherent physiological advantage, which they are only properly exploring now, in the uber-professional age. The theory here is very simple: that, because of the strain that bowling puts upon the body, bowlers can only do so much. "Bowlers will have limited capacity to practise, whereas batsmen can practise almost as much as they like," explains Timothy Olds from the School of Health Sciences at the University of South Australia. In all but extraordinary cases, a lack of practice will impede what ambidextrous bowlers, say, can achieve, even as batsmen become more adept at switch-hitting.
Physiological advantages will enable batsmen to exploit technological improvements. "I envisage 'supraphysiologial' bowling machines that will be able to bowl spin at very high speeds, or bowl hyperspinning balls, which will really improve batting skills, whereas there's not much can be done on the bowling side," Olds says. The ECB is even exploring whether virtual reality could aid batsmen, helping them adjust to bowling conditions before facing their first ball.
Technology has also helped in another way. There tends to be more mystique and individuality in the best bowlers than in the best batsmen, so video technology, while it can help both, is particularly useful for batsmen. Consider how Ajantha Mendis, after a phenomenal start to his international career, was demystified with the aid of video analysis.
Wherever you look, it all adds to the sense that the equilibrium in cricket, the fundamental balance between bat and ball, has never been more disturbed. "You wouldn't want to be a bowler, would you?" Chris Woakes said recently. "If the game keeps going the way it is going, then 500 [in ODIs] is not going to be out of reach… What can we do? I'm not too sure. I don't understand where we can go, other than just to execute better."
Another sport provides an intriguing comparison of what is possible, and where limited-overs cricket could go next. In the National Basketball Association league since 2000, the number of three-point attempts per game (that is, shots taken from furthest away; shots from closer are only worth two points) has doubled, from 13.7 to 26.7. The rise reflects how players are more skilled than ever, and so can shoot from further away with greater accuracy. But it has also been driven by analytics.
Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, is among the most innovative coaches in sport. His use of analytics has informed the Houston Rockets attempting threes at a higher rate than any team in history. Ultimately the reason is simple: threes are the most efficient way to score points. They are riskier than normal two-point shots, and fail more often, but the overall average return is higher because the payoff is 50% greater, just as a six is worth 50% more than a four.
Similar thinking is beginning to pervade T20 cricket too. A growing number of analysts believe that wickets remain overvalued. Many teams end up with 175 for 4, say, when with more ambition they could have reached 190 for 8.
If they are right, then attempts to hit sixes will become more common still in the coming years. The NBA has its three-point revolution; the six-run revolution is long underway in T20 and ODI cricket, but, for all the advances in batting, it remains unfinished. Bowlers could soon have even more reason to feel glum.
Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts