December 26, 2011

'We need a deep point. What if he gets four?'

In recent times captains have been obsessed with trying to contain the run-scoring when a specialist batsman is batting with a tailender

Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld made many pertinent observations on their show Seinfeld. One of them was how, of all the warnings we confront every day - against drunk driving, against smoking, against speeding, against honking around hospitals and schools - the only one we really ever care for is "dry clean only". "Don't put that in the wash. It's 'dry clean only'. Are you crazy?"

Similarly of all the things modern Test captains need to take care of - catches flying through a vacant third slip, over-bowling or under-bowling their key bowler, managing different personalities in the side - the only one they really ever seem to be obsessive about is to not allow a specialist batsman to hit boundaries when he is in a lesser player's company.

It's not as if we discovered this development this year, but it reached epidemic proportions in 2011. From Nottingham to Newlands, from MS Dhoni to Michael Clarke, the frenetic cry at every 120 for 6 was, "We need a deep point. What if he gets four runs?"

In the first Test of the year, India could sniff an elusive series win in South Africa. The hosts were effectively 51 for 3 in the third innings when an injured Jacques Kallis came out to bat. It would soon become 62 for 4, 96 for 5 and 128 for 6, with Harbhajan Singh on fire on a pitch that had had its share of wear and tear. Kallis, though, walked out with a long-on in place, and when he took a calculated risk to reverse-sweep Harbhajan, the short third man who went to retrieve the ball from the point fence spent the rest of the innings there. While India only tried to get the other batsmen out, Kallis scored a superb century in crippling pain to lead South Africa to a safe score. India's attitude towards boundaries was as noticeable a feature of that Test series as were the great individual performances from VVS Laxman, Dale Steyn, Sachin Tendulkar and Kallis.

By the time the Lord's Test between England and India reached its final day, only one team could have won it. India needed to bat the day out to get out of it with a draw; scoring 378 to win on that day with one opener gone and the other injured was out of the question. If you looked at the field sets, though, you would think India needed 178 to win. The deep point was a regular presence. With England fighting against time, you would have expected more catching men, but it was all about saving boundaries, especially when Suresh Raina batted with the tail for his 78. England went on to win the match with time to spare, though.

In the next Test, India had England down at 124 for 8 by tea on the first day, but when Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann hit a couple of boundaries after the break, the in-and-out fields were back. There began England's comeback in the Test.

In the Wanderers Test between South Africa and Australia, when Australia broke through Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers in the third innings, they only had Steyn and the rest to get. Even so, they spread the field out for Steyn and attacked only the rest; Steyn went on to score 41. Australia eventually managed to win a thriller.

The response of Mark Boucher, one of the beneficiaries in the Newlands Test of January, suggested his captain would have reacted similarly. "We have been in that situation as well before," he said after his career-saving 55. "I came out looking to play aggressively, I had an aggressive mindset. I think in the back of a captain's mind, you don't want to give away many boundaries. If there's stuff happening out there, you'd rather have catchers and in-and-out fields. Like I said, to protect the boundaries, and make the guys work the singles."

It's as if there is a book called Dummies Guide to Modern Captaincy that tells every captain to forget they got the earlier wickets in the match with aggressive fields, and pretend that the specialist batsman is now on 120 not out.

Few batsmen now seem willing to graft out ugly 80s over a full day's play. Patience is not quite the virtue it used to be. Captains have reason to believe that if they dry up the boundaries, a wicket is bound to arrive

The bowler, who has until now been bowling with a single-minded devotion to wickets, has to suddenly start thinking of stopping boundaries. The rhythm goes awry. And with the strike easy to manoeuvre, he gets about two balls an over at the tailender, two real attempts at a wicket. It can't be easy to switch from bowling defensively for four balls to attacking with the last two.

There is hardly a cricket fan who has not been driven up the wall by these tactics. However, to rubbish the captains' thinking would be too simplistic. They cannot all be doing this for want of heart. There has to be a reason.

Ian Bishop often uses a term that sums the tendency up perfectly: the captains don't want batsmen to "feel good", he says. After all, a little feel-good is what batsmen need when they want to launch a counterattack.

Also, batting has been evolving. The bats have become thicker, edges clear the infield more regularly than ever before, and batsmen trust themselves to clear fields more often - all of which translates into the actual hitting of boundaries too. Add to it that batsmen have much less to lose at 120 for 6 than at 20 for 1. The fielding captains obviously fear the game will get away from them, and respond with, say, one slip, a gully and a deep point, as opposed to three slips and a gully.

The other aspect of batting's evolution is that few batsmen now seem willing to graft out ugly 80s over a full day's play. Patience is not quite the virtue it used to be. Captains have reason to believe that if they dry up the boundaries, a wicket is bound to arrive. Think tanks have obviously studied this approach and found that it works better. All-out attack is resorted to only when there is no option left.

