Catches Win Matches
‘Catches win matches’ – A single phrase embroidered by commentators all over the world to vilify perhaps the ultimate sin in cricket. After all, a well taken half chance can lift up an entire faltering team whereas an easy chance put down can lead to self-doubt and saps confidence of the entire team.
However, the phrase was termed back in era where the art of fielding was the most neglected one in cricket. For centuries, siblings batting and bowling took center stage. The great Pakistan fast bowler Wasim Akram once shared an experience of his. When Akram was new to cricket, a senior bowler was stationed at fine leg. Akram was bowling and the ball repeatedly followed the fielder at fine leg. However, the fielder made no effort to stop the ball 3 yards either side of him conceding a number of boundaries instead. Akram was appalled and asked his captain why the fielder was not stopping the ball. The captain replied that the senior bowler stationed at fine leg was ‘saving himself’ for his bowling spell.
The days of ignorant fielding are long gone. In fact fielding is one of the two arts of cricket which have evolved the most in the last decade. The best fielding side found success more often than not in the 2000s and as a result almost every single ODI team lifted its standard of fielding in the decade to follow. Major teams have fielding coaches who drill sides in different aspects of fielding. Earlier catching was of major focus in these drills but now fitness levels, ground fielding, boundary patrol, direct hits, working in pairs and relay throws, etc. are all given importance. Parrying catches to oneself in the boundary has caught up too. I remember watching in awe when Adam Voges was overbalancing so parried and caught a red hot Brendon McCullum to help Australia sneak a 1 run win against New Zealand in a T20I in 2009. New Zealand needed 20 runs off 12 balls with 7 wickets in hand. The catch gave Australia the opening they badly craved for and they snuck home. Fielders have gone one better and have started to parry catches to nearby fielders. Adam Lyth and Aaron Finch combining twice in a matter of days in the Natwest T20 Blast 2014 is the perfect example of awareness boundary fielders possess these days. Groundsmen played their part too as almost all outfields these days are lush green as a result the fielders are willing to throw their body around.
All in all the level of fielding is at an all-time high in international cricket. More often than not, a player is overlooked for selection if his fielding is not up to an acceptable level. To hold down a place in international side, one is forced to raise his fielding standards. When Imran Tahir debuted in international cricket, his fielding was a source of amusement & comic relief for commentators and spectators alike. However, he has now improved his fielding leaps and bounds and is no longer the ugly duckling in a pool of beautiful South African swans, one of the best fielding sides in world cricket. Fielding is now given special attention across different age groups. A player is drilled fielding youth level onward. So at least for now and the way the game is headed, the art of fielding is in safe hands. Catches that were deemed 50:50 a decade back is now deemed catchable. So the phrase ‘Catches win Matches’ may no longer hold the level of significance it once did to villainize a lost chance. Most of the top sides are in a close level to one another in fielding terms. So more often a game is not won or lost solely on the basis of fielding.
The refined art of batting in ODIs
The art of batting in ODIs is very similar to economics. Both teams start with equal resources i.e. Balls to face and wickets in hand. The team which makes the best utilization of resources wins. Like different economies, different teams take different approaches to batting in ODI with mixed results. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, sides preferred to start with caution to keep wicket intact and make a strong dash in the last 10 overs. ICC World Cup 1996 winning opening pair Sanath Jayasuriya & Romesh Kaluwitharana are often credited with revolutionizing ODI cricket with counter attacking stroke play in the power play overs. However, it is worth noting Kaluwitharana did have a strike rate of 140.38 but averaged only 12.16 and had a top score of 33 in the tourney. The pair had opening partnerships of 5, 53, 83, 12, 1 & 12 and averaged 27.66 for the first wicket. Although the numbers are not earth shattering, they did sow a seed of a new approach in ODI batting which was perfected further by attacking Australian attacking pair of Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden. The pair found considerable success and were part of multiple World Cup winning Australian sides.
Not all teams were blessed with the caliber of the Australian openers so they stuck with the usual save wickets for last 10 overs approach. Whereas some teams embraced a hybrid approach: pairing an aggressive opener with a cautious one. As not many teams were using the all-out attack approach, the defensive approach as well as hybrid approach did find success.
With T20 cricket and franchises sweeping the globe, stroke play started attracting premium prizes. As a result, attacking stroke play trickled down to ODI cricket. Most teams now have batting resource to opt for attacking cricket at the top. The ICC World Cup 2015 was the perfect barometer to measure where ODI cricket was heading at.
New Zealand led by its inspirational attacking captain Brendon McCullum won the hearts of fans, commentators and fellow cricketers alike. McCullum along with opener Martin Guptill had free reign opening the batting. Their stroke play blew opposition and their plans away in a matter of overs. They won every single match heading to the Final. Australia, the side that bettered them in the Final had their own set of attacking openers in David Warner and Aaron Finch. The four most attacking sides made it to the semis of the tourney.
Meantime, teams that approached matches with the decades old keep wickets in hand, accelerate later mantra struggled. England had a shocker in the tournament. They finished 5th in their group and could obtain wins only against Afghanistan and Scotland. However, the tournament served as a big reality check. They changed their approach and players like Alastair Cook, Gary Balance, Ian Bell have been replaced by stroke players who are not afraid to take calculated risks to score briskly. Since the ICC World Cup, England has scored 300 or more in an innings 23 times. Well ahead of second placed South Africa who has done so 13 times. Similarly, they have scored 350 or more 8 times in this period and 400 or more twice. They were one of the favorites heading to the recent ICC Champions Trophy and made it to the semis. They are very likely to be the favorites heading to the ICC World Cup 2019 which will be held in their home turf.
Similarly, Pakistan’s timeless hunt for an opening pair has been baffling at times. They barely qualified for the recent ICC Champions Trophy and were beaten blue by India in their opening match. They ditched Ahmed Shehzad, who has a typical 90s strike rate of 72 with debutant Fakhar Zaman who has strike rate of over 95 in List A cricket. This sparked a remarkable turnaround. Zaman and his slow but steady opening partner averaged 90 for the opening wicket, the highest average opening stand in the tournament at a respectable run rate of 5.72. As a result, the lowest ranked team went on to win the tournament based on attacking bowling and attacking opening at least from one end.
This can be credited to change in rules favoring heavy scoring, trickle down of innovative striking from T20 cricket, innovation from bat makers, ground size etc. So in order to stay relevant in ODI cricket, teams are now forced to adopt the attacking brand of cricket.Breaking down ODI partnerships between the openers to the 6th wicket on the basis of decade, the partnership average as well as partnership run rate has been in an increasing trend. 2010s has seen the second most jump in both average and run rate. Batsmen are scoring more runs per partnership than ever and at a quicker pace than ever. The batsmen have improved a lot in making the best use of the two resources they have – balls & wickets in hand. After all, the often maligned Duckworth–Lewis–Stern Method takes into account these two critical factors, not percentage of catches you take!
Strike Rotation: Evergreen Problem of Nepali Cricket
The mainstay of attacking brand of ODI cricket is strike rotation. The main mantra is to punish the bad balls but at the same time not get slowed down by good balls. Although it is easier said than done, the teams with better strike rotation and that do not get bogged down at one end tend to do better in one day cricket. If one of the partners fails to rotate strike, the other is affected too and goes on to take more risks than necessary to over compensate and at worse may lose his wicket. So astute strike rotation is absolute necessity to minimize pressure and score a challenging total.
The table above is breakdown of balls faced by the Nepal U-19 batsmen in the last 4 matches of recently concluded practice tour of India as a preparation for the upcoming ICC U-19 World Cup 2018 Asia Qualifiers. The table also showcases percentage breakdown of balls into various scoring and non-scoring options.
60.90% of the balls faced by the team resulted in a dot ball. Whereas singles were taken in only 23.95% of the balls faced. Only 5.42% of the balls faced by the team resulted in 2 runs, which is a shockingly low percentage in relation with where one day cricket is headed. 8.19% of balls resulted in a four, a commendable number. But perhaps it hides the fact that the batsmen were trying to compensate for low strike rotation by opting for a risky boundary. Only 1.02% of the balls faced were hit for a six, evident to the lack of power hitters across the age groups. It is also worth noting that only 4 players were able to score a six from the entire squad.
Among the specialist batsmen, Dipendra Singh Airee and Aadil Khan have shown the ability to rotate strike and have faced lower % of dot balls and higher % of singles compared to team average. The team will rely on them heavily in the upcoming qualifiers. Other batsmen have showcased the common trait of high % dot balls, low % singles and high % of fours to compensate for the dot balls.
Aasif Sheikh’s lack of runs is clearly highlighted in the table. Due to lack of form and confidence, 71.91% of balls faced by Aasif were dot balls. Only 15.73% of balls faced by Sheikh resulted in single, a woefully low number from such a talented batsman. His form must improve if Nepal is to make a strong showing at Singapore.
Another worrying aspect is the lack of quick runs from the lower order to end the innings on high. Although Pawan Sarraf did manage a 22 ball 47 against Gurugram Sports Club, he followed up with two ducks. The team needs someone to step up in the upcoming crunch tournament to score quickfire runs towards the end of the innings.
The above comparative analysis was carried out using team averages. If one is to use designation averages like the batting average among specialist batsmen, the gap among out of form players will be even higher.Among specialist batsmen, Dipendra Singh Airee and Pranit Thapa scored with a batting average higher than the team average and with a strike rate higher than the average team strike rate. On the contrary, Aasif Sheikh and Prakash KC had a lower batting average as well as lower strike rates compared to team averages. Aasif’s batting average of 10.60 was lower than team captain and star leg-spinner Sandeep Lamichhane and his strike rate was Test cricket like 55.79. Once again the inability to score quickly down the order is highlighted by low strike rate of the lower order.
The upcoming qualifiers features a strong Afghanistan U-19 which boasts win over Pakistan U-19 in the ACC Under-19 Asia Cup 2016 held in December. They finished above Pakistan in the group stage and made it to the semis where they lost to India U-19 who went on to win the tournament. As the upcoming tournament is being held in a double round robin format, Nepal needs to defeat Afghanistan at least once, maintain steady Net Run Rate and avoid slip ups against other teams. If they are to do so, the out of form batsmen need to play the innings of their lives.
And looking back at the big picture, the skill gap in one day cricket between elite teams and the rest has already started to increase. Afghanistan and Ireland, who were recently granted full membership of the ICC face the challenge of replicating those skill sets to mount a strong challenge and stay relevant in the one day game. And if they can do that across the national team as well as different age groups, the gap between those teams and Nepal’s national as well as age group teams will increase even further. The Nepali senior team has been craving for an attacking and consistent batsmen for a while. The national side openers have been playing musical chair in the ongoing ICC World Cricket League Championship. Although stats say otherwise, the ICC U-19 World Cup 2018 Asia Qualifiers will serve as a perfect platform for the youngsters to stake claim in the national side. Will anyone step up?