December 2, 2005

Optimised one-day cricket: vision 2007

ESPNcricinfo staff
Welcome to the future

Welcome to the future. This is the 2007 Cricket World Cup. India are playing against the hosts at Trinidad. Chris Gayle, on a recent high of one-day form, opens the batting. Marking his guard, he looks up to see Harbhajan Singh ambling in and handing over his hat to Aleem Dar. Gayle stands motionless for a moment or two, and then takes strike gingerly. The only 'Cool' guy standing near the batting crease seems to be the opposition's decision maker Mohammad Kaif, who has been nominated by official skipper Rahul Dravid to lead for this match on the basis of his spot-on interpretation of West Indian players' habits.

The West Indies struggle to post a target of 242 on a batting beauty, thanks to a meagre 55 runs resulting from the decisive 20 overs of 'strangulator' Harbhajan and R P Singh-on-song which also yielded a few wickets. Post lunch, the home team starts their warm-up to defend whatever little was put on board mainly through the middle-over frantic running of one-drop Ricardo Powell and skipper Sarwan. Darren Powell feels out his shoulders while eyeing the Indian dressing room. Cricket watchers around the globe await an answer to their lunch-break question from the TV channels on predicting the first three batsmen for India in today's match.

Dravid and Irfan Pathan walk out to initiate the Indian run-chase. Lara, soon to be replaced by supersub Collymore and playing in his last ODI tournament, steals a knowing glance at Sarwan as he is proven to be the one who got it right over the lunch table brainstorming. It was Virender Sehwag who accompanied a resurgent Mumbai veteran as opener in the India-South Africa match a few days back where they chased 350 and fell short by 23 runs mainly due to the end-over strikes of Andre Nel. Sarwan signals the number 'eight' to his fielders, indicating the plan to be adopted. (Reminds me of Javed Miandad intimidating English batsmen by shouting 'number 42' at a rampaging Qadir standing at the end of his run-up.)

By the way, Harbhajan was given this modified name in 2006 after the 'tight-fisted'ness of his bowling action extended to his economy rate, while the other stingy Singh is better known in cricket circles as Rudra 'Pigeon' Singh. And the Mumbai veteran is none other than Ajit Agarkar.

Welcome to the era of role based one-day cricket. Here in 2007 they also call it 'optimised' cricket . None of the above tactics are original; most are modified paragraphs from the 'brainwave' sections of dusty notebooks that numerous inventive one-day skippers had sparingly used to shock the cricket world out of dullness. Only recently in 2005 did one Mr. Greg Chappell start a process of compiling these ideas into a theory that, though yet to assume a concrete form, has already started yielding effective results around the world.

The theory is simple: instead of jotting down the order of playing (batting or bowling) before a ball is bowled and forcing the players to alter their natural styles to comply with the prevalent situation, it may be worthwhile to fix specific roles for the players and order them suitably, as the match script unfolds, wherever their natural styles are most suited.

The job of team management now requires an additional skill that can be roughly equated to selecting the cast for a play from a pool of actors, each of whom can carry off a few types of roles and has the capacity to excel in a particular type. Selection of an actor for a character in a particular play depends on his identified potential at fulfilling the requirements of that character. And his stage entry shall happen when the script requires that character to be brought on. For a different script, the entry point needs to be different.

Complex? Simply so. For most teams having 8 players who can bat and 7 who can bowl, this roughly works out to 28 opening batsmen combinations and 21 bowling combinations to choose from. That is why coaches of one-day teams today add a bit more to the team's fortunes than the '5%' that the eldest of the Chappells allowed for. And in case you are interested in tidbits, this issue is threatening to re-start the famed backyard arm-twisting war between the greying siblings.

Oh yes, before I log off the crystal ball I must mention that one-day cricket in 2007 is somewhat more interesting. For the renewed unpredictability, if not for anything else.