The cricket World Cup's buzz words are no longer ‘pinch-hitter’, ‘bits and pieces player’ or ‘slog overs’. In the past, those terms were frequently bandied about to punctuate discussions revolving around World Cup teams and their prospects.
Not anymore. The new mantra is irrefutably about the vicissitudes of middle overs – between the 10th and 40th overs of an innings- where matches are won and lost.
In previous editions, cricketers like Sanath Jayasuriya, Mark Greatbatch, Lance Klusener, Romesh Kaluwitharana carved a niche for themselves by taking pinch-hitting importance to stratospheric levels.
Sri Lanka’s master blaster Jayasuriya, who was promoted from number seven to opening the batting alongside the pocket dynamo Kaluwitharan –another lower order batsman – terrorised opening bowlers with wanton, fearless ball striking.
Other teams too took to this strategy, where ball-striking or slogging during opening and closing overs defined success. Teams which lacked firepower at the top and towards the finish hardly made an impression.
But gradually, as rules governing limited-overs cricket were tweaked, focus shifted to the middle overs where batting consolidation or bowling disruptions laid the groundwork for the course of the match.
The rules concerning field restrictions during middle overs favoured batsmen greatly. Further, the use of two new balls, one from either end, ensured that the condition of the ball did not deteriorate sufficiently to facilitate reverse swing. This made batting easier.
Reverse swing, even if it was not wholly taken out of the equation, could now be possible only during the last four to six overs of the innings. In England where outfields are softer and sometimes bigger than Indian grounds, getting the ball to reverse within 45 overs of an innings is almost impossible.
Skipper Virat Kohli, well aware of these circumstances and also the flat pitches expected at the World Cup this time around, said that England’s powerful batting line-up, so used to playing in their backyard, could be the first team to breach the 500-run total in limited overs cricket.
He believed it might come in this edition itself. Whether he said that to put them under pressure or because he believed in it will be known in the days to come.
However, there is little doubt that ever since new rules were introduced, the format has been loaded in favour of batsmen.
The chief change that has worked to the batsmen’s benefit is the one where only four fielders are permitted outside the inner circle from overs 11 to 40. Even the wham-bam T20 format permits five fielders in the deep at all times after powerplay overs. But not in ODI format.
This has ensured that there are yawning gaps in the outfield for batsmen to take advantage of. Additionally, a split field is the norm except in the rarest of cases. Thus, even if a batsman is not striking big, he can squeeze the ball into gaps and scamper for twos and even threes.
In this manner, a run-rate of six runs per over between the 11th and 40th over can be pretty risk free. Ambitious teams can aspire for more than 180 runs in these 30 overs, provided they had not lost too many wickets in the opening overs. Of course, batting teams could go hell for leather in the last 10 overs, other things being equal.
The key for launching an all-out assault in the final overs would rest on the developments in the middle overs and how well the batting team had utilized it. It is for this reason that focus has shifted from pinch-hitters at the top to number three, four and five batsmen.
They need to be super fit and excellent runners between the wicket besides possessing the ability to strike the ball clean and into gaps as often as possible. The team does not expect cameos from these three batsmen. It needs their skill to play deep into the innings, rotate strike and milk the bowling in the middle overs.
The better batting teams could get between 180 and 240 runs during this 30-over period (average of 6-8 runs per over) while the outstanding ones could do even better. It is for this reason that Kohli claims that England could well be the first to breach the 500-run total.
They have a number of good, young, left-right batsmen who could bat deep and strike handsomely when required. And they know their pitch and ground conditions better than anyone else.
In fact, England have the distinction of being the first international team to smash in excess of 400 runs in an innings when they made 408 for 9 against New Zealand in Birmingham.
This apart, in recent years the average run rate in ODIs in England is a whopping 6.07, far higher than that obtaining in other countries. This has ensured that there are greater percentage of 300 Plus totals in ODIs in England (43 of last 58 ODIs).
The challenge for India’s top order would be to survive the swing and seam threat posed by two new balls, especially if there was a bit of cloud cover. This would make it necessary for the top and middle order to eschew risks and at the same time keep the scoreboard ticking over.
