Numbers Game

No target tall enough

The new fielding regulations in ODIs may well have forced teams to adopt a strategy that's more likely to succeed in tall chases

Shiva Jayaraman
MS Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh led India's recovery, India v England, 2nd ODI, Cuttack, January 19, 2017

Teams are scoring at a faster clip in the middle overs of ODIs than before  •  AFP

While ODIs have seen mammoth totals being blitzed up for a while now, the series between India and England produced a couple of matches in which the chasing team posted scores in excess of 350 runs. After India chased down a target of 351 in the first ODI, England fell just 16 runs short of 382 in the second. No too long ago there was another match in which South Africa chased down a target of 372, against Australia in Durban.
These instances, perhaps, are extreme manifestations of a trend that has emerged recently: since the new fielding restrictions have come into play, teams are running chases of 300-plus targets closer than they earlier managed to. Top ODI teams have successfully chased down targets of 300-plus ten times out of 37 since July 2015. There was only one such successful chase in 14 innings in the 2015 World Cup - a series in which the odds favoured batsmen, with flat tracks adding to the then existing fielding regulations. (Only three fielders were allowed outside the 30-yard circle during five overs of batting Powerplay, and only four were allowed in the last ten overs). Admittedly, however, it would be unfair to consider the World Cup matches for comparison, since the pressure of the big stage would only worsen the chances for teams chasing such big totals. But even in the period from October 2012 - when the previous fielding restrictions were introduced - to just before the World Cup, teams chasing such targets only won or tied in nine out of 53 attempts.
The trend is stronger if we also take into account matches where teams have managed to come close to the targets, even if they haven't been successful at chasing them down. Out of the 37 times that teams have had to chase 300-plus since the new fielding regulations, on 18 occasions they have either won or lost after scoring at least 90% of the target. That's almost every other attempt (a percentage of 48.65). In the period from October 2012 until the World Cup, there were 19 such chases in 61 matches. While teams have run close or chased down targets of 325-plus in seven out of just 19 instances since July 2015, there were only eight such instances in 41 matches from October 2012 to June 2015.
Also, these chases haven't been limited to any particular host country or team. Of the 18 chases since July 2015 where teams have successfully reached 300-plus targets or lost after scoring 90% or more of such targets, four each have come in Australia, South Africa and India, three in England, two in Zimbabwe and one in Bangladesh. Among the top teams, Sri Lanka are the only ones to not come close to chasing a target of 300-plus in this period. As expected, teams like India, England and South Africa, who are strong while chasing, have had greater success than others.
300-plus chases: Wins and close matches, venue country-wise since Jul '15
Host Country Close chases/Wins 300-plus targets
 South Africa  4  5
 India  4  6
 Australia  4  7
 England  3  8
 Zimbabwe  2  2
 Bangladesh  1  1
 West Indies  0  1
 New Zealand  0  2
 Sri Lanka  0  2
 UAE  0  3
300-plus chases: Wins and close matches, team-wise since Jul '15
Team Close chases/Wins 300-plus targets
 India  5  6
 England  3  5
 Australia  3  6
 South Africa  2  3
 Zimababwe  1  1
 Bangladesh  1  2
 New Zealand  1  3
 West Indies  1  4
 Pakistan  1  5
 Sri Lanka  0  2
Given that fielding restrictions were more batsman-friendly from October 2012 to June 2015, it seems counter-intuitive that teams should be chasing down big targets more often since the new rules came into being. After all, there hasn't been a corresponding significant increase in totals of 300-plus when teams bat first. Teams batting first have made scores of 300 or more in 34 of the 122 ODIs since July 2015, as compared to 77 such scores from 280 ODIs in the period from October 2012 to June 2015 - a relatively marginal increase of 4.69% (1.3% in absolute terms).
Totals of 300-plus & 325-plus batting first
Period 300-plus scores %age increase 325-plus scores %age increase
 Since July 2015  36  28.79  18  14.39
 Oct '12 to Jun '15  77  27.50  41  14.64
One plausible reason is that teams have realised that with five fielders in the deep and the opposition's best death bowlers bowling, they can't leave too much of the work for the last ten overs of the chase and so have tried to score as many as they can in the middle overs too. Consequently, they have been able to keep the required rate in sight towards the business end of the chase more often than earlier, and have been less prone to crumbling under the pressure of the fall of a wicket or two. Teams batting first - without the benefit of knowing what a good score is on any given wicket - are still unwilling to take too many risks early in the innings and prefer to save up wickets for the last 10-15 overs. The new fielding restrictions have possibly forced a more definitive change in chasing teams' strategies than in those of teams that bat first.
The change in approach is evident, especially in overs 11 to 30, from the table below. Earlier, teams used overs 11 to 30 as a period of retreat and consolidation before a frenetic scoring effort in the final 10-15 overs. Since July 2015, though, the approach has changed: teams play a significantly lower percentage of dots and hit more boundaries in these overs. The difference is stark in overs 11 to 20: teams play 30.76% fewer dot balls (12% in absolute terms) and take nearly 1.5 fewer balls per boundary than before.
As a result, teams these days are able to keep the required rate in check through the middle overs, and are scoring at closer to the required rate as they approach the 31st over. As seen in the chart below, the average difference between teams' required rate and the scoring rate drops down to as low as sub-0.60 runs per over around the 28th from a high of only 0.87 runs per over after the tenth over. For innings before July 2015, the difference actually reached a high of 1.2 runs an over around the 28th over. For instance, at the end of the 28th over teams previously were likely to be scoring at an average of 5.8 runs per over, with the asking rate at 7.0. Since July 2015, however, they are likely to be scoring at a rate of 6.4.
This new approach has meant that teams often have reasonable asking rates to score at in the last ten to 15 overs, and therefore the chances of them pulling off such chases are significantly better. Earlier they waited for the last ten to 15 overs to do the bulk of scoring, which used to leave them with improbable asking rates towards the end of the chase. Not surprisingly, there were fewer successes earlier.
These changes in scoring patterns indicate that teams - by design or otherwise - have adopted a strategy where they keep the asking rate in sight throughout the innings rather than building up for a big finish at the death. Early evidence suggests this strategy is helping them pull off big chases more often than earlier. Teams can be expected to push the envelope and set new standards in the near future. Even 350 might not be a safe total anymore.
* Numbers correct up to India-England ODI series

Shiva Jayaraman is a senior stats analyst at @shiva_cricinfo