Here’s a simple question. Did you watch England rout Australia 6-0 across five ODIs and a one-off T20I? Or, did you just follow scores and decide to tune in when India came around to play? Or, you just switched onto the game a full six weeks after the 2018 Indian Premier League (IPL) ended, because there is an overdose of cricket at the moment?
The never-ending schedule of international and franchise cricket has resulted in a nauseated environment where the lines between different formats have blurred. To such an extent that fans at times find it tough to differentiate between a batsman-friendly wicket and a turning track, or quite simply the fact that ODI cricket is mostly played at a different pace to T20s.
The Lord’s ODI, or more pertinently, the shameful booing and jeering of MS Dhoni on a day when he crossed 10,000 career runs, is a pertinent case in point.
First of all, let us get the facts clear. When Dhoni walked in, India were placed at 140/4 in the 27th over. India needed 183 runs from 23 overs at an asking rate of 7.95. Was it a tough ask? A bit, because a required rate of 8-an-over in the middle of an ODI innings is never a comfortable read. Was it an impossible equation? No, because the game has advanced to an extent wherein such asking rates can be ignored.
Different formats have been meshed together, particularly the two shorter versions of the game. Thanks to the belligerence of T20 cricket, we see more and more teams pushing the game as far as possible in the 50-over format, and then going big. The success ratio then depends on number of wickets available and whether there has been a change in conditions.
Those two parameters are vital in context of the Lord’s ODI. First, the significance of England batting first after winning the toss cannot be denied. They had opted for this decision for the first time since October 2016 against Bangladesh. When a home team, as successful in putting up and chasing great totals, makes such a calculated move, the motive needs to be understood.
The layering of grass on the Lord’s wicket was an eyewash at best, then, and the fact that Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali could exert themselves on the Indian batting line-up for the first time on this tour, proved as much. It was a realisation that first dawned on Suresh Raina after Virat Kohli’s dismissal, that he went for a big slog against Rashid and was bowled.
Raina and Dhoni had added 15 runs off 25 balls. Then, Dhoni added 37 runs with Hardik Pandya off 47 balls. These were the two partnerships that needed egging on if India had any iota of hope to chase down a 323-run target on a turning wicket. That they came at a strike-rate of 100 shows how tough it was to bat at that juncture. More importantly, when Pandya departed after scoring 21 off 22 balls, Dhoni was left to play with Umesh Yadav, Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal and Siddarth Kaul. Did you really expect him to win the game from that juncture?
If yes, then you haven’t been paying attention to two simple facts. One, this is not the Dhoni you knew from five years ago. Heck, he is not even the Dhoni that came out and swung his mighty blade in the recent IPL. There is a difference between batting aggressively at No 4 in T20 cricket and finishing games at No 5 or 6 in ODIs. Most of all, Dhoni isn’t the same force of nature that he once was. He can still finish games, as proven for Chennai Super Kings, but seldom now will he do it all on his own.
Two, India have major problems in their batting line-up. They are a top-heavy side with a non-existent No 4 batsman. The tail, without Bhuvneshwar Kumar, simply doesn’t wag. In that light, Dhoni made the right call in opting to play out 50 overs. Since the tour of Ireland, Dhoni has featured in six games so far on this tour. He has batted only thrice. Thus, with the match already lost when Pandya got out, it seemed a good idea to get some batting time in the middle and reduce the deficit.
The fact that England’s status as the world’s No 1 ODI side was ignored, or that India’s ‘winning intent’ was questioned in those dying overs, is a staggering. It is almost as if England are still not respected in the white-ball arena, and will roll over repeatedly at the drop of a hat. Additionally, it is not as if India were the first team to bat out 50 overs whilst losing in a 320-odd chase. But, let us stop here, for this isn’t about logical explanations or conclusions.
If it was, the Indian diaspora among the Lord’s crowd – that cheered loudly when Dhoni walked in to bat – wouldn’t have booed him off in what could potentially be his last appearance at that ground. No, this is about expectation. Why didn’t Dhoni – who blasted so many sixes in the IPL – tee off to entertain the crowd even when the match was lost?
It is poor reasoning, and nothing more. Fans presume that buying match tickets – which were exorbitantly priced at £90 pounds per adult – entitles them to demand a certain methodology of how the game unfolds. It is not so, and a little perspective is needed here.
A four-day adult ticket at the recent British Grand Prix was priced between £220-375. It was a chance to see Lewis Hamilton, one of the all-time Formula One greats, win his home race for a sixth consecutive time. It didn’t happen – Hamilton suffered a collision with Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen on lap one – and victory was lost. Did the fans boo him off, or Ferrari, for that matter?
What about the millions who descended on Russia this summer to watch their teams play and witness glory? Did Argentine fans boo off Lionel Messi when the Albiceleste were knocked out? Was Mohammed Salah – one of the breakthrough stars in world football this season – booed off when Egypt failed to make the second round? The answer is most vehemently no.
Sport is not played at the whims and fancies of those watching. Instead, it progresses as per calculation of those involved, sometimes as per plan and sometimes not. The spectacle unfolds in front of us even as our collective minds cannot fathom the possibility of our favourite team losing. There is an added expectation of having a good time, enhanced by a win again, but most of all, fans are looking to bask in the glory of their favourite superstars. In that, watching sport, particularly at the venue after purchasing high-priced tickets, is more like an investment, of time and money.
And this is the underlying point. Investments fail, at times, and then you cannot argue against the risk undertaken. It is a ridiculous argument, at best. If you want full-value return of the ticket money, and sure-shot entertainment till the last minute, go to the circus instead!