4. Two New Balls, Please

How did the two new balls rule in 2011 change ODI cricket?

Michael Cox’s The Mixer, a history of the English Premier League which I had supremely liked when I had first read it, begins with the back pass rule that FIFA had introduced in the early 1990s following a rather drab Italia 90.

As Cox writes eloquently in the first chapter of the book (should be covered in the Kindle Sample), the back pass rule meant that goalkeepers had to be more comfortable with the ball at their feet. This in turn changed where the goalkeeper played, which in turn changed the role of the defender requiring them to be more comfortable playing the ball. And so forth.

The backpass rule had a significant impact on the game of football, but it was easy to isolate because football rules change so rarely. So it was rather easy, in hindsight, to attribute the development of ball-playing goalkeepers and defenders in the 1990s to the backpass rule.

Cricket, especially one day cricket, is a whole new different ball game. Maybe because the game is much younger, and played by fewer countries at the top level, rule changes are far more frequent. Fielding restrictions change every other year. Rules for no balls and wides and free hits keep changing. In 2005, there was even an experiment to bring in a “super sub” (which thankfully didn’t last long). And then there is the ball.

For the longest time, ODI cricket was played with red balls, and one ball comfortably lasted one innings, so there was no need to have any rules related to the ball. And then with Kerry Packer’s World Series Cup, white balls started being used, and in the 1992 World Cup,one new ball was used at each end.

There was no standardisation of conditions then and soon it became common to use only one ball per innings. The problem was that the white ball would lose colour sooner than 50 overs, and that necessitated a ball change at some point in time. Rather than changing the ball at an arbitrary time, this ball change was institutionalised in 2007 when the ball would be mandatorily changed after 34 overs. This led to a sort of discontinuity in conditions at that point in time, so starting October 1st 2011, the ICC went back to 1992 and the use of two new balls in ODI cricket.

Since then various players and commentators have blamed this rule change for the run glut in ODI cricket nowadays. Most famously, Sachin Tendulkar commented last year that this rule is a disaster.

But has the two new balls rule really been responsible for the glut of runs since then?

At first glance it is hard to evaluate because the two new balls rule coincided with the introduction of two other rules - capping the number of fielders outside the circle in non-powerplay overs at four (down from five), and forcing teams to take the “batting powerplay” before over 40.

So if we look at the data, we find a spike in the scoring rate in overs 36-40 in the October 2011 to September 2015 period, when teams had to take the powerplay before over 40, and bowling teams were forced to keep five fielders in the circle even in the slog overs. The rule to force teams to take the powerplay before over 40 meant that the “slog” now lasted a full 15 overs, with even the last 10 overs being high scoring because of five fielders in the circle. This period coincided with the second major bull run in scoring rate in ODI cricket.

After October 2015, when five fielders were restored to the outfield in the slog, the scoring rate in the slog overs came down marginally, and the 36th over bump also disappeared. It is interesting to note that in this time period, teams have been playing the middle overs much better, at a faster rate compared to earlier time periods.

If we look at the commentary on the two new balls issue, one common theme is that reverse swing has been taken out of the game, leading to greater difficulty in bowling in the death and higher scoring rates. One way to look at the effectiveness of reverse swing is to look at the incidence of bowleds and LBWs. Especially in the last 10-15 overs of the innings we find a dramatic drop in bowleds and LBWs since 2011.

Until September 2011, we had seen about 2% of all balls bowled in overs 46-50 resulting in the batsman being bowled or LBW. Once two new balls were introduced in 2011, this number started dropping, settling at around 1.4% of balls. Similarly the incidence of sixes in the last 10 overs shot up after 2011 (notice that sixes are largely not dependent on field placings or restrictions), indicating that run-scoring has indeed become easier.

On the contrary, there has been no perceptible increase in bowlers’ wicket-taking abilities in the beginning of the innings. When two new balls were introduced, it was expected that bowlers might be able to make better use of the new balls, and for longer, but there is no real trend in the data there. Maybe it is down to the fact that the white Kookaburra ball, which has been used for all ODI cricket for the last several years, just doesn’t swing.

While allowing five fielders outside the circle in the slog did turn the game a wee bit in favour of bowlers, the fact is that cricket is becoming a higher and higher scoring game. While this takes competition to a different level (literally), the problem is that high scoring games are more likely to be one-sided (we’ll explore this in another edition), making the game less exciting for spectators.

The best solution would be to play the entire game with a single ball, but the discolouration problem needs to get addressed. A proposal has been mooted where after 30 overs, the bowling team can pick one of the two balls in play and use it for the rest of the innings. It seems like too much of a patchwork solution!