Restoring a fair balance: Should the MCC do more to regulate the size of cricket bats?

Published 22 August 2016 By: Anujaya Krishna

Restoring a fair balance: Should the MCC do more to regulate the size of cricket bats?

"Ranjit", "Predator", "Nemesis"…these are all names of cricket bats over the ages. Their remarkably different profiles can be seen here (page 3) 1, and looking at them leads one to ask just how have they impacted the game?

The issue of regulating the size of cricket bats has come into the spotlight once again. In June, the ICC Cricket Committee suggested that the Marylebone Cricket Club ("MCC") should consider limiting the dimensions of cricket bats so as to restore the balance between bat and ball.2 The MCC World Cricket Committee echoed this concern at their meeting in July, stating:

After considering the broad issue of the balance between bat and ball, set out in a paper which will be published today on Lords.org - the committee believes the balance has tilted too far in the batsman's favour. The committee agrees with ICC’s Cricket committee that, beyond the limits that have long been in place regarding the width and length of a cricket bat, further limitations to the edge, depth and possibly to the weight should now be introduced.” 3

While it looks likely that we will see a change to the regulations, the issue is not without its controversy. While former cricket players like Ricky Ponting4 and Ian Chappell5 have called for greater regulation of bat size; many batsmen like David Warner and Brendon McCullum are against it for reasons examined below. This article explains the current regulatory framework for cricket bats, before analyzing the arguments both for and against more stringent regulation in light of the overall evolution of the game and the balance with bowling and fielding.

 

Legal framework for bat size

The Marylebone Cricket Club (“MCC”) is recognised as the sole authority for drafting the Laws of Cricket6 (“Laws”), and has been since its formation in 1787.7 When amending the Laws, the MCC consults the game’s stakeholders, including all the Full Member Countries of the International Cricket Council (“ICC”), which is the global governing body for cricket.8 

The earliest form of a bat available in the MCC collection at Lord’s resembles a hockey stick and the style of play was very different from what we witness today. Shots played depended upon the style of bowling which, for a long time, was supposed to be underarm. The initial rule on the dimensions of a cricket bat was borne out of an intriguing incident - recalled as the "Monster Bat Incident of 1771",9 - where an English player used a bat as wide as the wicket in a county match so that he would not be bowled out. This "unsportsmanlike" move led to a furore and the Laws were modified to set the maximum width of a bat at 4 and a quarter inches (10.8 cm.) at its widest part (see Appendix E). 10 This law carries on till date.

The bat is governed by Law 6 (The Bat), read in conjunction with Appendix E. Law 6 sets out the rules for the bat, stating it must comprise of a handle affixed into a blade made solely of wood (traditionally willow). Law 6 also regulates coverings on the blade, protection and repair, damage to the ball and what would constitute contact with the ball.

Appendix E sets out the measurements and restrictions for the bat, as well as additional information including the categories of bats, permitted adhesives, and toe and side inserts allowed. In terms of the size of the bat, Appendix E states:

Length and width-

  1. The overall length of the bat, when the lower portion of the handle is inserted, shall not be more than 38 in/96.5 cm.
  2. The width of the bat shall not exceed 4.25 in/10.8 cm at its widest part.
  3. Permitted coverings, repair material and toe guards, not exceeding their specified thicknesses, may be additional to the dimensions above. 

Length of handle – Except for bats of size 6 and less, the handle shall not exceed 52% of the overall length of the bat. 

(Emphasis added by author)

One key issue is that the Laws only limit "Ranjit", "Predator" and "Nemesis",

The depth and weight of the bat help to define its "sweet spot".11 This is a point from which the ball receives maximum acceleration on being hit, resulting in a powerful shot with the batsmen feeling minimum vibrations in their hands. The sweet spot is affected by the depth and weight of the bat, and with the change in bat dimensions and designs over the years, the location and size of this spot has changed as well, leading to debates about their impact on batting performance and whether they give an unfair advantage to batsmen. Considering the sweet spot is said to be the most important part of a bat, it is surprising that there is no law to regulate its location or size.

