Batsmen are piling on runs like never before. They are also shrivelling at the first sight of adversity
It was just after tea that reality disintegrated.
Earlier in the day, the laws of physics had still applied. The South African innings of 96 all out had been awful but explicable. Shane Watson had bowled full and straight. The seam had clung to blades of grass and produced small, late deviations. Errors had been forced.
There were also sensible explanations for the first three Australian wickets. Lines, lengths, that sort of thing. Even the score at tea was within the bounds of reality. Thirteen for 3 was bad, but it wasn't bonkers.
No, the moment reality blinked out like a blown light bulb and Newlands slid into a parallel universe - when we all started glancing at each other as if to ask, "Are you seeing this?" - was the first ball after tea on November 10, 2011.
As Morne Morkel ran in with that awkward, angular lope, like a camel cursed with shin splints, you could see he had been thinking. This was going to be a proper ball, the sort you need first up against a rearguard fighter like Mike Hussey. Something rising at the gloves, or perhaps a yorker. Proper cricket.
When he let it go, it wasn't proper. It was a pie, aimed at Hussey's sixth stump. And that's when reality broke. Because that's when Hussey - past his best but still one of the steadiest cricketers in the southern hemisphere that day - reached, lunged, flayed, and it was 13 for 4.
Was it possible, I wondered, that witnessing 23 wickets in a day had been a glimpse of perfection, a tiny peek at the Bowling God who dismisses teams for 0 in ten deliveries?
The rest you know.
All except for this part.
Sitting next to me was my mate Alan Committie. Alan is a successful comedian and knower of cricket. He understands sport's subtexts and undercurrents, and knows how to wring comedy out of the dullest of afternoons. He should have been on fire. But he was going quiet.
I first noticed it when Morkel bounced Mitchell Johnson with the scoreboard showing a ludicrous 18 for 5. While we all cried "Ooo!", Alan looked distracted. When Australia crept into the 20s, he began to fidget. I wasn't imagining it: Alan was getting annoyed with the South Africans.
On 22 for 9, as Peter Siddle avoided a bouncer from Vernon Philander, Alan's frustration flared into anger. "Why," he demanded, slapping his forehead, "would he bowl that shit when it's the full length that's getting the wickets?" When Australia crept past the lowest total ever (26 by New Zealand in 1955) he sighed, resigned. And finally, when Nathan Lyon flicked Dale Steyn down to long-on for three, taking Australia past 36 and ensuring this wouldn't be their worst effort of all time, Alan stood up and bellowed, "They're going to reach 40! Bowl properly, man!"
I tease him about it now and then; about the time he started sulking that his team had allowed the opposition to reach 40 for 9. But I get it. Because I felt it too.
Can watching your side bowl their opponents out for 47 still leave you jaded and mildly disappointed?
© Getty Images
Can watching your side bowl their opponents out for 47 still leave you jaded and mildly disappointed? © Getty Images
I'd seen teams dismissed for under 100 before. Now and then there had been something redeeming in the ruins, like Rahul Dravid's unbeaten 27 as India were shot out for 66 in Durban in 1996. That innings had shown me that calm can be exhilarating, that understatement can be imposing, that less can be more.
But on that November day in 2011, South Africa (and Alan) showed me that too much can feel like not enough. When the laws of nature get upended - when anything becomes possible - you want miracles off every ball. You can get jaded even in the middle of one of the most outrageous days of sport.
Recently I began to worry that the damage was permanent.
South Africa had just run through Australia for 85 in Hobart, and while I was pleased for Philander and new captain Faf du Plessis, I found a disconcerting stillness where the glee should have been.
In Moby Dick, young Pip jumps overboard during a whale hunt and is left floating alone in the vast expanse of the ocean. When he is eventually picked up, hours later, he seems to have gone "mad": the crew dismisses him as an "idiot". But narrator Ishmael realises that Pip has undergone a transformative spiritual experience; that he has glimpsed something infinitely huge, and that his human mind can't cope with what it has seen. ("So man's insanity is heaven's sense," Ishmael explains.)
Was it possible, I wondered, that witnessing 23 wickets in a day had been a glimpse of perfection, a tiny peek at the Bowling God who dismisses teams for 0 in ten deliveries? And if so, had the "sense" of cricket disintegrated for good? Was I now a cricketing Pip, unmoved by banal comings and goings like bowling out Australia for 85 on a helpful Hobart track?
On that November day in 2011, South Africa showed me that too much can feel like not enough
After all, sport thrives on rare and shocking events, the Black Swans that sail through from time to time to shake our preconceptions and jolt us awake; and Test teams getting knocked over for less than 100 is one of cricket's rarest and most shocking events.
It's not the tumble of wickets. Collapses happen all the time. No, what thrills and horrifies about the sub-100 surrender is the fantastical overkill. In the real world, when four or five wickets go down, somebody digs in. Reality reasserts itself. But when teams get rolled for 99 or less, the chaos doesn't stop until the last pillar has been pushed over and salt has been ploughed into the ruins. It's awful. It's magnificent.
That dreadful total, too, resonates with doom. It shouldn't, of course. Objectively speaking, the difference between 99 all out and 100 all out is a call of "No!" instead of a jogged leg-bye. It's nothing. And yet in the imagination they are vastly different scores. One hundred all out is terrible, but somehow it's not abject. Ninety-nine or less, well, that is where shame lives.
It was happening in Hobart. I should have been hyperventilating, but I wasn't. Why? And that's when a little voice - Pip's voice - spoke up calmly and said, "To be fair, it's not that rare, is it?"
Nonsense, I replied. This is the era of hyperinflationary batting. Bats have become flamethrowers. Bowlers are banned just for looking at their fingernails. Modern cricket is to balance and fairness what dynamite in a pond is to fishing. If anything, sub-100 totals would be getting rarer, not more common.
Pakistan's were 87 all out at Lord's in 1954 - Khan Mohammad is bowled by Brian Statham here - but they scrapped for more than 80 overs
© PA Photos
Pakistan's were 87 all out at Lord's in 1954 - Khan Mohammad is bowled by Brian Statham here - but they scrapped for more than 80 overs © PA Photos
"Just count them," said Pip.
So I did, and I realised that since that mad day in 2011 I have seen teams demolished for less than 100 no fewer than six times - and those were just Tests involving South Africa. Was it possible that my muted reactions were simply the result of sub-100 scores becoming much less unusual? Were Black Swans turning out to be grubby, regular swans?
Confused, I went to the record books, where I discovered three peculiar facts.
The first was that I wasn't wrong about batting pile-ons. Test teams are scoring huge totals much more often than they used to. Between 1960 (more or less the start of the current era of covered pitches) and the end of 1999, one in 18 innings would see a team rack up 500 or more. Since the start of 2000, that rate has almost doubled to one in ten. Last year, teams amassed 500 or more on 19 occasions: one in nine.
The second discovery seemed sharply at odds with the first. It was, startlingly, that sub-100 totals have also become much more frequent. From 1960 until 1999, the dreaded double-figures dig happened roughly once every 70 innings. Since 2000, that figure has jumped to one in 47.
The third discovery was perhaps the most curious of all.
For most of Test history, sub-100 debacles have been a sign of technical inadequacy and inexperience. Here and there, a top team has had a bad day, but the teams most regularly rolled for less than 100 have overwhelmingly been those that have not yet grown up and built a solid batting culture. Not surprisingly, the worst offenders in the 2000s were Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, and the wildly erratic Pakistan.
When teams get rolled for 99 or less, the chaos doesn't stop until the last pillar has been pushed over and salt has been ploughed into the ruins. It's awful. It's magnificent
But here's where it gets very peculiar; because since the start of 2010, it's not the minnows that have been the most prone to collapse. Yes, Zimbabwe were rolled for 51 by New Zealand in Napier in 2012, and yes, they might have had a few more debacles had they played more Tests; but their 51 is the only blot by a "bottom three" team this decade. The last time Bangladesh were dismissed for double figures was 2007. West Indies? Back in 2004.
