The Indian Premier League, indeed all Twenty20 cricket, was designed to thrill – thrill, but from the batting point of view. As if cricket wasn't skewed in favour of batsmen anyway, T20 took things to the next level where bowlers were merely sideshows. Bring in a Hindi movie parallel, and bowlers would be akin to the hero's best friend or the bumbling fat man who brings on the laughs. Someone has to bowl those 20 overs.
If you look at the IPL though, almost imperceptibly, a revolution of sorts has taken place since those early days in 2008. When it started, the bowlers seemed to have accepted their fate. The four-over workday seemed to suit them, and even IPL captains seemed okay with easily conceded runs. Matches, after all, were won and lost by batsmen.
But as is so often the case, practice confounds theory. Bowlers can make a big difference, and it's only after the first couple of seasons that this reality started hitting home. Sure, 'experts' now claim to have known all along that this is how it would pan out, but they were surprisingly quiet through all the churning. Take the case of Sunil Gavaskar, who told me back in 2008: "The IPL will work because fans like nothing better than big sixes and lots of fours. And the acrobatic fielding will certainly get the fans excited."
Nothing on the bowlers, but the fielders figured in his predictions. Lasith Malinga, possibly the most effective limited-overs bowler in world cricket, said on the sidelines of IPL 1. "I have a better grip on these formats because of my yorker," he said. The yorker is the only delivery that works in T20s. Even spinners must try to develop it like Harbhajan Singh has."
No arguments there. In fact, even the other day, Shaun Pollock waxed eloquent on the miraculous effects of the yorker: "The yorker remains the best delivery to bowl, if bowled properly. It's still the toughest delivery to hit straight for a six."
So, over the course of five years of the latest cricket revolution, what really has changed from the bowling point of view that is worth writing about? Well, for every switch hit, you have the wide yorker. For every Dilscoop, you have the slower bouncer. If anything, I see more 'strange' deliveries being bowled these days than innovative strokes being played. A gamut starting with Zaheer Khan's 'knuckle' ball to Harmeet Singh's medium pace leg-spinners.
Think about it. Have you seen a new stroke being played since the scoop over short third man or short fine-leg? Sure, you can say that more and more batsmen have perfected these strokes and are up to the risk of playing them more often than before. Meanwhile, more and more bowlers have worked out the practice of bowling at least four different deliveries every over. Line and length, they used to say once upon a time. Focus on the basics, coaches said till the turn of the millennium – hit the right line and the right length and the movement will do the rest. Now, when coaches talk about the 'basics', they throw in speed as well.
So there is the right, old-fashioned 'line', but with variations extending up to the one that just about skims the white wide mark, the 'length' that can even be around the batsmen's thighs, flirting with the no-ball mark, and of course, the speed. Pollock explains: "Bowlers have picked up new skills and have worked out variations of the slower balls. Most bowlers have more than one slower delivery in their arsenal these days." Siddharth Trivedi of the Rajasthan Royals adds: "From slower bouncers to slower yorkers, we practice a variety of slower deliveries these days."
Is it necessary though? I suppose there is no right or wrong answer in this debate, but are bowlers trying too many things to get what they can? Kepler Wessels thinks so: "If the conditions don't help, then use variations. If the pitch is helping, stick to your best deliveries. You will get hit anyway, but stick to your best suit as much as possible."
It's all that experimentation that has been leading to so many leg-side wides. Go through the stats and you'll find five or six leg-side wides in practically every match – about the same number as in a 100-over game. When you consider that a large proportion of the matches have been decided in the last over, the leg-side wides have clearly played a part. A result of too much experimentation, but also because they are experimenting without having mastered the deliveries. The lesser Indian players have been guilty of this more often than the overseas recruits or the top Indian bowlers.
So what's the conclusion? Well, the IPL is not a batsman's game anymore. Scores aren't touching 180 as often as they did three years ago. The good batsmen are still up there, but bowlers are coming into the picture more. Still, maybe, bowlers – especially the young Indian pacers on the fringe – are trying a bit too hard. Play for par and not more. Over the years, who knows, T20 cricket could well go the way of Italian football – with defenders, and not strikers, winning the Champions League or the World Cup.