Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cricket and attacking captaincy

When I think back of the time, I got hooked to cricket  and began to understand the finer points of the game, I came to know that unlike other sports, cricket is a game in which,  the role of a captain is pivotal. I learnt that in cricket, it wasn't just about motivating the players, but even a bit of imaginative captaincy in the field can go a long way in altering the state of the game.  I can remember captains like Taylor, Imran( 1992 world cup), Akram(96/97 Carlton united series) and a few more, who showed the value of attacking captaincy, but as the years went by, it became difficult to even name a  few captains, who showed a positive approach to the game. Nowadays, we are left with captains like Dhoni, Sanga, Strauss, Punter, Gayle and co. whose first objective seems to be to restrict the opposition from getting the runs by spreading the field. In fact, yesterday I even felt a novice like Ross Taylor was a better captain than all the above mentioned names as he looked for wickets.

To illustrate the point, let us just look at a few instances of captains being defensive

Strauss at Antigua- If a team is 1-0 down, has scored over 500 runs in the next test, it is natural to expect a captain to attack, but Strauss didn't. West Indies lost an early wicket in their innings as well and out came the nightwatchman Daren Powell.  Strauss though, only had a couple of slips and a deep point for the swing bowler Anderson. As expected, couple of edges went past the vacant third slip to the boundary as he didn't even have a third man. Is  having a deep point better, or a third man? shouldn't a captain attack if his team scores over 500 runs and the opposition loses an early wicket? Actually, in that match Strauss even delayed the declaration and as a result, the Windies narrowly escaped from losing the match.

Even recently against Pakistan, Strauss set some strange fields. In the first test at Trent Bridge, Pakistan had lost six wickets for next to nothing,  but Strauss only had a couple of slips in helpful conditions for Anderson. At Edgbaston again he had only couple of slips, though Pakistan were well behind in the second innings. As expected,  couple of edges went past the vacant third slip position and finally, Strauss followed the ball and kept three slips. The reason why sometimes Anderson is afraid to bowl a fuller length is because even in helpful conditions, the pusillanimous Strauss is afraid to give him  three slips and continues to have a deep point.

Sanga and Dhoni at P'sara - The match at P'sara was a very unusual match as on one hand, Sanga seemed to be trying his best to be a gracious host, but Dhoni didn't take advantage of it. India had Lanka reeling at 125 for 8, but Dhoni spread the field and saw Lanka get to a score of over 250. Now, Sanga didn't want to be left behind as he wanted to show himself as a gracious host. On the last day, he inexplicably opened the bowling with the innocuous Walegedra. So, what was Sanga thinking? To tempt Tendulkar, or Laxman to chase all those wide deliveries that Wale bowls? Sanga also spread the field  and India coasted to victory. Players like Laxman and Tendulkar are too experienced to  gift their wickets away.

Vettori at Napier- I know that New Zealand don't have a great bowling attack, but if the opposition is Pakistan and in the first innings bowlers have bowled out Pakistan for a score of just over 200, I would expect any captain to attack, especially if the team is leading by 248 runs. Vettori though panicked as soon as Pakistan batsmen passed 50 runs in their second innings. Most of the fielders went scurrying to the boundary and whatever edges that Tuffey, or O'Brien produced, it went past the vacant slip cordon as most of the time Vettori had one slip, or occasionally no slips at all. In the end, a match that New Zealand should have won, ended in a draw.

One can also talk about Punter, Gayle and co. being defensive. It can also be said that Gayle doesn't look like a captain in any sense. The only captain, who I have liked in the last few  years is Jayawerdena, but unfortunately, he resigned as the captain and the dumb Sanga took over the mantle of captaining the Lankan side.

Let me make it crystal clear that I am not expecting a captain to attack all the time, but isn't it fair to expect attacking fields if a team gets a score of over 500, or has a lead of over 200 runs? In fact, I think one-day cricket has become dull because every captain seems to spread the field after the completion of first two power plays. As a result, batsmen would easily rotate the strike and the game becomes stagnant. So, why can't a captain occasionally have a slip, or bring the long on, or long off fielder  inside the ring and tempt the batsman to hit over the top against the spinner? The simple fact is, the best way to restrict the opposition from scoring is by getting wickets.

Let us also look at a few instances of imaginative captaincy 

Mark Taylor at Madras in 98- Australia had gone into series with  one of their weakest attacks ever as they had Wilson, Robertson, Dale  and Miller in the side. Yes, Warne was around, though he was troubled by a shoulder injury and the hard-working Kasper was playing, though he too was inexperienced.  The first test began under hot and humid conditions and it got worse for Australia as the sixer Sidhu was in a murderous mood and went after their trump card Warne. Australia did get Sidhu out and soon came out the little master Tendulkar. The crowd was behind their man and soon a big roar was heard as Tendulkar creamed Warne through the covers for four, but Mark Taylor didn't panic and calmly went up-to Warne to discuss about changing the field. Taylor soon left the cover field open and he himself stood at first slip. Now, even at that time Tendulkar was experienced enough to see through what both Taylor and Warne were thinking, but even the best of players can fall into the trap. The next ball Warne bowled, Tendulkar came down the wicket in an attempt to smash Warne through the cover region, but only could edge it to Taylor and get out!

Yes, Tendulkar came back with a vengeance as he tore the weak Australian attack to shreds in the rest of the series and India won the series 2-1, but that wicket of Tendulkar in the first innings at Madras can be credited to the imaginative captaincy by Taylor.

Taylor at Wanderers in 96/97 - At that time, South Africa were a formidable force and looked set to topple Australia as the number one side. Australia were going through a transitional period as Boon  and McDermott had retired from the side. Yes, Warne was at the peak of hiss prowess, but McGrath  was still learning the tricks of the trade and Dizzy was a greenhorn, as he had played just one test, but Australia shocked South Africa by winning the series in their own backyard.

Actually, everyone was surprised by Taylor and co. going for Beven as the fourth bowler on a bouncy track at Wanderers. Taylor had clearly taken a gamble as the general feeling is, Saffers are vulnerable against wrist spin, but can it work on a track like Wanderers? Yes, it did for Taylor, as Beven along with Warne ripped through South Africa's batting line up to help Australia take the series lead. Cricket fans may say that Beven was used as a defensive option as they wanted an extra batsman, but if that was the case, Taylor wouldn't have given him the chance to bowl so many overs.  At that time, Taylor was going through a bad patch as a batsman, but his invaluable captaincy helped Australia to defeat Saffers in their own backyard.

Akram in the Carlton United tri-series in 96/97- In 96 in Australia, Pakistan had a very youthful look to their side as they had players like Afridi, Saqlain,  Mohammad Zahid, Jamshed, Wasim and company, but they were led by a tactically good captain like Akram. I just can't remember a single match in which Pakistan gave away more than 250 runs. Akram marshalled his bowling resources beautifully and set attacking fields.  I can remember him placing a slip fielder for his spinners even when the opposition were on top and it worked for him as they went onto win the tri-series.

Both Akram and Taylor were willing to look for wickets and it worked for them. I know that a captain can't have three slips and a gully when the team has scored over 300 runs in a day, the bowling attack is ordinary and the wicket is flat, but he can still play mind games which more often than not works. Ok let us think of an imaginary scenario in which, a team has got over 300 runs, the wicket is flat and it is the final over of the day. So, what can a captain do? maybe he can make the batsman wait for a few minutes, bring in a slip and leave the cover field open. Now, the batsman may just safely play out the last over, but I have seen many batsmen getting frustrated by the time wasting and seeing the cover field open, going for the drive and edging it behind the stumps. The captain may even go for a double bluff  and  instruct the bowler to bowl a bouncer.

It is really sad to see defensive tactics employed by most of the captains as it makes the game stagnant and boring to watch.  I do agree that bats the batsmen use have become better,  nowadays the ground staff bring the boundary ropes in, the wickets have become flat yet, there is a place for attacking captaincy. .


straight point said...

tell me one thing GB... where from you got this elephantic memory...??

i wish some of that could be passed on to my 'flash' memeory... :(

greyblazer said...