Instead, the repeat offenders are startlingly pedigreed. It won't surprise anyone to learn that Pakistan - part enigma, part flake - lead the field of failure, helped largely by their abject summer in 2010, during which England dismissed them for 80, 72 and 74 inside a month. But the next two most collapse-prone teams? Wobbly Sri Lanka or understaffed New Zealand? Neither. Since 2010, the two most frequently catastrophic teams after Pakistan have been giants: Australia and South Africa.
Why is this happening? Surely it cannot be that Australian and South African batsmen have suddenly dismantled the sophisticated batting cultures that have made them such tough opponents for decades? The answer is, obviously, no. And yet the numbers can't be ignored, which is why a slightly more forensic approach might be needed to explain why these potent batting sides are showing a penchant for self-immolation. And a good place to start looking for answers might be 22 yards away.
Given the explosive nature of sub-100 routs, it's natural to imagine that they are usually caused by equally pyrotechnic bowling. If I asked you to imagine an attack most likely to bowl out a team for 50, you'd be forgiven for picturing three lightning-fast speedsters and a legspinner. Certainly, some memorable double-digit disasters have happened at grounds traditionally enjoyed by the quick men. The WACA, for example, witnessed some spectacular shoot-outs in the 1980s as Dennis Lillee blew away Pakistan for 62 and Michael Holding dismantled Australia for 76.
Rahul Dravid's unbeaten 27 in Durban in 1996 typified the qualities that an old-school No. 6 required
Rahul Dravid's unbeaten 27 in Durban in 1996 typified the qualities that an old-school No. 6 required © AFP
Likewise, spin has accounted for one or two memorable routs, such as South Africa's unconditional surrender in Nagpur in 2015, where R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja left them gibbering on 12 for 5 en route to 79 all out.
But the fact is that pace and big turn are not the detonators under most batting implosions, and the truly dangerous ovals are not the sunbaked, granite-topped or crumbling, dusty arenas of our imaginations.
No, the real killing fields are green and pleasant.
In the last ten years, it has been Newlands, not the WACA, that has seen the most sub-100 innings. Lord's has proved more lethal than the Wanderers or the Gabba.
The reason is simple biomechanics. High pace is frightening but it is not necessarily penetrative. Every year a 19-year-old comes along with napalm in his shoulder and hellfire in his eyes, and every year he is packed off to some academy or another to become a more "complete" bowler, in short, to learn control. Because it is only once he has mastered control that he can exploit and wield the greatest weapon of them all: late movement. It is what the best fear most: sucking them in, convincing them that their shot is on, and then jagging in or ducking away; the limits of human reaction times leaving them stupidly locked in, unable to do anything except watch the nick fly to second slip.
Sachin Tendulkar once said the toughest bowler he faced was Hansie Cronje. For Ricky Ponting, it was Philander. Not ripping legspin or searing pace. Just an endless sequence of intelligent, exposing questions arriving at 130kph: a seam inquisition; an ordeal by subtle deviation.
Unsurprisingly, it is the great seamers, not the tearaways, who dominate the history of sub-100 collapses. Shoaib Akhtar, arguably the fastest bowler of all time, barely features; Waqar Younis is an also-ran. Among past South African greats it is Shaun Pollock rather than Allan Donald who was the demolisher-in-chief. And towering over Australian pace icons Lillee and Jeff Thomson is the greatest seamer of them all: Glenn McGrath. Few bowlers have played a part in more sub-100 massacres (11) than McGrath, and nobody since the Victorian era has taken more wickets in them - 46 at just 5.8 apiece.
In the current decade, four bowlers have haunted the nightmares of brittle batting teams: Stuart Broad, James Anderson, Philander and Steyn have taken almost half of all the wickets to have fallen in collapses.
