England and West Indies came to the World Cup with players of exceptional hitting ability. But as the last two matches (Pakistan versus New Zealand and England versus Australia) have revealed, there are times when batting skill takes precedence over hitting prowess.
The extraordinary batting of Babar Azam and Haris Sohail on Wednesday on the back of Aaron Finch and David Warner's dogged partnership on Tuesday have brought the focus sharply back to batting skill and all that goes with it.
The common thread which ran through these two match-winning partnerships on consecutive days was the remarkable belief the four batsmen had in their skill and their ability to read the situation and handle swing and spin respectively.
On Wednesday Mitchell Santner, the tall Kiwi left-arm spinner was bowling the spell of his life. He was targeting the rough outside the left hander's off stump and getting the ball to grip and turn prodigiously. Every one of his first six overs (6-0-11-0) was mesmerising as both, left-hander Haris and right-handed Babar, seemed all at sea by the sharply turning deliveries.
But the moment he bowled a Kiwi pitched the ball in line with the stumps, rather than the rough outside, Haris was onto it like a flash and hit him high and hard with the spin into the stands beyond mid-wicket. The spell was effectively shattered with that single stroke.
How England, or ICC if you may, provided such a rank turner that encouraged even part-time bowler and skipper Kane Williamson to successfully try his hand with off-spin bowling, is beyond comprehension. But that's another matter.
England came into this World Cup with any number of powerful hitters. So much so Virat Kohli stated that they would be the first team to get to 500-run mark in an ODI. England probably thought all their batsmen were so used to English conditions that they needed to concentrate only on stepping on the gas.
On Tuesday, on a heavily overcast day, with the pitch too not fully dried out, they opted to send Australia in to bat. Except that Finch and Warner batted with unbelievable poise and self-assurance. England's hit-the-deck fast bowlers too erred by bowling a length that was more restrictive rather than wicket-taking. Perhaps they too were caught up in the 'hitting frenzy' that had obsessed their batsmen.
But Australia had two experienced and shrewd ex-players in their camp: Ricky Ponting and Justin Langer. They did not miss a trick, opting to dump hard-hitting all-rounder Nathan Coulter Nile in favour of fast bowling specialist Jason Behrendorff. And how superbly Mitchell Starc and he exploited conditions with their pacy swing bowling!
Unlike Finch and Warner who showed great batting skill to ride out an extremely testing period in the morning, England's batsmen, without half the challenge to overcome, were found out by incisive swing bowling. They required skill and temperament, rather than big hitting to see them through. But, as the dismissal of skipper Eoin Morgan – caught hooking a Starc bouncer when on a mere 4 – showed, they were enamoured with stroke-play rather than conventional batting.
West Indies too came to the event with a number of powerful hitters and potential game changers in Chris Gayle, Evin Lewis, Carlos Braithwaite, Andre Russell and Shimron Hetmyer. But just like England failed to come to grips with challenging batting situations against Sri Lanka and Australia, West Indies too came a cropper against England and Australia. Had Russell shown the temperament and approach of a batsman, rather than that of a hitter, the team could have put it across Australia.
This is not to decry hitting skill. It has a revered place, especially in ideal batting conditions where fearless hitters can be real game changers, as Morgan (148 in 71balls Vs Afghanistan) and Jason Roy (153 in 121b Vs Bangladesh) proved.
But when there is some juice in the pitch or climatic conditions are more bowler friendly it is batting skills, temperament, self-belief in defensive play and ability to switch gears when required that are so critical for success.
Babar and Haris on Wednesday and Finch-Warner on Tuesday stood up to be counted even as things went awry simply because they backed their batting skills to the hilt.
England, who had evolved their hitting and team composition on flat tracks, did not have an alternate plan when the ball did not come on to the bat. Overcast skies and damp conditions caught them napping in their own backyard.
Perhaps that is the beauty in playing England. Diverse pitch conditions, often forced by weather and climatic conditions, can challenge players in unique ways. No wonder, of late, it is batting skill rather than hitting skill that is dictating the outcome of World Cup matches. Bewildering, fascinating cricket, for sure!
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