In Kohli and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, they have batsmen who could control the middle and late order. They’d need at least one more middle order batsman to step up while leaving the finishing to the skills of an energetic Hardik Pandya.
Clearly the middle overs is where the action lies and whoever controls it could take the honours.
Earlier, onus was on bits and pieces cricketers. These were cricketers who were neither accomplished batsmen nor bowlers. Teams would bank on two or three specialist bowlers and leave the rest of the bowling to non-regulars who between them would share the rest of the bowling quota.
Even the powerful West Indies in their heyday used Viv Richards, Larry Gomes, Clive Lloyd or Collis King to bowl a few overs. England used Mike Brearley and Geoff Boycott! Of course, during those days there were no field restrictions worth talking about and as a result part-time bowlers could get away relatively cheaply.
India always had bits and pieces players across World Cup editions. Sometimes it paid to have many in the fold –like during the 1983 World Cup triumph when there was an abundance of that sort in the line-up.
However, the imposition of stringent field restrictions during the middle orders led to the demise of part-time bowlers. It also brought to the fore the importance of having specialist bowlers to shoulder the burden.
A Kedar Jadav could be pressed into service only when pitch and ground conditions favoured him. Even that could be done only for a few overs. Otherwise it was specialist bowlers who needed to be on top of their game to keep a check on opposition batting line-ups.
Teams soon realised that one of the best ways to disrupt opponents’ innings was to bag wickets in the middle overs. India were pioneers in this line of thinking as they pressed into the service of two wrist spinners –Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, whose primary job was to grab wickets.
Unlike off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin or even left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja, these two wrist spinners purchased wickets by teasing and taunting the batsmen with their varying line, length and tossed up deliveries.
Any team that could bag three or four wickets during the middle overs, along with a breakthrough or two with the new ball, could be assured of having its nose ahead in the battle.
Another team very well equipped in these resources is Afghanistan who have the wily Rashid Khan and Mohammed Nabi. But the team lacks batting depth to go far in the tournament.
Other teams – Australia, South Africa and Pakistan in particular, are richly endowed with spin bowling talent but whether their skippers would have the guts or the confidence to try this route in a crunch situation remains to be seen.
It is here that Indian experience over a period of time and IPL T20 matches must be acknowledged. They realised that having a third man and long leg could be a luxury during middle overs when the two new balls would be hard and come splendidly off the bat.
After all, batsmen needed to clear less than 60 metres with their ramp, scoop, lap or hook shots to deposit fast bowlers’ bouncers over third man and long leg boundaries.
India found it more productive to deploy wrist spinners and challenge batsmen to hit in excess of 70 to 80 yards in a bid to clear straight boundaries.
Wickets the key:
Spin or pace, those bowling the middle overs would have a daunting task in this edition of the World Cup. They would be under pressure to bag three or four wickets during the middle overs and disrupt the innings. Should they succeed it could well derail attempts by batting teams to dominate the slog overs.
It is here that India’s success with wrist spinners must be emphasised all over again. Kuldeep and Chahal snare batsmen who are unused to dancing down the pitch into attempting indiscriminate strokes or lowering their guard.
Many a times, in their anxiety to find boundaries, batsmen go for big shots without reaching the pitch of the ball and end up in a soup.
Significantly, wrist spinners who can mix googlies and top spin along with conventional leg spin find it easier to fox aggressive batsmen. Besides their mix of spin, they also derive higher bounce and pace off the wicket. These too could confound batsmen.
In short, the middle overs can make or mar a side’s fortunes, both while batting and bowling. It is owing to this that teams no longer depend on bit and pieces players to do the job. Whether batting or bowling, it is the specialist who has a definite role to play in battle.
More often than not, his major contribution to the cause would be during middle overs where his exploits would lay the base for success.
Thus, we are in for an absorbing time in this edition of the World Cup. The jostling, elbowing and positioning during middle overs should make for fascinating viewing. Whoever controls the game during the middle period would be the masters of the game.