January 21, 2014

Sri Lanka's epic anti-pressurisation of batsmen

Andy Zaltzman
"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

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Posted by regofpicton 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.

Posted by wanatawu on (January 22, 2014, 8:42 GMT)

Thanks Pakistan you saved us from boredom

Posted by   on (January 22, 2014, 0:49 GMT)

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

Posted by   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.

Posted by   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.

Posted by Sigismund on (January 21, 2014, 19:20 GMT)

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

Posted by   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.

Posted by Desihungama 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.

Posted by sachinssnn 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.

Posted by Fogu 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.

Posted by zarasochozarasamjho on (January 21, 2014, 13:02 GMT)

Amazing statistics; as a Pakistan supporter, what has disappointed me the most about Pakistan batting was their sheer lack of ability take singles. This helps scoring and also rotates the batting. As a result partnerships, the bedrock of decent and big scores, have been few and far between. From being the worst in this department, Pakistan became easily the best in THIS match - not humanely possible. It looks SL tried its best that Pakistan won (or their thinking simply froze that no alternative strategy was taken). To be fair, it is quite possible that Angelo Matthews did not believe that Pakistan would be capable of scoring 300 runs in a 4th innings EVEN IF time was not a limiting factor. In recent years, Pakistan has probably scored less than 100 in a test innings more often than scoring 300. An innings of 300 by a current Pak test side is equivalent of a 600 by a Pak test side historically to say 7 years ago. Had SL taken just another wicket, Pak would have probably lost.

Posted by   on (January 21, 2014, 12:50 GMT)

"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" fell off my chair reading that Andy!! As much boring as it may seem, singles are a crucial aspect of the game and in any format. And good fielding sides will not let you take those singles easily and hence force batsmen to commit false strokes. It is surprising that Sri Lanka allowed for such singles to be taken. Were they looking at a draw or expecting and hoping Pakistani batsmen hit in the air to up the ante (therefore spreading fielders at the rope). That wasn't the case and so had to end up on the losing side!!!!!

Posted by   on (January 21, 2014, 12:47 GMT)

i think misbah is among the fittest of the players of his age, around 40! i wish i dont jinx him.

Posted by Harmony_not_Discord on (January 21, 2014, 12:39 GMT)

Great piece!

Pakistan is not just the unpredictable side but they have also shown some wonderful feats, as in this test and done some unusual stuff such as producing someone with a fastest ODI century maker of 17 years; a record only recently broken - pioneers of reverse swing and Doosra.

Coming something new from that country won't be surprising.

Posted by m0se on (January 21, 2014, 11:53 GMT)

I watched the test match and a major point was that there wasn't rough in front of the right handed batsmen for the spinner. The only left handed seamer Junaid first step was very close to the stumps and the next one very far away. So, no rough was created for Hearth against right handers. Pakistan has only right handed batsmen in the team and so Herath was neutralized and the pace bowlers were ineffective. Matthews had to protect the boundary and hope for wickets. He had Hearth bowl a negative round the wicket line but Pakistan were miraculously able to keep sweeping from the rough to get singles and not lose any wickets doing so. This is like VVS flicking Warne from the rough on his way to a double century kind of freakishness. Just looking at stats is silly. The real amazing thing was Misbah and Ali sweeping from the rough off Herath and not losing their wickets. They were also reverse sweeping and switch hitting for singles without a single wicket taking chance.

Posted by Tweety20 on (January 21, 2014, 10:44 GMT)

Yep! After criticism even the jokes have begun to flow.Poor Angie,nobody would want to be in his shoes right now. I'm sure that Angie has learnt a very important lesson and it's interesting to see how SL will approach the coming test matches.Keep fighting Lions.

Posted by fayyaz03 on (January 21, 2014, 10:05 GMT)

Along with the record of having 6th best average, Misbah also tops the list in hitting most number of fifties (21) in that particular age group

Posted by Udendra on (January 21, 2014, 9:24 GMT)

actually what SL did was go back in time to the good old days :)

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Andy Zaltzman
Andy Zaltzman was born in obscurity in 1974. He has been a sporadically-acclaimed stand-up comedian since 1999, and has appeared regularly on BBC Radio 4. Zaltzman's love of cricket outshone his aptitude for the game by a humiliating margin. He once scored 6 in 75 minutes in an Under-15 match, and failed to hit a six between the ages of 9 and 23. He would have been ideally suited to Tests, had not a congenital defect left him unable to play the game to anything above genuine village standard. He writes the Confectionery Stall blog on ESPNcricinfo.

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