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Match Analysis

Could Australia's uphill battle against net run rate have been avoided?

Daniel Vettori admits consequences of heavy opening defeat to New Zealand were discussed at length

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
Australia's opening defeat to New Zealand left them in a big NRR hole  •  ICC/Getty Images

Australia's opening defeat to New Zealand left them in a big NRR hole  •  ICC/Getty Images

It was MS Dhoni's first match back in yellow after two years of the ban for Chennai Super Kings. His side was 84 for 6 with one batter retired-hurt, chasing Mumbai Indians' 165. Dwayne Bravo then launched a sensational assault, scoring 68 off 30, taking 50 off the last three, including 20 off a Jasprit Bumrah over to set up a memorable win.
Dhoni was of course happy with the win, but at the post-match presentation he admitted it wasn't probably how he would have played. "I am a practical person," Dhoni said. "So I was hoping in the dressing room that the quantum of the defeat wouldn't be too big."
As Dhoni said there, he is practical not defeatist. He knows the value of net run rate in tournament play. While people start to think of it only towards the end of the league stages, Dhoni has an eye on it even at the start of the tournament.
There is merit in disagreeing with how Dhoni thinks - in fact there is a running joke about net run rate every time CSK are struggling to score quickly - but you can't deny that this becomes an even more pertinent thought in a brutal and short tournament such as the T20 World Cup. There are six teams in each group, two of whom come from a previous qualifying round, and only two eventually go through to the semi-final. Is there, then, merit in taking a step back if you lose early wickets in a stiff chase against one of the three favourite sides, so as to minimise the NRR damage?
In the case of Australia, who now must rely on Sri Lanka to beat England to hand them a lifeline, there might just have been. The defending champions conceded 200 against New Zealand in the Super 12s opener, lost three wickets in the powerplay, kept going for it still and were bowled out for 111 in 17.1 overs.
In a bilateral T20I, there is no doubt this is the best way to play T20 cricket. In tournament play, especially in such a cut-throat format, there is room for second thoughts. That maybe you look to rebuild for a bit, play out the 20 overs, and if a late charge wins you the game, take it as a bonus. If you lose, at least you live to fight another day.
"Have you been in our team meetings?" Australia's assistant coach Daniel Vettori responded when asked if there was almost a case for not going all out for the target if you lose early wickets against one of the three big teams. "That is the challenge. Going for the win versus looking that far ahead. It comes to the forefront at the end of the tournament but the first game of the tournament… there are a lot of conversations around how you win but to the credit of Andrew McDonald [the coach] and everyone else that there was a discussion around that the net run rate is going to play a huge part in the game. Unfortunately we weren't unable to mitigate that."
Back then, after defeat at the SCG, Aaron Finch defended the way his side approached the chase even after early setbacks because this was the kind of cricket that won them the World Cup in 2021.
There have been moments where Australia could have perhaps made up for that damage early on in the tournament, but to completely eliminate a lower-order stand (the kind Ireland had against them) or a slow pitch that makes it difficult to get a big win is not easy.
"No, it is the New Zealand game," Vettori said when asked if they had let other opportunities go. "Unfortunately those are the results in these short tournaments that can really affect you. And you see it in the IPL, you see it in the Hundred, you see it all the time, that one game that you let go can have such an effect on the tournament.
"No matter how well you play in in the following games, it can get away from you. There is always likelihood that there will be teams on the same number of points. It's just that big loss that affects you so. How to mitigate that is the bigger issue rather than [try to] catch up in the other games."
As it turned out, in their last group match, Australia found themselves on a slow surface on which it was difficult to force the pace and get the kind of run-rate boost that would put England under any kind of pressure. Also, Australia knew well before the tournament they wouldn't be playing last, which comes with a massive advantage of knowing what exactly to get in terms of NRR in the last match. They will surely be looking more at the New Zealand match than tighter-than-expected wins against Ireland and Afghanistan.
As with any decision, choosing to play this way will have its own flip side. It can bring doubt, caginess, questions as to when exactly do you start playing for net run rate, but it is undeniable that some of the most successful brains in cricket think that way. And as Vettori said, it is not just hindsight.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo