Cricket: Shorter game is long on options

Derek Pringle examines the development of tactics in one-day cricket since the first World Cup
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The Independent Online
WHAT COMBINATION of method and madness, cunning and craft will it take to win the World Cup? The next five weeks should reveal all as 12 countries battle white balls, changeable weather and sporty pitches, as well as each other, in an attempt to become the winners of cricket's biggest international prize. It will not always be pretty, but it should at least be an entertaining contest that looks set to favour the team that adapts quickest and plays the most consistent cricket, something previous tournaments have not always rewarded.

When the first tournament was played in England 24 years ago, one-day tactics, like the mindset of those who played it, were in their infancy and differed little from those used in the longer game. On the eve of the new millennium, the one-day game appears to have changed, with squads of short-game specialists brought in like hired assassins to do a specific job. But has limited-overs cricket and its players really evolved, or is it, like so many modern trends, more a case of old ideas recycled and repackaged?

Actually the term specialist, at least in the current one-day orbit, largely denotes a player who bats, bowls and is mobile in the field, rather than someone who simply does one or the other. It was not always so but, if teams have always possessed a smattering of talent able to manage the first two, the emphasis on fielding is relatively recent and can probably be traced back to the Australian team under Bobby Simpson who won the 1987 World Cup in Calcutta, the first to be played over 50 overs.

Brilliant fielders are nothing new. For Jonty Rhodes and Ricky Ponting, read Derek Randall and Viv Richards, the latter's three run-outs in the first World Cup final the turning point in the West Indies' victory over Australia. The difference these days is that standards across the board have been raised to the point where even the stratospherically gifted can no longer get away without being competent and committed fielders. If proof were needed, just see how Pakistan, rarely the most disciplined side in the field, have turned the talented but recumbent Inzamam-ul-Haq into an alert boundary galloper.

When he was England coach, Keith Fletcher used to work out what certain players were worth by first assessing how many runs they would save you in the field. After that he would account for the runs they might make as a batsman, or concede as a bowler, and use that as a potential yardstick for selection. It is perhaps not the whole story and grounds in England, due to their modest size, are more forgiving of handbag arms and cart horses than the huge arenas in Australia. Even so, stopping singles still helps to create pressure, while turning half-chances into wickets with a direct hit or a brilliant catch can turn matches as South Africa, the favourites, will attest.

Held in England, the first three World Cups were played over 60 overs, though all but the West Indies treated them as though they were much longer. But while most people seem to think pinch-hitting was invented by the Sri Lankans in the last World Cup, opening with a dasher in one-day cricket is nothing new. Neither are fielding circles, nor for that matter the 15-over rule, which were both used as long ago as 1982-83 in Australia. In that series and the one that followed there in 1986-87, both Allan Border and Ian Botham had stints as pinch-hitters, the latter with great success.

Conditions in England, especially at this time of year, tend to help the opening bowlers and bold strokeplay may be unwise during the opening salvo. A ball that swings or seams, as the white ball has done in most practice games, places doubt in the mind of the pinch-hitter, who needs certainty and confidence to play the high-risk game of lofting the ball over the infield. Naturally, not all pitches will be green snakepits, but it will probably pay to restrict ambitions and have wickets in hand after the first 15 overs and be, say, 45 for 1, rather than 90 for 4. As ever, it will probably favour the team that best reads conditions on the day, a situation that should favour Alec Stewart's side, whose intimacy with each venue's nuances should be ingrained.

With many captains now actively seeking to take wickets as a means of stemming the run-rate, rather than restricting batsmen as generally used to be the case, the bits-and-pieces all-rounder has made way for strike bowlers such as Shoaib Akhtar and Glenn McGrath, as well as unorthodox spinners like Muttiah Muralitharan and Saqlain Mushtaq. Most sane people would not back any of the above quartet to get you 12 runs to win, but when partnerships need breaking in the middle overs, they usually deliver the goods.

For once, wicket-taking will be vital and bowlers rather than batsmen could play the leading role. If totals tend towards the modest as they might, captains may well opt for five front-line bowlers rather than rely on a couple of part-time bowlers like Graeme Hick or Mark Waugh to fill in, which is what most countries did on the sub-continent last time. If so, those bold enough to keep an attacking field in place, especially after the 15-over fielding restrictions have been lifted, could hold the key to the World Cup.

Taking wickets, along with their batsmen's inability to milk opposition spinners at five runs an over, has long been an area England has struggled with, especially on the placid surfaces found abroad. Only Darren Gough has possessed the pace and verve to strike at short notice, though, if pitches are anything like as sporty as the one England played Hampshire on yesterday, others will be joining him. The white Duke balls, with their reputation for staying hard, may disguise England's shortcoming anyway.

For batsmen, the emphasis may now return to "the death", that period between the 40th and 50th overs where players have licence to slog. Not that everyone will play that way, as Michael Bevan, the world's best one- day batsman, will no doubt illustrate. Perhaps the world's only specialist No 6 batsman, Bevan's method is to bisect the gap and run hard, a tactic that owes much to the softening of Kookaburra balls used in Australia. If it sounds simplistic, the tactic has brought him a one-day average of 61, nearly 15 runs higher than the next best.

Fifteen years ago, it was not unusual to see 100 runs coming off the final 10 overs, providing a team had wickets in hand. Indeed, now that most players have become used to slower balls and other various sleights of hand, and with reverse swing unlikely to be as prevalent as on bare, dry grounds, the heavy run-scoring may be left to the final part of the innings. Over the coming weeks it will probably be the sides who keep wickets in hand for the final assault (an old idea), as well as those who are aggressive with the ball and field-placings who will progress to the semi-finals.