Broad, especially, has been titanic, taking 40 wickets at 6.17. But Philander could surely stake a claim for being the greatest setter of cats among pigeons in recent years: his 17 wickets in sub-100 innings have cost just four runs apiece and come every 13 deliveries - a better average and strike rate than any of the other giants.
Philander, Broad, Anderson and Steyn are champions. But can they alone explain the 100% increase in sub-100 innings this century? I doubt it. Rather, I think they have been taking advantage of a subtle but important change that has altered the traditional roles of batsmen.
As late as the 1990s, opening batsmen had one job: seeing off the new ball. If they scored a few while they blunted the bowling attack, well, that was a bonus. Michael Slater, scoring at three runs an over, was considered a thrill-crazed anarchist.
In the 2000s, however, the likes of Matthew Hayden and Virender Sehwag redefined the opener's role. Patient defence was no longer enough. Sunil Gavaskar had taken the shine off the ball by leaving it for an hour. Modern openers were expected to do it by smashing the ball into the advertising boards.
Indeed, openers who play late and straight are finding themselves in the bizarre position of being criticised for doing their job. During the Boxing Day Test in Port Elizabeth last year, South African radio commentators (including the coach of the national Under-19 team) fretted that Sri Lanka's openers were not being "bold" enough - five minutes before lunch, facing Kagiso Rabada and Kyle Abbott, chasing 488. Likewise, Stephen Cook has been the subject of some particularly thrill-crazed punditry, as correspondents grumble about his "cautious", "scratchy" approach while blithely forgetting that, after Graeme Smith's retirement and before specialist opener Cook's debut, South Africa's opening stands were invariably nasty, brutish and short.
But it's not only the openers who have been transformed by the game's new ideologies.
For decades, teams had effectively selected three openers: two at the top, and one in the middle. The specialist No. 6 was a vital fail-safe, selected not only for his strokemaking but also for his ability to deal with the second new ball. Increasingly, though, No. 6 batsmen are getting selected to be bullies, not bulwarks, picked for their ability to come in at 300 for 4 and hammer some quick nails into the opposition's coffin - to win Tests, not draw them. All of which is a problem when the madness descends; because if there is ever a time you need patient openers and a technically airtight No. 6, it's when Broad or Philander are getting the ball to nip around like a spiteful ferret.
Vernon Philander: the greatest modern inducer of collapses?
© Getty Images
Vernon Philander: the greatest modern inducer of collapses? © Getty Images
The historical averages paint a telling picture. In all sub-100 innings since 1960, the specialist batsmen contributing the smallest proportion of runs are the openers and the No. 5. This makes sense: the openers have been snuffed out by the new ball, and the No. 5, selected to play shots and without the defensive nous of a No. 3 or No. 4, has found himself in a world of pain at 10 for 3, facing a new, spitting ball.
Enter the fail-safe: the backup opener, No. 6. Between 1960 and 1999, this lynchpin made 13.5% of his team's runs during a collapse - by far the highest proportion. For 40 years he tried to dig in and stem the tide, at least for a few minutes. Sometimes he stonewalled. Dravid's 27 not out in Durban in 1996 was as heroic as any back-to-the-wall hundred I've seen. In 1973 at Trent Bridge, as John Snow and Tony Greig ran through New Zealand for 97, the No. 6, Vic Pollard, a Baptist lay preacher, put aside childish things and hung around for over an hour and a half for his unbeaten 16.
Sometimes, though, when the No. 6 saw the writing on the wall, he attacked. In Port-of-Spain in 1978 the writing was delivered by Andy Roberts, straight into Peter Toohey's face. Australia were headed one way as Gary Cosier walked out into what Wisden called an "ultra-attacking field", but he helped himself to 46 out of 90 runs before being last man out.
And then, of course, there was Kandy in 1984, with Richard Hadlee raising all kinds of hell. Sri Lanka were 14 for 4 when their No. 6 walked in; moments later, they were 18 for 6. At which point the man in question (a certain 20-year-old by the name of Arjuna Ranatunga) decided that enough was enough. When he was finally caught and bowled by John Bracewell he had smashed 51 off 47 balls - over half of Sri Lanka's 97 all out. In the modern era, Ranatunga stands alone as the only No. 6 to make a half-century during a sub-100 collapse.