Perhaps it is a sort of evolution that it has become almost rote for captains to go after only the tailenders after six wickets have fallen. This should probably mean fewer comprehensive collapses, but more sides are folding up in 50 or 60 overs than they did before. Not counting Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, there have been 11 double-digit team scores in the last three years, as opposed to four in the three preceding ones.

The captains obviously know what they are doing, and their laptops have told them that it works. We, as fans, will have to take it as yet another addition to the ever-changing game until there arrives a captain who dares to go against this norm. Only, it would be much nicer if it weren't so predictable, if there were a few notable exceptions to this rule.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Parag on December 27, 2011, 19:58 GMT

    I think t20 has killed the contest of test cricket. Nowdays u wont get to see many planned dismissals in tests. Most of the time it is the batsmen who throw the wickets away. I dont think we ever gonna get to see bowlers like Mcgrath, Akram, Donald, Warne etc.

  • Michael on December 27, 2011, 16:50 GMT

    Good to know this guy has strong feelings about field settings, but has he ever been captain of an international team?

  • Dummy4 on December 27, 2011, 9:37 GMT

    Every team plays for a draw and if lucky,to is not what it was 10 years ago.i still consider hansie cronje as the best captain who always played for the spectators. The essence of cricket is no more alive.presently only england plays the real cricket.indian team,they need only money.they prefer ipl over national duty.i am waiting for the day when dravid,laxman,tendulkar will hang their boots...and than god knows what will happen to indian test cricket. By a true test cricket fan.

  • Dummy4 on December 27, 2011, 1:35 GMT

    'Kallis, though, walked out with a long-on in place, and when he took a calculated risk to reverse-sweep Harbhajan, the short third man who went to retrieve the ball from the point fence spent the rest of the innings there.'

    Good point about Dhoni's generally defensive field placings. I was at Edgbaston for the 2nd day while Alastair Cook went from 27 to 182 (of his eventual 294). When he was on about 50 he played a reverse sweep off Mishra. Dhoni proceded to move Tendulkar to third man ON THE BOUNDARY for a spinner, where Tendulkar spent the rest of the day and maybe fielded the ball once. It's not even like Alastair Cook is a particularly proficient reverse sweeper (like an Andy Flower for instance) so why Dhoni didn't leave a gap to get him to try and play the shot again, against the spin as well when he was facing Mishra, is a mystery.

  • Michael on December 26, 2011, 17:02 GMT

    i think most Test captains look at a half glass and say it's half empty. It's a pity.Even the successful ones do.Even 500 is sometimes too little a target to set, even if Nathan Astle did seriously challenge such a lead once. It's a strange thing though that while deep point gets put out regardless and not just for batting with tailenders, third man which commonly haemorrages up to 40% of a side's runs stays open. regarding India, I have long regarded them as draw specialists. While most sides go for the win first they have too often adopted total safety first tactics. consequently they have always seemed quite dull- unless going down in heap 4-0. ( Cp to neighbours Pakistan, often the most amusing if chancey side around.) In any case if captains should adoopt a resolution it should be to keep a third slip in more often and go for the kill wherever possible.

  • Rupesh on December 26, 2011, 15:42 GMT

    "their laptops have told them that it works." It is doubtful that there is any kind of statistical analysis behind these irrational decisions. It is based on gut feeling, which is often wrong. What you want is exactly the opposite. With a defensive field you are giving away easy ones and twos, which is what the batting team in a bad position wants - accumulation of runs without risk, so the last precious one or two wickets can be preserved. What the bowling team wants is for the specialist to take risks. At 130 for 8, even if you hit 5 boundaries it is only 20 runs. In return, you have 5 aggressive shots and the chances of one edge or miscue is much more. Bowling captains are fooled by the psychological impact of a 4, which is much worse than that of four singles. It is the exact same irrationality that investors show: the -ve impact of a $100 loss is much more than the +ve impact of a $100 gain. They do all kind of bad things to prevent that loss, losing money in the process.

  • Himanshu on December 26, 2011, 14:02 GMT

    While this article is a sarcasm against such captaincy, almost in all such instances (please ignore India in England, nothing could have won India a game there then), the team with such tactics went on to win thsoe games. Moreover, those games generally became more interesting (only if you were not the Indian supporter in England). So I guess all such captains and coaches do have some thought going into this.

  • Dnyanesh on December 26, 2011, 13:50 GMT

    Might be interesting to see if the defensive ploy is also to catch up with the over rate...something that bugs most captains today due to lack of spinning options.

  • Rohan on December 26, 2011, 13:38 GMT

    And it was so bloody evident the last part of today i.e. the Boxing Day! Perfect article!

  • Sachin on December 26, 2011, 12:50 GMT

    Yes, T20 matces has changed cricket a lot. These some what unorthodox fielding changes at a time when the capt. has to go in for a kill are a result of playing T20 cricket matches. We can clearly see the imprints of T20 matches on Test matches these days.

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