When attack is the best form of defence
Sample this - 11 maidens out of the 97 (completed) overs and 347 dot balls (59%) out of the 586 bowled in an ODI. Those are appalling stats coming from a match played between two sides that boast of the world's most dynamic players. Was it poor batting, were there demons in the pitch, or was it simply exceptional limited-overs bowling?
If it was poor batting then what explains 46 boundaries, including as many as 11 sixes, in the interim? Who was hitting those big ones? If there were indeed demons in the pitch, then it's difficult to fathom how batsmen from both sides lasted that long. And, it wasn't the last option either: the bowling, at no stage, looked menacing enough to architect those statistics.
So, what was the mystery behind some of the better stroke-makers of the cricket ball playing an altogether different brand of cricket? Well, it was indeed the pitch that dictated a certain kind of play, at least till the batsmen chose to take a little bit of risk. While there were no apparent demons in the pitch, the variable pace and bounce off the pitch ensured that getting away was really difficult.
Believe it or not, at Sabina Park during the second ODI between India and West Indies, hitting a four or a six was a lot easier than taking a single to rotate strike. The moment the batsman tried to place the ball in the gap, he ended up either offering a dead bat because the ball either arrived a little quicker or later than he expected or he couldn't hit the ball hard enough to beat the inner ring. Also with the new laws, the mandatory extra fielder inside the 30-yard circle added to the misery.
This pitch reminded me of the one I batted on in the Dhaka Premier League, a 50-overs-a-side tournament between clubs. The team batting first struggled through their quota of overs and managed only 175 runs on a slow and sluggish pitch that offered spinners a fair amount of assistance. Still, chasing less than four-an-over might stretch us a bit but should be achieved, or so we thought.
I opened the batting with the knowledge that scoring was going to be a little tricky, yet I knew if I spent time on the pitch, batting would eventually become easier for that's what I'd been conditioned to believe. I waited for the loose balls to come my way. On a pitch that offered variable bounce and pace, the margin of error was larger for the bowler, resulting in fewer hittable balls. My plan B was to take singles and rotate strike till I gauged the pace and bounce but that didn't happen either. I kept finding the fielders instead of gaps.
Then came the trickiest bit - a first in my career. Even when the loose balls were bowled begging to be punished, I couldn't hit them for boundaries. I was playing proper cricketing shots but the rewards weren't proportional to the effort. The cover drive wasn't traveling quick enough and the cut wasn't piercing the off side field either. I scratched around for a little longer before perishing.
That innings and the subsequent chat with a few players who were regulars in the Bangladesh circuit did much to decode these sort of pitches, and of course the way to deal with them. On such batting surfaces, rotating strike is difficult because the pace and bounce off the pitch is so inconsistent that you don't know when to bring the bat down to find the right timing or control the pace and direction of the ball off the bat to hit the gaps. If you keep trying to play the ball on its merit, you'll end up hitting it directly to the fielders all the time unless it's a rank long hop or a full toss.
The only way to score on such pitches is to adopt a slightly more aggressive approach and shelve the percentages on the balls that are in your hitting zone. You ought to take the odd risk, take the aerial route and hit a few boundaries to not only release but also transfer the pressure to the bowler; just sticking around will be playing into the bowlers' hands. That's exactly what Dinesh Karthik did against Marlon Samuels.
Rohit Sharma in the first innings and Johnson Charles in the second showed that if you are willing to take calculated risks, the rewards were forthcoming. Of course, you would also need a bit of luck to succeed but taking that punt is the best and perhaps the only way to succeed on such a pitch.
The pitch for the second ODI was the same one on which the first match between West Indies and Sri Lanka was played. If the same pitch is going to be used for the last match of the series in Jamaica on Tuesday, another laborious day for batsmen is in the offing.