January 21, 2014

Sri Lanka's epic anti-pressurisation of batsmen

When you give away more singles than dot balls, it clearly means you're using an umbrella made of bread

"Normally I don't like being held down and force-fed, but I made an exception here" © AFP

Pakistan's brilliant victory in Sharjah was a triumph for enterprising batting, a personal apotheosis for Azhar Ali - an out-of-form grinder who stroked a match-winning century off 133 balls - and a fully justified, well-earned defeat for cricketing caution. Sri Lanka were ineffectively cautious with the bat, then almost masochistically timid in the field, allowing, encouraging and facilitating the steady accumulation of runs, allowing Pakistan to execute a 300-run chase in 57.3 overs, scoring at 5.25 per over despite hitting only 18 fours and one six.

I admit that I did not see a ball of the Test match, but there are some numbers that speak for themselves, and the stats generated on the final afternoon stood up at the dinner table, banged a spoon on a wine glass to get everyone's attention, and loudly barked: "Sri Lanka made scoring singles far too easy. Far, far too easy. I don't care how good the batting was, when you concede 160 singles in less than 60 overs, and when they only played out 146 dot balls, your tactics have been more off-beam than a drunken gymnast attempting an unusually tricky routine on a ferry during a minor hurricane whilst suffering from an acute ear infection. To concede such an unprecedented number of singles whilst allegedly defending a tricky fourth-innings target reveals a team that sleepwalked its way to defeat. And now, a toast - to deep-set fields that donate low-pressure runs to batsmen and make restricting the run-rate almost scientifically impossible in the modern game. Cheers."

Some cold, hard stats that illustrate the accumulatory excellence of Pakistan's batting and the abject failure/inability/refusal of Sri Lanka to control it:

* Since May 2001, when ESPNcricinfo began recording ball-by-ball figures so that aliens in millennia to come might chance upon the remnants of our planet and waste a good 50 to 70 years trying to decipher cricket statistics and calculate what strange coded messages they may contain, there have been 2064 Test innings lasting more than five overs. Only once previously had a team scored a greater number of singles than the number of dot balls they faced.

That was when England, in the third innings of the Trinidad Test of 2009, plinked 113 singles, whilst plonking just 93 dots. However, on that occasion, West Indies needed only a draw for a rare series victory, and, with limited time left in the match, were more than happy to allow their opponents a steady flow of unchallenged ones, unconcerned about being tinkled for a run a ball, provided that they were not pounded around for considerably more than a run a ball. England delayed their declaration a little too long, and West Indies ended up clinging on with eight wickets down.

Sri Lanka, by contrast, could not afford to be tinkled around for a run a ball. They needed to challenge Pakistan to do reach beyond the tinkle. Perhaps Pakistan would have won anyway, but their task would have been considerably more difficult.

* To put that stat in further context, Pakistan scored one single per 0.9 dot balls, compared with an average figure in Tests this decade of a single per 5.2 dot balls faced. Even instances of teams scoring more than one single per two dot balls have been incredibly rare (less than 1% of those 2064 innings).

* Pakistan scored singles off 46% of the balls they faced in their successful chase. This decade, the singles have been scored on average off 14.4% of deliveries (14.9% in previous Tests in the UAE). Thus, scoring 160 singles has taken, on average, 185 overs in Tests since 2010.

* The 160 singles were scored in 57.3 overs. No other team since 2001 (and, I think we can reasonably assume, no other team in Test history) has even scored 160 singles within the first 80 overs of a Test innings.

I realise this is the third blog in the last nine months in which I have banged on about singles. I griped about England's passive single-averse approach in the Lord's Test against New Zealand last May, after they have grumped along at two runs per over and scored just 22 singles in 80 overs on the first day. I re-griped about the same issue after the recent Perth Test, when that passivity had developed into Ashes-losing paralysis in the face of the brilliance of Australia's bowling attack.

I am neither suggesting that the single is the most important factor in Test cricket, nor that highlights packages would be far better to watch if they cut out all modern-day affectations such as boundaries and wickets and focused only on neat little tucks to midwicket for a smartly taken one. But the art of scoring and preventing singles has been shown to be a vital part of the Test game, a crucial tool in unsettling the opposition and shifting the momentum of a match.

A reluctance and/or technical inability to keep the scoreboard in motion with ones has been a significant factor in England's struggles with the bat over the past year. And the failure to even attempt to stop singles was a colossal influence on Sri Lanka's defeat in Sharjah.

Even in the latter stages, Pakistan were able to tootle along without having to force the pace. Of the last 124 runs, scored from 21.5 overs, only 24 were scored in boundaries; 67 were singles, and there were a pitiful, defeat-ensuring 46 dot balls.

To concede 160 singles in 57.3 overs was a frankly superhuman effort, a landmark in anti-pressurisation of batsmen. There is much talk of "bowling dry", to restrict the batsmen's flow of runs. Sri Lanka bowled damp. They avoided being drenched by a deluge, but instead ended up slowly saturated, sogging themselves into submission with a steady seepage of singles, their tactics as effective as an umbrella made of bread. The breadbrella might initially be more effective than no umbrella at all, but, ultimately, you end up just as wet, with nothing to spread your marmalade on, and with questions to answer as to why your smart new jacket is covered in barely recognisable lumps of sodden sliced white.

And all this was against a Pakistan team that, in the 2010s, has been the second slowest-scoring of all the Test nations (ahead only of Zimbabwe) (or behind only Zimbabwe, depending on how slowly you like your Test cricketer to bat), and the second-least adept at scoring singles (also ahead of Zimbabwe). Until the Sharjah Test, Pakistan had scored a single every 7.7 balls in their Tests since January 2010. So to allow them to score one almost every other ball was, even given the precision and craft of the batting, astonishingly inept.

