Death becomes them
The bowler came sprinting in his run-up and unleashed his trademark lethal reverse-swinging toe-crushers. But the man on the batting end had thought it through; he managed to get under the deliveries and hit them out of the park.
This is a segment from the epic India-Pakistan encounter in the 1996 World Cup quarter-final in Bangalore. The bowler was Waqar Younis and the batsman Ajay Jadeja. It was perhaps my first introduction to the potential of the death overs and their effect on the upshot of a thrilling contest.
Death overs are an unabashed display of the intent to win come what may. It is not a time when cricketers play hide-and-seek. Both bowler and batsman know each other's intentions as well they know their own. A bowler is looking to minimise the damage, and the batsman is sure to throw caution to the wind. For the players involved, it's their chance to get their team home. These are the glory boys but also the ones who are made villains if the ball misses the target by an inch - either on the bat, eluding the sweet spot, or turning from an intended yorker into a full-toss or a half-volley.
While there are three common lengths bowlers use towards the end, the best bet is to bowl a yorker and hope to err on the side of being full, because low full-tosses are tougher to hit than half-volleys.
Of late, though, batsmen have begun to open their shoulders and go deep inside the crease to get under these yorkers. The so-called toe-crushers no longer bother batsmen like Kieron Pollard and MS Dhoni, who send them sailing over long-on and midwicket.
For the bowler, the length is sacrosanct when bowling to such batsmen, and the line favours the off: bowling yorkers outside off stump is often an effective way of controlling the damage; but you need to strengthen the field square on the off side for it to work. I've seen Shane Warne post three fielders in the deep, in the area between point and third man, while bringing fine leg, midwicket and even mid-on, inside the circle. It will take special skills to drag a full ball from outside off towards fine leg.
The only length ball a bowler can bowl is one with no pace on it, for balls of normal pace are guaranteed to be dismissed.
The length of a slower delivery ought to change with the surface too. On surfaces with good bounce it's important to not pitch it too short, for it will sit up to get hit. The field placement is also crucial for the success of a slower delivery. Since it doesn't have the pace to go past the third-man fielder, it's only wise to bring him inside the circle. On the other hand, having the midwicket fielder on the fence is almost mandatory.
The bouncer, if executed properly, is one of the most difficult balls to get away at the death. There are a few variations of the delivery but their use depends on the pitch. The slower bouncer isn't that handy on slow-low surfaces because it rarely reaches the optimum height to cause discomfort. A good quick bouncer is the way to go in the subcontinent, while bowling slower bouncers isn't a bad option on hard and bouncy tracks. The correct field placement enhances the chances of the bouncer's effectiveness. You need fine leg, square leg, and even third man (in case of an upper cut) back on the fence, but you can always bring mid-off inside the circle.
These changes in the field must come from the bowler, for he is the one who knows what he is going to deliver next. John Buchanan tried a system of signals with Kolkata Knight Riders in the second season of the IPL, with the bowler indicating what his intended next ball would be. It didn't work as it should have because it wasn't the bowler but the fielding captain who took the call on what fields to have; but implemented properly it can work wonders, especially in the death overs.
Batting at the death is as specialised a job as opening the batting. Not only do you need special skill sets, at times you need brute strength to clear the fence.
While you identify your strengths as a batsman and must go for broke if you get a ball in your area, it's highly unlikely that you will without doing something out of the box. For example, if you like going over midwicket, be assured that most balls to you will finish outside off, since good bowlers work to a plan. To make things work in your favour you must out-think the bowler and create the desired line and length yourself. It is something Sachin Tendulkar did with aplomb during his double-century against the South Africans in Gwalior. He constantly moved about in the crease to keep the bowler guessing.
Since as a batsman you are also aware of the bowler's three desired lengths, you can take a calculated risk, guessing what the next ball will be, leaving the option of taking a single as your last resource open.
While being a little cheeky doesn't hurt, the better players at the end of an innings are the ones who maintain a solid base all the time. You rarely saw people like Lance Klusener hit a shot while off position or off balance, because it's almost impossible to get power or timing if the base and the head are not stable.
Another point a batsman needs to keep in mind is to not get too close to the ball, for you need room to swing the arms; also, staying away from the ball a little is mandatory to help you get under it for elevation. Both Dhoni and Suresh Raina are brilliant when it comes to clearing the front leg out of the way to create room, going slightly deeper in the crease to get under the full ball, and also staying away to allow the arms to swing free for the off-target length ball.
It's also wise to keep a close eye on the constantly changing field positions, so you have an insight into the bowler's thinking and can then prepare yourself accordingly.
While chasing a target, it's imperative to think in terms of balls, not overs. Keeping a calm head while calculating your chances is what separates a good finisher from an average middle-order player. If you need 36 off 24 balls, it takes only four hits to the fence to bring the rather daunting-looking equation down to a more realistic run-a-ball. But thinking of getting nine an over can create panic.
Batting in the death overs may not be the most pleasing sight for a purist, but if observed closely, the smaller battles within the big one make for interesting viewing. How a batsman reads the bowler's mind or vice versa speaks volumes about the strength of a player's character. Imagine the pressure a bowler must feel while bowling the last over, or the last ball of the match, with the opposition needing only a boundary for victory.
Things were not so tough for bowlers when the same ball was used till the 50th over, because the reverse swing allowed bowlers to have more than a say in proceedings. You would rarely see Wasim Akram shy away from these demanding situations. On the contrary his skill in making the old ball talk allowed him to dictate terms. But since the ball is changed after the 34th over these days, the bowler's job is cut out for him.
Make no mistake, though, the man who is expected to hit the last ball to the fence is under tremendous pressure too. It's the one who holds his nerve in the end who survives. Maybe that's why the term "death overs' was coined, for failure isn't an option at that stage.
The Insider comes to a close with this chapter. I extend my heartfelt gratitude for your support and feedback. Your views have been ever so encouraging and have helped me deliver something fresh each time.
This series was put together to give you, the reader, an insider's perspective and take on the finer technical nuances of cricket. My attempt was to make the encyclopaedia of cricket jargon legible to all who fancy the sport, and I only hope it was as enriching a journey for you as it was for me, both as a cricketer and analyst.
In association with ESPNcricinfo, the Insider series will soon be turned into a book. In the meantime, it will be my pleasure to offer you my views on the current season of Indian domestic cricket on my blog Beyond the Blues.