Timing the Powerplays right
The figures of England's batting Powerplay overs against India at the Chinnaswamy Stadium are baffling to say the least. Not only did they lose four wickets - three to India's wrecker-in-chief, Zaheer Khan - they suddenly looked dilapidated, notching up a meagre 25 runs.
Powerplays are deciding, or at least influencing, the outcome of most matches. Not just the batting Powerplay but the mandatory Powerplay at the beginning and the bowling Powerplay also demand attention. Well, why wouldn't they, for Powerplay overs take up 40% of the total overs.
The mandatory Powerplay overs
Going by the way things have shaped up over the first couple of weeks of the World Cup, it seems like we're back in the 1990s. Teams are treading with caution and are seldom willing to throw caution to the winds. While you'll always have a Sehwag to break this norm, it still remains an individual's choice and not necessarily a part of the team's strategy - unless the team is chasing over 300 runs. Scoring at 9-10 an over inside the first 10 is still an aberration, and the main culprit for this change in approach is the advent of Twenty20. Now you may think that Twenty20 should enhance risk-taking ability and quality of strokeplay, but while it may do these things, it also tells you that 50 overs is too long a game to get too eager too soon. The mantra is to keep wickets right till the end.
The bowling Powerplay
Ever wondered why most teams take the bowling Powerplay straight after the first one?
Most teams play three seam-up bowlers and the third seamer comes into play between about the 9th and 15th overs, because it's wise to introduce a quick bowler when the ball is still relatively new and might swing or seam. Only if the batting side is going at 9-10 an over without losing a wicket, then you would wait for a wicket to fall to opt for the bowling Powerplay. The older the ball, the easier it becomes (unless the ball starts reversing) for the batsman to milk the medium-pace bowlers.
Another reason for taking the bowling Powerplay immediately after the first 10 is to give you enough time to pull back things, in case the opposition cashes in. The later you leave it, the less time you have to resurrect yourself.
The batting Powerplay
The trickiest of them all. While this was introduced quite a while ago, no team can claim to have cracked its code.
Is it the timing or the approach that needs to be monitored? In my opinion, both are equally important. The ideal time to take the Powerplay is in the early 30s, provided you have two set batsmen in the middle. Teams must use these overs to build a momentum that will provide the platform for the final onslaught. Taking the Powerplay earlier would mean having to sustain the momentum for way too long, which might not be easy. Leaving it too late, like a lot of teams are doing by taking it in the 40s, may not give you enough time to build on the momentum. Also, if you take the Powerplay in the death overs, it's easier for the bowling unit, since they will have kept some overs of their best bowlers in hand till then. The idea is to employ the Powerplay to use up the five overs from the opposition's best bowlers early so that they need to resort to a lesser bowler during the death overs. Had England taken their Powerplay overs in the 30s, Zaheer may not have had enough overs left to come back towards the end.
Now comes the approach. Most teams and batsmen feel obliged to go after the bowling after taking the batting Powerplay. While thinking along these lines is understandable, the results often leave a lot to be desired. In an attempt to up the ante batsmen are taking more risks than they can afford against the best opposition bowlers. More often than not batsmen find themselves in Catch 22 situations - they want to score quickly but don't have the license to get out. This lack of clarity in approach is leading to their downfall.
It makes things easier if the batsmen in the middle are well set. By set I don't mean both should have made 60 or more but they should have their eyes in and feet moving. I don't think it's mandatory to be in a situation where losing your wicket doesn't matter much. In fact, on the contrary, I'd take the Powerplay when the wicket matters both to the team and the batsman himself. If you haven't got the desired runs from the match, you would tread with a reasonable amount of caution. Playing proper cricket shots, while being prepared to go after balls pitched in your go-to area, is wiser.
It may not be a bad idea to set a realistic target of scoring 35-40 runs in the five overs. It's important to remember that Powerplay overs are as much about scoring quickly as about playing out the opposition's best bowlers. Also, it's wise to not approach them like the death overs, in which wickets don't matter, or like the first mandatory Powerplay overs, for bowlers have better control when the ball is old.
Finally, aren't these overs teaching fielding captains a thing or two? Dhoni knew that the only way to come into the match against England was by taking wickets, but still neither did he bring the field in nor actively seek to take wickets. Since bowlers are picking up lots of wickets consistently in the Powerplay overs, isn't it wise to be a bit more attacking most times, at least for your best bowlers? Why wait for the batting side to opt for the batting Powerplay to become attacking? That should be by default, not design.