Other elements of the bat have also caused controversy, for example the material it is made from. One of the most memorable examples is Australian cricketer, Dennis Lillee, who used an aluminium bat in an Ashes test at Perth in December, 1979.12 While no stern action was taken against Lillee, the Laws were changed to specify expressly that the bat should be made of wood.13

However, it is primarily the absence of regulation around the depth and weight of the bat that leads us to the present debate.

 

Is cricket a batsman’s world?

Cricket has evolved by leaps and bounds, for better or for worse (depending on which side of the purist/modernist spectrum one falls on). 

One of the most radical revolutions has been Twenty20 (T20) cricket. As Simon Hughes states:

…it was an instant success…It was cricket without the boring bits…And despite exceptional scores, including some over 200, it wasn’t all slogging, although, with shorter boundaries than ever, and a licence to swing from the hip, it wasn’t much of a bowler’s game.14

Changes in fielding rules, the “free-hit” penalty and shortening of boundaries have only added to making bowling and fielding seem like uphill tasks. Arguably bowlers and fielders have had a rough deal in the scheme of changes in cricket. In fact, recognizing this fact, the batting powerplay was removed from ODI cricket last year.15

Apart from batsmen benefiting from the changes in rules on the field of play, reports suggest that the size (particularly the depth) of bats in recent times has helped them further. In a telling report on performances of various cricket bat designs by Imperial College London (based on a study requested by the MCC) (“Imperial College Report”), 4 key parameters emerged for assessing the performance of a cricket bat: the ‘sweet spot’, stiffness, moment of inertia and coefficient of restitution.16

Based on scientific analysis, the report concluded that the newer bats in today’s game are heavier and longer, with a wider and thicker blade that results in a more effective ‘sweet spot’ and imparts stronger inertia to the ball on being hit. The newer bats have more mass distributed near the toe, while the ‘sweet spot’ is conveniently placed such that there is minimum loss of energy when the ball strikes this spot and least discomfort to the batsmen, as opposed to older designs of bat. This inevitably lends a performance advantage to batsmen, and led the MCC World Cricket Committee to comment that:

The overwhelming (but not unanimous) view of the committee was that it has become too easy for batsmen to clear the boundary in all forms of cricket, even with mis-timed shots. Furthermore, it was felt that there is a clear safety concern for close fielders, bowlers and umpires….17

 

Should cricket bats face tougher regulation?

Arguments for

The game is being perceived by some to be increasingly dominated by the bat, a fact acknowledged by ICC chief executive Dave Richardson, who “conceded that modern bats have "shifted the balance" in favour of batsmen, especially in limited-overs cricket.18 If the current trend continues, spectators and viewers may start to lose interest in the game altogether19, something that the guardians of the game need to safeguard against.

Additionally, bats seem to have become "more forgiving"20, which means that the current crop of bats can compensate for a batsman lacking in skill. This was confirmed in the Imperial College Report, which found that newer bats come with greater torsional stiffness that is likely to confer an advantage even in case of a “mis-hit” or a shot off the edge of the bat.21

Another important factor noted in favour of tougher regulation is that the bats used at present very often pose dangers to bowlers and umpires on field22 because of their hefty nature and the speed at which they can send the ball spiraling across the pitch. They also pose a particular threat to young bowlers practising in the nets, a point echoed by Australian coach Darren Lehmann.

Arguments against

Cricket has grown into an all-encompassing phenomenon, attracting huge crowds and fanfare. This is in a large part thanks to the flurry of fours and sixes, and mammoth totals that teams are scoring, which help stoke the action. Imposing more stringent limits on cricket bats may well dampen this fire and prove counterproductive to the growth and popularity of the modern game. And as long as a batsman is capable of handling and playing with a heavier/bigger bat many, like David Warner, question why it is a problem23 especially when manufacturers are able to produce more efficient wooden bats within the existing rules; there is nothing illegal about it.

