Rajasthan v Chennai, IPL 2013, Jaipur May 12, 2013

Saving the best for the last

Holding back the best batsman has been a common strategy in Twenty20. It worked tonight, but its merits are open to debate

For all the flashy hitting involved, Twenty20 remains a largely pessimistic sport. Morne Morkel doesn't get the first over at Delhi Daredevils, Rajasthan Royals protect Shane Watson from the new ball on a testing pitch, at Kings XI Punjab David Miller has often been left batting with lesser batsmen, MS Dhoni doesn't want to come in to bat if there are more than 10 overs remaining, and Mumbai Indians' misuse of Kieron Pollard is now well documented. They are all better cricketers than that.

Captaining India, Dhoni once made the bold move of playing just six specialist batsmen - which should on paper be enough in a 20-over game - and immediately countered it by sending Irfan Pathan to open the innings. He gave himself that extended warranty of a batsman at No. 7, but that No. 7 sat and saw Irfan eat up 30 crucial deliveries for just 31 runs.

You feared Rajasthan Royals were doing just that in their final home game of the season. Chasing 142, they were tested by some good seam bowling at the top. Ajinkya Rahane fell to it, and you moved a little towards the edge of your seat to see how Watson would cope with it. Out came James Faulkner. The pinch-hitting experiment failed soon, you leaned forward again, but you saw Sanju Samson coming out. In a crucial chase, when you want your best batsman to face as many balls as possible, Watson was not to be seen until the third wicket fell. It was a good thing these three batsmen got out early and didn't waste too many deliveries, but the asking rate had already crossed eight. Soon it would nudge 10 an over.

Rahul Dravid, the captain in this instance, will tell you it was all tactics. And Dravid is no defensive captain. There is no way he would have sent in a lesser batsman to face the best bowling in a Test match, a nightwatchman being the only exception. "It was a kind of wicket where we knew we needed to backend our batting," Dravid said. "And the fact that they had a couple of spinners we needed to target. I wouldn't say we got the batting order wrong.

"We didn't play the first 10 overs particularly well. I would have liked a few more runs in the first 10. Forty-nine for four isn't good enough, but we are lucky we had someone like Watson there in the end and Stuart Binny as well."

A stunning assault from Watson and Binny, a period of five overs that went for 81, brought Royals a comfortable win in the end. And as Dravid had planned, a spinner - R Ashwin, the best in India - was successfully targeted. However, Royals are a bit of an exception: they don't have the best of batting resources, and need insurance towards the end. Royal Challengers Bangalore don't have similar concerns with Chris Gayle because they have Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers following him.

That allowance made, you still wonder if Watson is not good enough a batsman to have played proper cricket against the better of Chennai Super Kings' quicks. Wasn't leaving all the eggs in Watson's basket a risk in itself? Why doesn't Dhoni, one of the best chasers in ODI cricket, bat early with Dwayne Bravo, S Badrinath, plus Albie Morkel at times, to follow him? In the match that Miller won Kings XI Punjab with a crazy hundred, his third fifty-plus score in a row, he came in to bat in the 10th over.

The only plausible explanation for it is, you want your best batsmen to play with a mind that is not muddled with building an innings and pondering the consequences. It's not the number in the order that matters, but the number of overs remaining when they come in to bat. Somewhere deep inside, they want to take out the fear of being bowled out. That's 10 wickets in 20 overs. To think of that is pessimistic. It messes around with normal cricket.

In a bottom-line world, the success and failure of a strategy is determined by the ultimate result. It obviously worked tonight with Dravid holding Watson back. It failed when Dhoni opened with Irfan to have a cover for a cover. It failed when Kings XI had Manan Vohra and David Hussey batting ahead of a clearly in-form Miller who was left almost stranded against Mumbai Indians.

It's a young sport still. We can't fully know the dynamics of these decisions because the pressures on the field are different. The captains are pondering these things as they go. Until then, just the thought that there can be a variant of cricket where you don't want to give your best cricketers to play the most part in the game is fascinating enough. After all these games aren't quite played on the sticky dogs that once made Don Bradman invert his batting order.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Matrix on May 14, 2013, 18:42 GMT

    Even Mike Hussey as fifth bowling option with his medium pace would have won the match for Chennai. Such was that pitch in Jaipur - a typical pacy one.

  • Shirish on May 14, 2013, 7:35 GMT

    I think it is important to understand the 2 different mindsets. Lance Klusener, who one could say was ideally suited to T20 had it been played in his time, was particularly good at the end of the innings, with the run rate running at 8 to 10. When he was promoted and he started batting higher, he would just nudge the ball around for a while, and then you found that the run rate was as high anyway. People like Sehwag are really rare, who can continuously attack irrespective of the match situation. In Sehwag's case, there is no issue with mindset, but when the ball is moving around, even the best of the best are vulnerable. As a team, one has to proactively think of how the batting order ought to be in each game, nothing ought to be etched in stone. However, CSK do need to rethink about heir utilisation of Albie, and Badri. Both have been disappointing this season, Badri has had plenty of opportunities as well.

  • shankar on May 13, 2013, 17:09 GMT

    Do not get carried away by one successful performance. The move to hold back Watson, Hodge nearly backfired big time. As Watson himself said later, he was lucky that everything clicked. He will not be successful to pull off the chase every time he has to score 90 off 45 balls. Just like Dhoni can't win every time he leaves 40 runs off the last 12 balls. Miller has failed after his 101 off 38 balls. So, use some sense, and stop extolling every little positive happening.

  • Dummy4 on May 13, 2013, 14:17 GMT

    Obviously we are seeing a trend where teams want their best batsman to be in at the end of an innings, a trend which I'm not sure is a consequence of or a reason for a huge number of runs being scored in 5-6 overs at the end. 60 runs are being routinely plundered in the last 5, so much so that teams really don't seem to mind being, say 100 for 4 at the end of 15 overs, confident that they can still post 160+.

    In my opinion, holding your best man back to do the business at the end is putting a positive spin on what I perceive as an essentially negative tactic. I believe captains want to be safe in the knowledge that a Watson or a Miller is still back in the hut waiting to come out. They are safeguarding against getting their best man out early, which is a defensive mindset. They would rather go into the 11th over at 60-4 with Watson coming in, rather than 80-2 with Watson out. Psychologically, there would be less pressure on a Samson or a Vohra when Watson or Miller is coming in next.

  • Gihan on May 13, 2013, 14:00 GMT

    Strategy wise i think it would have been better to send watson ahead of sanju sampson. watson is a brilliant player, but he is used to play at the top. he may be psychologically affected when he sees that many wickets have gone down. also it would mean that there is added security of sanju, binny and hodge who will follow after watson in case he fails!!

  • Zam on May 13, 2013, 13:52 GMT

    But even Bradman inverted his batting order and sent lower order batsmen for a similar purpose. The wicket was almost unplayable and he wanted the lower order batsmen to eat up as many deliveries as possible, before the conditions eased, and regular batsmen steer the match, to a win, which they did. Cricketing formats have changed, but the tactics are not new. They have all been tried, unless you are talking about three no balls being bowled as per a captain's wish!

  • Alex on May 13, 2013, 13:35 GMT

    20/20 is more like Blitz chess. You have lots of resources in 20 overs. You just have to find right match up. I think what dravid did brilliant. 20/20 is about winning not who score more. No individual stat record in sloggathon is glorified like in TEST. I think most writers in cricinfo has no knowledge of match up. Some players are good against spin and pace or against particular bowler. So you have to find the ODD matchups if every thing else broke. If you have more better matchup , you have chance to win. We saw samuels kill malinga in t20 worldcup. Very rarely malinga get hit. So you have to find players who play malinga against Mumbai team. You win most games if you find better match up with each team. Its rational thinking. You see this often in NFL. One game a Defensive end has many sacks..you expect him every week like that performance but it do not happen until he find a weaker offensive line. Most times it work if you analyse. Actually i am good at matchup analysis.

  • Vidhya on May 13, 2013, 13:25 GMT

    @Deepak Shankar: Agreed, CSK made a tactical error last game by playing an extra spinner and not taking enough risks. But I disagree with you about the match against RCB. It was RCB's match to lose, poor umpiring gave Virat a second life, plus he didn't walk. If you want to be India's future captain, have some honor and dignity. If the same thing had happened in Mumbai, I am sure the crowd would have given him some choice words. CSK has won 5 out of 7 matches away, how many has RCB won? RR defeated CSK comprehensively, other games that CSK lost were due to complacency rather than poor tactics, on the flip side look at all the CSK games, there has not even been a single ugly incident.

  • Thomas on May 13, 2013, 12:10 GMT

    Have to quote upton " There is a big difference between someone playing for themselves and with a fear of failure and those just excited about making a contribution to the success of the team". Well said

  • Dummy4 on May 13, 2013, 11:56 GMT

    @RL Narayana Nallapa I could not resist myself from laughing at your comment.Your comment saying that it was Dhoni's tactics to gift the game shows your sheer knowledge of the game.By loosing this game csk have put more pressure on self rather than it being a master stroke.In all probability csk may not even end up on the top 2 even if they qualify for the play off's they have 2 games left one is against a team which has nothing to loose DD if DD play with nothing to loose attitude and if their batting clicks csk would be doomed.next game against RCB who have not dropped a match at home and given the fire power they have and a must win scenario they are in it is going to hard to beat them.If you remember csk vs rcb at chennai it was due to that noball that csk won and luck doesnt favor you always so pray and hope csk stays in contention for play off rather than making such dumb comments