* Sri Lanka's rather tremulous negativity, perhaps understandable in a team that has had few major series victories in the last four years, was not confined to their fielding strategy. They scored 428 for 9 declared at 2.48 runs per over in their first innings - the slowest score of 400-plus in the first innings of a Test since 2003. Their match run-rate of 2.34 was their slowest since they defended for a Durban draw in December 2000, and the slowest that any team has scored in a Test against Pakistan since 1995.

This is not to suggest that defensive batting was inappropriate, either in the first innings or the second. It is to suggest that defensive batting without sufficient purpose or intent can be dangerously counterproductive.

* If you think Sri Lanka's batting was turgid in Sharjah at 2.34 runs per over, spare a thought for cricket fans in the mid-to-late 1950s. In the five years from 1954 to 1958 inclusive, only one of the seven Test teams then playing scored at more than 2.34 - West Indies, whose 2.87 per over would be considered rather staid today, but was almost wantonly, immorally, licentiously exuberant for the time.

* In 2013, Azhar Ali averaged 19, with a strike rate of 31, and passed 30 in just two of his 14 Test innings. His fluent and perfectly paced century was the first by a Pakistani in a successful fourth-innings chase since 2003, and their first against anyone other than Bangladesh since Mudassar and Miandad both reach three figures when knocking off 227 to beat New Zealand in 1984-85.

* Misbah-ul-Haq, aged 0-35: 19 Tests, average 33. Aged 36-39: 27 Tests, average 61. Of the 92 players to have played more than ten Tests in the 36-and-over age bracket, Misbah has the sixth best average, behind Chanderpaul (66), Barrington (67), Imran Khan (72), Eddie Paynter (75) and unsurprising leader Don Bradman (105), a man who was very much the Don Bradman of late-30s batsmen.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Reg on January 22, 2014, 23:27 GMT

    When you emphasize singles you are in very good company. Ian Chappell recently made the point about stopping the singles as the basis of test match fielding.

    I have long admired Misbah, who has proved repeatedly that he is both tough and talented. The odd thing about this is the torrent of criticism he has been collecting in recent years. His phenomenal average has not been the work of a couple of extraordinary sessions. It is something he has been working on, often with very little support from those around him, for very many years.

  • Francois on January 22, 2014, 8:42 GMT

    Thanks Pakistan you saved us from boredom

  • Dummy4 on January 22, 2014, 0:49 GMT

    Not much different in approach at the last world cup in Mumbai. Afraid to win.

  • Dummy4 on January 21, 2014, 21:57 GMT

    Sri Lanka tried what they had done in the second test, bat at a turtle's pace, give Pakistan no or little time to score, and hope they will go for a draw, I guess second time around is a jinx, let's go for more courage and sportiness in test cricket, win or lose, go with a positive intent and play good cricket, not negative, boring and super defensive one, you may and will eventually lose.

  • Dummy4 on January 21, 2014, 20:21 GMT

    I am a SL fan, but I congratulate Pak for their bravery. Having said that , when you are one down that is the only way to play. Treat it like a 50 over match and go for the win. If you win its great, you squared the series if not you are two down instead of one down - no big deal. For the SrLankan, when you are one up and have a moderate first inning lead don't play like pussies to draw the match, but try to win and make it 2-0.

  • Isaac on January 21, 2014, 19:20 GMT

    The final clause is perhaps the best line I have read in 10 years. Sublime.

  • Dummy4 on January 21, 2014, 18:53 GMT

    We are always told that "Patience is a virtue." In Sri Lanka's case , they took it to the extreme. Trying to be TOO cautious, batting in second innings could have had more urgency in it. They were trying to draw the Test from ball one on the first day. We could have all seen that Mathews and company were trying to emulate a certain South African Batting pair (faced with Gargantuan TASKS) which have proven in their time at the crease to play (bat) with a purpose in which they can lead their team to safety. I saw how frustrated Kumar Sangakkara was when he sense that Pakistan were in for the kill. Angelo looked confused; he could have worked out a strategy with his two LEGENDS. Setting attacking fields could have made the chase more interesting for them to stop and restrict the Pakistanis' scoring. Sarfraz Ahmed proved to be the catalyst in the chase, Rangana's would have been better if he bowled around the wicket to him. But in my estimation, this was an excellent example of TESTS.

  • Jawwad on January 21, 2014, 18:24 GMT

    Andy - Great piece as always. Watch the last 10 overs of the innings. Watch Pakistani batmen running in between wickets for their lives. Watch them calling for two's when it was only a single and taking three's when at best it would be a two. Watch them sweat to victory. It was a treat to watch.

  • Sachin on January 21, 2014, 17:13 GMT

    Very poor thinking from Angi, i was just praising him that he was showing glimpse of Arjuna in him. Guess i was very wrong. His poor thinking led SL to defeat against Kiwis in their last ODI series. When he had fast bowlers in his bag to bowl the last over, he gave it to Herath especially when it was a wet outfield. Now from ball 1 in Pakistan innings he was in defensive mood. Didn't attack at all. Poor thinking. If he is a learning player he should have learnt from his mistakes. I don't see it in him. He didn't bowl Dilruwan at all & he gave a pathetic excuse for that. As a SL fans the future is very gloomy for us.

  • Amir on January 21, 2014, 13:17 GMT

    It is unfortunate that the series ended this way for SL. They played a good series. I think they lost this match on day 4 with their batting. 30-40 more runs on day four would have put the match beyond PK's reach but it is indeed a good lesson to learn for all. Nowadays, most teams don't keep the scoreboard ticking with singles and go for glamour shots (especially my BD). The art of batting in test matches is in finding gaps for singles and doubles with occasional boundaries. Glamour shots with ESPN highlights are creating a wham-bam mindset for the fans as well as cricketers.

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