There is also debate as to whether it is indeed bigger bats that are primarily responsible for prolific run scoring. Warner argues that the tilt in the bat-ball balance may be more because of the kinds of pitches rather than the bat dimensions:

"The wickets are pretty much dictating the Test arena at the moment and a lot of batters are scoring”….A lot of runs have been scored in the last 12-18 months but you can’t specifically say it’s because of the big bats, because everyone around the county and the world is scoring a lot of runs.24

A different strain in this debate emerged when Australian cricketers Ricky Ponting and Josh Hazzlewood expressed support for regulating the cricket bat size in Test cricket only (i.e. the format of the game played over 5 days) . However, cricketer Ian Chappell chose to differ, questioning the rationale behind regulating the size only for the longer version of the game and not across all formats - Tests, One Day Internationals and T20s. While the former school of thought hinges on the belief that regulation is not required in the shorter formats since they survive on boundaries for popularity, the latter believes that the change should sweep across all formats, unless the shorter ones were only viewed for sheer entertainment rather than for the quality of the game played.

 

Conclusion and Recommendations

It is important to stress that the tussle between bat and ball has always been an integral part of cricket, not just on field but off it too, with the lawmakers trying to balance the interests from both sides.

It is said that in cricket’s history, even as early as the 19th century, the balance seemed to have shifted towards the batsmen while the bowlers were only allowed to bowl underarm. It was probably then that bowlers tried to come up with ways to restore the balance and took to bowling round-arm, to lend greater height to the ball.25 This was outlawed initially but eventually the Laws were modified to incorporate the necessary changes. However, rather than restoring an equilibrium, this arguably titled the balance back towards bowlers. Before the introduction of helmets, batsmen looked intimidated and hassled in front of fast bowlers, and often suffered injuries. It was only after the helmet was introduced that, as Sanjay Manjrekar aptly puts it, “the bullies [turned] into the bullied”.26

So, the deliberations on the Laws have never been one-sided nor are they intended to be. It is about trying to find the optimum balance between all elements of the game. While the current debate steers on bats, the ICC and MCC will also be commissioning research on possible changes to the cricket ball27, a factor that had been mentioned in passing by ICC chief executive Dave Richardson before as well.28

In terms of regulating the size and dimensions of the bat, the main arguments against introducing stricter regulations are that batsmen are skilled enough to be able to play with the current bats, and the flurry of runs contributes to increasing interest in the game. The main arguments in favour of stricter regulations are the continued bias against bowlers, bats replacing the skill of batsmen, and safety concerns. On balance, the author believes that it is probably time that the Laws of the game were amended to place more stringent limits on the size and weight of the bat. While spectators do come to cheer for the big shots and high scores, they arguable come for more than that: they come for a good contest - a nail-biting one that could swing in favour of either team. A continued imbalance between bat and ball could lead to one-sided matches, and ultimately undermine the game.29

As discussed above, when regulating the dimensions of the bat, it is not just the length and width that need to be limited but also the depth, weight and weight distribution, which influence the ‘sweet spot’. The Imperial College Report also states that the bat with the largest ‘sweet spot’ need not be the heaviest one, which means designs may be optimized to manipulate the ‘sweet spot’ to the batsmen’s advantage.30

The MCC World Cricket Committee stated in its July meeting:

one proposal would be for the maximum thickness of the edge to be between 35mm and 40mm, and the overall depth of the bat to be between 60mm and 65mm. (Some bats in current use have edges of 55mm and can be up to 80mm deep.)31 

Having said that, there need to be further in-depth studies of bat performance by different stakeholders to enable greater understanding of the factors at play to restore the balance between bat and ball. The MCC say that a revamp of the Laws is in the pipeline in 201732 and suggested this may include amendments to the Law on bats. 

Cricket (sport in general) is a manifestation of art and honing of a craft33- perhaps it is time to restore its legacy by regulating the equipment to preserve the level of sheer skill that is at the heart of the game. 

 

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Author

Anujaya Krishna

Anujaya Krishna

Anujaya Krishna is currently working as a legal practitioner and legal knowledge consultant in India. She has been associated with the Sports Law team at Duane Morris and Selvam LLP, Singapore. She has authored a book entitled Sports Law and most recently got published in the Handbook on Sports Law. She has been keenly interested in Sports Law since her college days, and has several publications to her credit, in national journals as well as in international ones, such as the journal of the International Association of Sports Law, Greece.

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