Australian batsmen’s insipid run chase of India’s mammoth total of 352 was anything but a surprise. Their stringent adherence to a regimental approach in a gargantuan run chase was bound to fall flat every now and then. Luckily for India, the flop show came at a very opportune time.
It would be too simplistic to pass off the top order batsmen’s strokeless existence to the pressures of a big match. The reasons lie elsewhere; the dynamics of an ODI run chase have become trickier in the modern era. This is despite the odds being heavily loaded in favour of batsmen.
Conventional wisdom in chasing a huge target hinges around sending big hitters up front in the hope they would give a rousing start. If they get away with a few lusty blows when stringent field restrictions are in play, they could gradually settle down to milk the bowling later.
In the past, Sri Lanka, with Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana, New Zealand with Mark Greatbatch and even India with Sachin Tendulkar’s pyrotechnics have enjoyed great success with this approach.
Tendulkar, it may be recalled, smashed the world’s fastest bowler, Shoaib Akhtar, so badly in that memorable run chase at the Centurion that Pakistan, despite having three world-class fast bowlers in Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Akhtar, failed to defend a total of 273.
Of course, opening batsmen were expected to take greater chances in an earlier era. Current rules, where only four fielders are permitted in the outfield between the 11th and 40th overs, have made middle overs the most critical phase in an ODI.
Thus David Warner, who is otherwise an aggressive opening batsman, and skipper Aaron Finch, also an impressive strokeplayer, tried to keep their wickets intact rather than launching an attack on Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar.
Finch, who has been dismissed umpteen times by the pitched-up in-swinger, was so conscious of both Bumrah and Bhuvi’s ability to bowl just those sort of deliveries that he even tweaked his technique to keep them at bay.
Finch opened up his stance in an effort to get the backlift from first slip, rather than his usual point to square-third man pick-up. This enabled his bat to come down straighter on the ball. He was so conscious of this that he attempted to stonewall everything that came into him from the new-ball bowlers.
Significantly, two of Finch’s three boundaries and a six came in the 10th over bowled by Hardik Pandya. Till then, with survival being uppermost in his mind, he had scratched around for 14 runs from 23 deliveries.
Even the usually flamboyant Warner, batting with rigid adherence to his team’s game plan, was on 13 runs from 31 deliveries.
While the duo certainly did see off the threat from the new ball and ensured they did not get separated until the 14th over, their partnership of 61 simply did not have the spark to ignite the Aussie chase.
Of course, retaining early wickets is most desirable in the modern form of ODIs. But what Australia did not bargain for was the complete loss of momentum. Once the openers retreated into a shell and got bogged down, it was very difficult for them to climb out of the rut.
In this, India were far more sensible and constructive. Of course, Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma (57 runs; 70 balls, 3x4, 1x6) too were extremely keen on preserving their wickets against Australia’s two best bowlers, Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins. But while Sharma batted them out with single-minded determination, Dhawan (117; 109b, 16x4) was a lot more flamboyant. He stepped out to Nathan Coulter-Nile on a couple of occasions, played the ramp and cut shots against the pacers and also ran splendidly to ensure that the scoreboard kept ticking over.
The foundation they and skipper Virat Kohli (82, 77b, 4x4, 2x6) laid proved ideal for Hardik Pandya (48, 27b, 4x4, 3x6) and MS Dhoni (27, 14b, 3x4, 1x6) to walk in and play handsome cameos.
Warner, who fortuitously survived despite playing-on to the stumps in Bumrah’s very first over (the bails did not come off), got to a painstaking fifty. He looked so scrappy and out of touch that Australia never looked like they would make a match of it.
Interestingly the top four Aussie batsmen, Warner (56 off 84 balls), Finch (36 off 35 balls), Steve Smith (69 off 70 balls) and Usman Khawaja (42 off 39 balls) all got runs. But where they came undone was in sticking to their planned approach of stubbornly holding fort through the first half of the innings (134/2 in 25 overs).
They might have defended well, especially when the two Indian new-ball bowlers were bowling probing lines. But they were so taken in by the task that they failed to accumulate runs at a fairly decent clip.
Later, they had got so deeply into defensive mode that they not only lost momentum but also struggled to shift gears. Their regimental approach had got them to a sound start but it did not have a built-in code to take their game to the next level. Thus, the Indian pacers (Bumrah 3 for 61 and Bhuvi 3 for 50) and spinner Yuzvendra Chahal (2 for 62) choked them into submission.
Australia’s failure to even get close to the Indian total should serve as a lesson for other teams. While preserving wickets in early overs is important, the realisation that there is more to a run chase than just stonewalling would have come as a real eye-opener.