The run chase
Somewhere, the thrill of cricket still lies in the chase of an elusive, mammoth score. What are the possible strategies employed by batsmen who go about this task? Let’s check them out.
I was watching the 4th ODI between India and New Zealand played at Bangalore on 7 December 2010. Chasing 316 to win, India were 244/5 after 42 overs. 72 runs were needed in 48 balls. The required run rate (RRR) was 9. Could India make it?
15 years ago, we would have said a win was “impossible”, 10 years ago a win would’ve been a “miracle”, and 5 years it would’ve been an “uphill task”. Today, with the advent of T20 cricket, a RRR of 9 in the last 8 overs with 5 wickets in hand is more likely to win than lose … although you would still need a Yusuf Pathan to make it look ridiculously simple.
How does one win an ODI run chase anyway? Are there established strategies? Could we enumerate some of them?
It’s never too late: Watching Pathan architect India’s win, I couldn’t help thinking of Inzamam-ul-Haq. Inzamam would patiently persevere till the RRR touched 7, and then start hitting his boundaries: a four early in the over, then maybe a two … followed by a last ball boundary or a single to retain strike. Inzamam was among the first to show that, once a capable batsman is well set, a boundary per over is easy, and, therefore, a RRR of 7 can be achieved without breaking into a sweat. Yusuf merely replaced Inzamam’s boundary with a six to make a RRR of 9 easily attainable.
Run hard: If you run a single every ball of the over, and occasionally convert the single into a two, a RRR of 7 is again easy to attain. Javed Miandad used this strategy first, although it was eventually mastered by Michael Bevan. Think of the best batsmen of the 1990s: Azharuddin, Tendulkar, almost all Australians and South Africans … they all ran their singles very quickly (Tendulkar still runs his first single hard). Even Inzamam could sprint, although he (like Sehwag later) found it much easier to hit a four than run a single!
Start with a flourish: Mark Greatbatch started the trend of exploiting the field restrictions in the first 15 overs of an ODI match to score at a brisk rate in the 1992 World Cup in Australia; many would think of K Srikkanth in the mid-1980s, but Srikkanth usually had longish idle spells between two lavish boundaries (check his career strike rate, which is just over 70). But this strategy was truly perfected by Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana in the 1996 World Cup. Later, we had Saeed Anwar-Aamir Sohail (remember that electric start at Bangalore in the 1996 quarter-final match chase against India?), Gilchrist-Hayden, Tendulkar-Ganguly and now Sehwag-Tendulkar/Gambhir following suit. In this chase strategy, the openers start at such a blistering pace that the RRR drops below 4 and, thereafter, winning only involves knocking off the remaining runs at a leisurely pace.
Attack one bowler: Many ODI teams, especially India with its inexplicable deficiency of quality all-rounders, prefer to play with only four recognized bowlers. The fifth (part-time) bowler is therefore an easy cherry to pick. Better still, if the batting side launches a deliberate onslaught on one of the four recognized bowlers, the fielding side suddenly finds that it has to operate with two part-time bowlers. It is then easy to hit one of these bowlers for 18-20 runs in one over and dramatically reduce the RRR.
Cleverly use powerplays: Even a few years ago, captains didn’t quite know what to do with the powerplay overs—involving field restrictions—and chose to finish off all the 10+5+5 powerplay overs in one go. But with the batting side now having the option to pick the timing of one of the two powerplays, the use of powerplays has become more strategic. Captains recognize that powerplays are opportunities to increase the scoring rate and thereby reduce the RRR. So fielding captains try to pick their powerplay overs when the batting side is struggling, while the batting captain picks his powerplay overs when set batsmen are at the crease or a weak bowler is bowling his overs.
Be aware of Duckworth-Lewis (D/L): The D/L method models the most likely evolution (involving run rates, RRR and fall of wickets) of an ODI match; so the best way to beat D/L is to do something very unlikely. For example, if the team chasing loses far fewer wickets than normal, the D/L target tends to be significantly lower; conversely if you lose more wickets than expected, the D/L target climbs. In that Bangalore ODI against New Zealand, there was a brief interruption during the 36th over with India at 202/5 when India were 15 runs behind the D/L target. Eventually, India easily won a match that D/L thought was headed the opposite way! But there’s a lesson to learn from this costly neglect: ensure that you are ahead of the D/L par score at all times.
What of the future? In 5 years, we might find that even a RRR of 12 is winnable, especially with enough wickets in hand. And most teams would easily score 400 on the sort of flat tracks we see today; this in turn would mean that we would see many more double centuries in ODI cricket. But for that to happen we must pray that ODI cricket survives; many of us fear that its end is near and imminent.