From 1960 until 1999, the dreaded double-figures dig happened roughly once every 70 innings. Since 2000, that figure has jumped to one in 47
In more recent seasons, however, it sometimes felt as if the old grit had gone. True to form, number fives were still folding like a cheap deck of cards; but why could I remember so little resistance from number sixes?
The memories weren't pretty.
England are 25 for 4 in Galle in 2007 when Ravi Bopara plays an awful, expansive whip across the line to his seventh delivery. In Ahmedabad in 2008, MS Dhoni, feet nowhere, lashes out at a wide one from Morne Morkel and India are 55 for 6 heading to 76 all out. Cardiff, 2011: Prasanna Jayawardene has faced five deliveries when he decides it's time to pull a bouncer from Chris Tremlett and 43 for 6 becomes 43 for 7. In 2013, at the Wanderers, Asad Shafiq has just watched his captain nick off to a Jacques Kallis outswinger to leave Pakistan 37 for 5. An over later, he chases a Philander outswinger around his seventh stump; Pakistan fold for 49. And at Newlands, on that crazy day, Brad Haddin plays perhaps the worst shot of them all, dashing down the wicket outside leg stump to just his third delivery, trying to smash Philander on the up.
Moments of madness - but were number sixes really rolling over more often in a crisis than they used to? Was it fair to pronounce the end of the dogged fail-safe based on half a dozen memories?
The statistics said no. Certainly there had been a dip in the contributions of No. 6 batsmen during collapses in the 2000s, but these figures had been severely skewed by the abject efforts of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, whose middle orders at the time were comprised of lemmings and damp tissue paper. Since 2010, the figures insisted, No. 6 batsmen had returned to their traditional stoicism and were contributing their historic average.
It didn't make sense. Admittedly, I'd seen enough sub-100 innings for them to begin to blur into a single, generalised impression, but I simply could not remember a single middle-order batsman trying to dig in, or holding out for more than a few minutes.
During the modern collapse, each batsman takes guard as he always does, pokes at the pitch, leaves a couple, and then, bizarrely, starts shaping to play shots
© Getty Images
During the modern collapse, each batsman takes guard as he always does, pokes at the pitch, leaves a couple, and then, bizarrely, starts shaping to play shots © Getty Images
And so I went back to the averages one last time, and there it was: a story of spectacular spinelessness. It had been disguised, hidden behind some above-average efforts by Pakistani number sixes, but once I stripped it down, the figures were astonishing.
What they revealed was this: in sub-100 collapses since 2010, South African and Australian number sixes have plumbed depths so low that they are possibly unrivalled in the entire history of Test cricket. Not only have they contributed only 6% of their respective teams' runs (less than half the historic average) they have contributed less than any other batting position, No. 11 included. Ramparts have been outscored by rabbits.
A gaping hole at No. 6 seems to be a compelling explanation for why Australia and South Africa have become so prone to implosions. But then, how to account for the increase in huge scores at the same time? Since 2010, South Africa have passed 500 once every eight innings; Australia, once every seven. How can batsmen be getting simultaneously more dominant and more fragile?
I believe that this phenomenon can be explained by new selection criteria.
Now that openers and number sixes have become attacking weapons rather than defensive insurance, they are much better equipped to take advantage of helpful conditions and to rattle up vast scores; but when things get hairy, they simply don't have the technique or the grim bloody-mindedness to hang around. This isn't just a curmudgeonly generalisation about the spineless youth of today. Unfortunately, the numbers back it up.
