Samir Chopra June 16, 2009

Flexibility should lie in batsmen

I realized, with a little start of surprise, as this World Cup went on, that I have absolutely no idea of what the Indian batting order, is, or has been, for a while

Adaptive flexibility, I never tire of reminding the students in my foundations of artificial intelligence class, is a good thing; its what seemingly separates us humans from the lower rungs of the cognitive ladder. The Indian captain MS Dhoni, and the Indian team's brain-trust clearly thinks this virtue is paramount when it comes to batting orders, for if there is one constant in the Indian limited-overs team, it is this: the batting order is inconstant.

It is not my intention here to offer a full-fledged post-mortem of India's early exit from the ICC World Twenty20. All I would like to do is to point out a mistaken emphasis in India's planning for its batting line-up. Which is that the Indian captain seems to think that flexibility in approaching match situations is achieved by changing the batting order. I'd like to suggest that the flexibility should inhere in the batsmen themselves, and not in the order in which they are sent in.

That is, a cricket team should concentrate on making sure the batsmen in the batting order are flexible in their approaches to a particular match situation. If you are a No. 3, and an early wicket falls, you play a little differently than you do if there are a hundred runs on the board. If you are a No. 6, and the team is in trouble, as opposed to looking for a declaration, you bat a little differently. And so on.

Yes, I know, its obvious. But if it's so obvious, then why can't the Indian team settle into a stable batting order, with instructions to its members that read, "When you go out to play, keep in mind the match situation and play accordingly?" Why, instead, does the standing rule appear to be "We'll send in different batsmen in every game, depending on how things are panning out in the middle?" The latter doesn't seem to indicate great confidence in the batting order's ability to be flexible and capable of raising their level depending on a given match situation. And a batting line-up that is not capable of responding to a variety of match situations doesn't sound like a very good side.

I realised, with a little start of surprise, as this World Cup went on, that I have absolutely no idea of what the Indian batting order, is, or has been, for a while. I've associated Sehwag and Gambhir with the opening position. The rest is a bit of a blur. Who is our No. 3? Who is our No. 6? I have no clue. Do the batsmen in the team know which position they will be playing in on a given day? Sure, sending them in at different positions challenges them. But why not give them stability in their expectations of where they are to play and instead demand adaptiveness in their responses to match situations?

The game of cricket throws many, many, variants at its players. The good teams adapt and alter their game in response (as do the good players). The Indian team has the right idea. But the tactic it has chosen, that of constantly chopping and changing the order, is backwards. Make a player own a position, and tell him he needs to change as the game demands. He will be a better player for it; and the team, having established some stability in one part of its tactical arsenal, can get on with planning around it. Having to decide, before every single game, what the batting order is to be is an unnecessary increase in workload for both captain and coach. A relatively stable batting order would be one step towards enabling a greater focus on improving cricketing skills (such as fielding and playing the short-pitched ball, for instance). Which really seems to be where the Indian team's attentions should be directed at this point in time.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here