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