April 4, 2017

The six-hitting revolution is only getting started

The power-hitters are breaking new ground. Meanwhile, bowlers are hampered in the development of their skills by a number of factors
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Modern batsmen have the tools and the confidence to clear the ropes regularly © Peter Della Penna

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.

Six-hitting in ODIs
Year Balls per six Sixes per match Sixes per 100 fours
2006 111.84 4.75 12.30
2007 77.26 6.64 17.83
2008 88.26 5.61 16.29
2009 84.91 6.09 16.08
2010 92.28 5.77 15.71
2011 85.53 6.08 16.82
2012 85.24 6.09 17.27
2013 72.74 7.04 18.31
2014 67.01 7.98 19.52
2015 59.16 8.68 20.69
2016 59.30 8.73 21.87

Six-hitting in T20s (across T20Is, Big Bash, CPL, T20 Blast, IPL and Champions League)
Year Balls per six Sixes per match Sixes per 100 fours
2006 28.00 8.02 27.67
2007 25.07 8.25 35.17
2008 26.90 8.17 32.32
2009 29.98 7.62 30.43
2010 26.50 8.49 33.37
2011 28.99 7.59 31.28
2012 26.47 8.30 35.17
2013 25.48 8.84 35.89
2014 22.88 9.82 39.42
2015 22.58 9.90 39.25
2016 21.70 10.15 41.11

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.

If it's in the air, they can't stop it: higher fielding standards have probably contributed to the emphasis on six-hitting © Getty Images

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.

Bowlers have a physiological disadvantage with respect to batsmen, in that their skill is more physically demanding to practise © AFP

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Simon on April 10, 2017, 4:28 GMT

    @espn30857310, I understand where you're coming from. Back in the '90's baseball had the ludicrous 'home run derby controversies' where small traditional grounds were made smaller by drug fuelled Bonds, Sosa etc. Home run tallies that had stood for decades were being broken annually 'til the drugs were banned and new stadia extended dimensions. Cricket quite often shares grounds with their countries winter sports and while Australia has a large oval based winter sport - AFL, New Zealand plays on grounds designed for rugby. The problem that has developed is organisers believing the only way to fill stadiums with spectators is reduce the playing surface and up the boundary hitting. This misses the point that with today's bats, a flick carries into the second tier and boundary riders create no fear. What baseball found was larger grounds brought more contests & ultimately that's what sustains fans. Nothing more thrilling for a fan than your team winning a close one.

  • Simon on April 10, 2017, 4:17 GMT

    BRYCE_CUNNINGHAM, I'm not sure that crowds want more runs, I think they want more contests and for their team to win and history suggests lower scores create more contests. 1st innings ODI scores in the 375-400 bracket doesn't produce cliffhangers. Usually the chasing side, having to go at 8 an over from ball one lose early wickets and they either shut up shop and make 200 on the belter or keep going and are all out for 200 in 25. Either way it is dissatisfying for the crowd. A wicket with some nuance allows for a bat/ball contest with a form batsman being commended for beating the conditions and opponent and likewise a bowler who bowls well. If batsmen continue to be favoured by the rule makers then the game as a contest will be dead and all the six hitting and squealing from commentators will only excite the under 12's at T20 flogfests.

  • Simon on April 10, 2017, 3:59 GMT

    @espn30857310, I understand where you're coming from. Back in the '90's baseball had the ludicrous 'home run derby controversies' where small traditional grounds were made smaller by drug fuelled Bonds, Sosa etc. Home run tallies that had stood for decades were being broken annually 'til the drugs were banned and new stadia extended dimensions. Cricket quite often shares grounds with their countries winter sports and while Australia has a large oval based winter sport - AFL, New Zealand plays on grounds designed for rugby. The problem that has developed is organisers believing the only way to fill stadiums with spectators is reduce the playing surface and up the boundary hitting. This misses the point that with today's bats, a flick carries into the second tier and boundary riders create no fear. What baseball found was larger grounds brought more contests & ultimately that's what sustains fans. Nothing more thrilling for a fan than your team winning a close one.

  • Bryce on April 7, 2017, 10:00 GMT

    You have mentioned all that batsman have going for them and all you have said about bowlers is the obvious that they have greater physiological limitations. First off I think we need to get rid of that free hit rule ASAP because that was brought in to make the game more entertaining and as your stats rightly point out we do not need added incentives anymore. No reference is made how spin bowlers have a much lower physiological cost than pace bowlers. I like some of the things that other posters mentioned that we still have the capacity to tinker with rules such as removing bouncer limits, making fielding restrictions less restrictive, liberalising ball tampering rules, preparing tougher pitches etc. You also make no mention of test cricket the highest standard of the game. Recent series in the subcontinent where all of batsman, seamers and spinners all each had periods of success and failure. The problem lies in that crowds want runs so limited overs pitches are prepared accordingly.

  • Adam on April 6, 2017, 14:43 GMT

    The joy of cricket is in its variety. Even T20 can have variety. Green pitches, flat pitches, dusty pitches; big outfields, small outfields, fast outfields, slow outfields; windy, damp, hot and sunny. The skill of a team is how it masters the variety of conditions better than its opponent.

    Of course, if you only have one type of game with a flat pitch and a small, fast outfield, all the interest goes from the game. It becomes boring and samey. Crowds become restless, attendances dwindle.

  • Chris on April 6, 2017, 12:01 GMT

    ESPN30857310, just so you know, i'd be scared of a 14-year-old boy who can hit a ball over a fence 100m away. that's the distance from home plate to the right- and left-field corners at skydome where the toronto professional baseball team plays. as for why cricket ovals are not as wide as that, they could be, but teams would need more fielders to properly patrol an oval with radius 100m, about 40% larger than one with radius 85m. but, you're right, if late to the party: fans have been begging for longer boundaries for years.

  • Chris on April 6, 2017, 11:48 GMT

    EXFACTOR44, the reason a bowlers' wicket produces more wickets and fewer ooh and ahh moments is because batsmen are accustomed to batting on batting roads. they can't handle effective bowling on bowling wickets. if the batsmen had better batting skills - actual batting skills, not six-hitting skills - they could earn their scores on bowling wickets.

  • legnakavon on April 6, 2017, 9:18 GMT

    Greatest_Shame. I didn't say my son was a better hitter than pro cricketers. I commented on the size of the boundaries after reading ad nauseum about small cricket grounds devaluing sixes, all from cricket lovers. Tell me I'm wrong. Tell me people don't comment on the thick bats resulting in miss hits going for sixes because the grounds are so small. Then comes this article about power hitters. I felt it was hyperbole. I do know more about cricket than you think. Apparently from what I read I know more about it than the average English man, woman or child where, again it is Constantly written, cricket is a minor or fringe sport at best. I can't compare our football or basketball with cricket because there are zero similarities. I choose baseball to compare because both use bat and ball and you can hit the ball, on the fly, for a six or a home run. And balls caught on the fly are outs on both sports. And pitchers/bowlers try to set up batters/batsmen. There the similarities end.

  •   cricfan69564930 on April 6, 2017, 9:14 GMT

    Jono_M....thanks for pointing that out...i am a certified nuffy so only watch cricket...actually i fear that the Americans could take to cricket and get good enough to flog the leading teams...Dear Jose_P...my favourite grounds to view live cricket are the smaller grounds with stands behind the bowlers arm...watched lots in oz but not interested in going to the MCG to watch dots playing cricket...i don't worry for my own safety because i watch every ball...it's the kids who mostly don't watch every ball and that doesn't change regardless of public announcements...i love Pukekura Park in NZ but still can visualise Dimitri Mascahenas hitting 2 sixes into the kids only area as they ran round oblivious...like i said already,seems much easier to revamp the ball and play without all the gear needed using the current ball...traditionally cricket was played with rocks so the leather bone buster is not a traditional cricket ball...cheers

  • Greatest on April 6, 2017, 2:29 GMT

    These are your words. "... the fields my 14 year old son plays baseball on as a junior league player are over 100 meters to the fence..."

    Nice to know that your 14 year old is a "better hitter" than Viv Richards, Gilly, Sehwag, AB, Gayle and the lot. (though in a different game).

    Your further statement saying that, "I know the two sports are as different as night and day" sounds too hollow, when you don't even know the size of most cricket grounds in the world.

    This is the problem (for anybody), when he writes his own comment, just based on the comments of others (often, the ones whose comments they are basing on may exaggerate something or the other to push their POV's), This is more so, especially when you do it without adequate knowledge, unfortunately ending with the kind of responses you got.

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