To dismiss a team for 150 requires an excellent effort from the bowlers. To dismiss a team for 47, well, that requires the complete involvement of every batsman
In the 1950s, teams facing the prospect of humiliation often hung on with almost ludicrous determination. Indeed, it seems unkind to accuse Pakistan of surrendering for 87 at Lord's in 1954, given that Abdul Hafeez Kardar's team fought for almost 84 overs. Even cricket's most abject score is tinged with old-world doggedness. New Zealand's 26 all out still stands as a monument to wretchedness, but one can't ignore the fact that they battled for a relatively impressive 27 overs to erect that monument. Such over-my-dead-body stands, however, are becoming increasingly rare.
In the 1950s, the average sub-100 innings lasted 293 deliveries. Since then, the carnage has accelerated. In the 1960s, the average rout lasted 255 balls; in the 1990s, 221. Since 2010 it has taken an average of just 184 balls to end the misery. That's a full 18 overs fewer than 60 years ago.
This won't surprise you if you've watched a sub-100 debacle recently. What strikes you, other than the mania of it all, is the inexplicable normality of the batting team. Batsman after batsman takes guard as he always does. He hops around and pokes at the pitch as he always does. He leaves a couple, hops around a bit more, and then, bizarrely, starts shaping to play shots. Nothing about his demeanour or shot selection suggest that he's trying to stop the rot, or even that he has noticed the carnage. The modern batsman just plays his natural game until he nicks off for 2 and the next free-scoring strokemaker comes in at 10 for 4.
Some pundits would blame domestic pitches for this strange state of affairs. Young batsmen, they claim, are not learning the skills they need to deal with good seam. Drier, more forgiving and increasingly homogenous wickets haven't been the only problem, either: a disastrous dalliance with too-green, overly juicy wickets in Shield cricket saw batsmen relegated to passengers, unable to learn any useful skills as they glumly waited for the inevitable death ball.
And yet can we really blame pitches? After all, if a lack of exposure to seam were the catalyst for sub-100 scores, wouldn't India be leading the walk of shame? Wouldn't the young West Indians who play on increasingly dry and dusty pitches have collapsed more recently than 2004?
"Right lads, some spine, please"
© Cricket Australia/Getty Images
"Right lads, some spine, please" © Cricket Australia/Getty Images
I suspect that the problem is not one of conditions. Rather, it is one of compulsions.
When an Indian or West Indian batsman finds himself on a seaming track he generally understands that he is in enemy territory. Even if he is out of his depth technically, he tries to remember his survival training. He becomes hyper-aware of length and of the whereabouts of his off stump. He congratulates himself for resisting half-volleys. He delays gratification, knowing that it is worth the wait.
Compare this to an Australian or a South African seeing the ball zip around. He might not have faced a lot of it lately, but, well, it looks sort of familiar. After all, he grew up on pitches like this, didn't he? And besides, he's an Australian. He's a South African. Domination is his birthright. And so he gets on the front foot and plays his shots, come hell, high water, late induckers or 18 for 5.
In the end, though, all of these facts and figures are simply a footpath along a seaside cliff: a safe and pleasant way of looking at a terrible plunge. Because the sub-100 score isn't about averages and run rates. It's not even about bats and balls. Rather, it's about what happens when a strong and motivated mind finds itself teased by doubt, then troubled by anxiety, and at last unravelled by panic. Ultimately collapses happen in the mind, not on the field. To dismiss a team for 150 requires an excellent effort from the bowlers. To dismiss a team for 47, well, that requires the complete involvement of every batsman.
Yes, sometimes teams roll over for sensible reasons. Reaction times are finite. On that Thursday afternoon in 2011, Watson used the laws of physics to dismiss South Africa for 96.
But what happened next, ah, that was something altogether more mysterious, and perhaps more compelling.
One day some clever person will unpick that mystery and lay it bare on this website. For now, though, I'm glad that some of cricket's secrets still remain beautifully hidden, that chaos still lurks behind neat rows of statistics, and that panic and pandemonium can still erupt out of nowhere in our steadily homogenising and gentrifying sport.
Tom Eaton is a columnist, screenwriter and novelist from Cape Town. Additional stats research by Shiva Jayaraman
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