November 23, 2008

Lame over-rate, lame excuse

Captains argue the game has changed a lot, but it hasn't changed enough to justify abysmal over-rates



Let me bowl, skip: It's difficult to understand why Ponting needs to engage in long, drawn-out conversations with his bowlers, which is the main cause of Australia's slow over-rate © Getty Images

"The game has changed" is a common cry when a captain attempts to defend his tactics from criticism by former players. Ricky Ponting defended the tardy over-rate that led to a bewildering fourth day's play in the Nagpur Test thus: "Some of these guys [offering opinions] haven't played for 30 years." It's worth examining "the game has changed" defence to see if it's as impregnable as Sunil Gavaskar's or as wafer-thin as New Zealand tail-ender Chris Martin's.

In my case it's been 28-and-a-half years since retirement, so let's use that as a starting point to identify changes in the game. The biggest changes to affect events on the field are the advent of Twenty20, a vast improvement in the standard of bats, and an increase in the number of teams, which has led to a crowded schedule. Off the field the way the game is marketed has improved finances, but also led to far greater media scrutiny.

However, the heart of the game hasn't changed: the ball is still cork and leather, and weighs the equivalent of five-and-a-half ounces; we still have turf pitches, and they have remained at a metric 22 yards; and while the bat is much improved, it's still the same size and made of wood. This means the options for scoring runs and taking wickets, the two crucial aspects of winning a cricket match, are largely unchanged.

Therefore the art of placing a field hasn't varied much from when Dennis Lillee was Australia's chief strike-bowler, and Ashley Mallett the leading offspinner. In Nagpur, Australia fielded a similar combination with Brett Lee providing the pace, and Jason Krejza the offspin. Consequently it's difficult to understand why Ponting needs to engage in long, drawn-out conversations with his bowlers, which is the main cause of Australia's slow over-rate.

These chats are even more bewildering when team meetings have become so important as to banish Andrew Symonds because he missed one such gathering in Darwin. Team meetings are now more prolific than Sachin Tendulkar, and as over-rated as computer rankings. Former Australia coach John Buchanan was never one to shy away from a team meeting, and Mark Waugh, tiring of one elongated get-together, quipped, "John, 'hit the top of off with the occasional bouncer' used to work."

Waugh's philosophy is pure cricketing commonsense. However the plans that are devised now, by group consensus in a meeting, often remain in place long after they have worn out their welcome on the ground. In recent times I've had the impression that both Michael Vaughan and Ponting are out to re-invent captaincy. Despite many comments by pundits, ranking the art alongside splitting the atom, it's really no more than commonsense, a sound cricket knowledge and a slice of luck.

 
 
The art of placing a field hasn't varied much from when Dennis Lillee was Australia's chief strike-bowler, and Ashley Mallett the leading offspinner. In Nagpur, Australia fielded a similar combination with Brett Lee providing the pace, and Jason Krejza the offspin
 
If a captain follows a few simple rules, he won't go far wrong. He should aim to place as many fielders in the region where a catch is most likely to go, and ensure taking wickets is his main objective. Saving singles is the next priority, with boundaries running a distant third. But saving boundaries ranks too high on both Ponting and Vaughan's priority scale.

There are times when a captain needs to be imaginative, but there are many more occasions when it pays to stick with traditional field placings, and good bowling does the rest.

Australia's abysmal over-rates in India were said to be the result of local idiosyncrasies that were beyond Ponting's control. That is a smokescreen: in a number of other series in different countries, Australia's over-rates have been even worse than they were in India.

At least the bizarre Nagpur Test has served the purpose of highlighting the abysmal over-rates in world cricket. The game hasn't changed so much that it's impossible to bowl 15 overs in an hour. With some compromises by the administrators, and some prodding from the umpires, the players could easily achieve the minimum over-rate. Daniel Vettori said as much in a recent press conference.

Vettori's team-mate Martin has accumulated an astonishing 23 ducks in 63 Test innings while Gavaskar, despite having faced many great fast bowlers, averaged more than 50 in his illustrious career. As a defence, "the game has changed" ranks closer to the one Martin displays rather than the water-tight fortress employed by Gavaskar.