It would be fair to say that late 70s to the mid-90s was the era of the all-rounder. Botham, Hadlee, Imran, Kapil, Marshall ended up being regarded as absolute legends, while the likes of Shastri, Prabhakar, O'Donnell, Harris, Larsen, Cairns were termed effective. These are my thoughts on what led to this all-rounder explosion, why these aren’t being developed by the dozen today and how teams today can still develop all-rounders.
Why the 70s - 90s? : I feel all-rounders are a happy by-product of playing too much cricket, or at least that of a system where a lot of cricket is played. Most of these famous all-rounders spent multiple seasons on the English County circuit. Play a game for X number of days, get on the team bus upon the conclusion of the game; drive down to the next venue to play another game, then on to the next and so on. The 'effective all-rounder' also had exposure to counties, or at least was required to play almost every domestic first class game, if they weren't on country duty. Heavy workload results in more bowlers breaking down, or more batsmen losing form and not finding time to rediscover that touch. This results in a potent breeding ground for the all-rounder. Batsmen who roll their arms occasionally are called in to bowl in place of the injured spinner, bowlers who fancy a hit are required to bat longer with the out of form batsmen typically getting out early etc.
Why not a lot, after the mid-90s? The nature of domestic cricket (in all countries) has changed dramatically since the 1996 ODI World Cup (read BCCI’s rise). Big money in most games means that Grade-A/international cricketers are now kept ready and fresh for national duty, by keeping them away from domestic competition. This has meant that international cricketers that are multi-talented don’t get as many avenues to polish their secondary skill. With the advent of more lucrative leagues in recent times, the charm of playing county cricket has faded away. The county scene is now more or less reduced to a league for ex-international cricketers trying to gauge if they are still good enough to make a comeback.
All this has led to a reduction in the number of all-rounders being produced.
What should international teams do? I will use the Indian team as an example for this piece of the blog. And that this strategy might be very effective in the shorter formats of the game (ODI/T20) but not Test matches, which is a test of specialist skills.
But essentially, the model to be followed boils down to:
- Make bowling all-rounders bat more: India has wasted the likes of Jadeja and Ashwin by making them bat so low in the batting order. You bat them at 7 and 8, and they will play like 7 and 8. You bat them at 5 or 4 , and they will play like that. One of the biggest lessons learnt from the 80s is that when you make bowlers with capable batting skills bat much higher in the batting order, the good ones can slowly but surely become one of your frontline batsmen. Imran, Botham, Kapil and Shastri are prime examples. This especially helps faster bowlers since they tend to slow down with age, and batting provides the perfect outlet to make up for that loss in value. There is no reason why the same cannot be applied to spinners. So, what if Jadeja were to open the innings? Try him at that slot for 20 ODIs and see if it makes a difference to the balance of the side.
- Make batting all-rounders bowl more: Kallis and to a lesser degree, Yuvraj Singh , are prime examples of this model. Kallis ended up being a better bowler thanks to being asked to bowl first change in ODIs. Captains have to spot such batsmen (press for selecting such batsmen) and give them a go as first/second change bowlers, and not as fill-up bowlers. In the current Indian team, Rohit Sharma is an example. Why not bring him into bowl between overs 11 and 20, and consistently?
- Encourage certain batsmen to keep wickets (or look for keeper batsmen) : A largely ignored category of all-rounders is the batsman-keeper/keeper-batsman. Gilchrist and Dhoni were keepers who could bat exceptionally well, but Andy Flower , Alec Stewart and in recent times, ABDV are examples of batsmen keepers. Captains, in ODI/T20, should take a gamble with batsmen keepers since the risk of a let-off is lower (compared to Test cricket, where a let-off could mean staying in the field for 2 days).
I still think cricket teams lament the lack of the all-rounder without exploring these 3 options. All-rounders are part created and part MANUFACTURED.