Chasing the Ball

A couple of weeks ago, I played in a 40-overs-a-side league match in the Washington D.C. area and took a wicket in the first over I bowled (2nd over of the innings). Here is what my team mate wrote in the match report:

We made consistent inroads and Subash (although by sheer luck) made one master-piece of a fielding change to remove Ankur (the talismanic batsman for Damascus CC).

I took exception to that. It wasn’t sheer luck. In fact, not luck at all, in my opinion. I moved the fielder from backward point to the conventional point position, and the batsman drove the ball there. The fielder had to dive forward and take the catch. I call it, “knowing my game/limitations well”. Although I open the bowling for my team with my military medium pace, I have done it for long enough time to understand my strengths and more importantly, my limitations.

I know that I do not have the pace anymore to warrant a fielder at backward point. If the batsman drove a wide delivery at my pace, it is not going to go behind the wicket, but in front of the wicket. This is a batsman I have dismissed a few times in prior seasons and I have some general idea about his tendencies. Therefore, while standing at the top of my run up, I decided to make that move and it paid off.

But, what if the ball had gone, for whatever reason, through the area I just removed the fielder from? Would I have regretted my decision? Absolutely Not. You make decisions on the field, backed by logic, and have the conviction to follow through.

I’m not the captain of my team, but my captain gives me the freedom to set my field. We see more often than not, even international captains are “chasing the ball”. You see an edge fly through third slip area, the captain brings in an extra fielder there. You see an airy drive, an additional fielder is put in the cover region. And so it goes.

In this modern era where you have information on every batsman (versus every bowler) and the pitch maps, wagon wheels, videos etc., you still see ball chasing happen. Even by captains who are considered astute.

With the amount of information available and the number of support staff present, one would think plans (and backup plans and backup to backup plans) for every batsman/bowler would have been made available to the captain and that the players would all be aware of it as well. I understand that a captain has thousand different things going through his mind. However, a sound captain would have intimate knowledge of the strength and weaknesses of the available resources and the plans that work the best, according to the situation.

There was a time (and perhaps even now) Dhoni was called a lucky captain, as his moves on the field bore fruit, more often than not. I do not call that luck. It’s called, in my book, as conviction based on sound logic and preparation. My mind goes back to the field Dhoni set during the IPL 3 finals for Kieron Pollard (Look for 18.6). That sort of set up requires planning, and the courage to implement it. In his post-match interview, Dhoni divulged as much.

This brings me to the person who was never his country’s test captain but would’ve led from the front with his instincts and his reading of the situation: Shane Warne. He has the instincts of a gambler and the cojones to back it up. Here is the video of him bowling Basit Ali at Sydney, with the last ball of the day. Of course, you know what I am talking about. (skip to 4:28).

More than any field placement or strategy, it is the reading of the situation by Warne that impresses me the most. I am paraphrasing here: “Basit Ali has been holding us up all summer, so I thought why not make him wait a minute or two longer before he goes in for the day”. Warne so keenly perceived the psyche of Ali and used it to his advantage. (Yes, it still required Warne to rip one from the rough outside leg stump but that’s why he is Shane Warne).

These days you routinely see, in tests, when bowling to Sehwag, there is a deep point or a thirdman. It is a wicket-taking field arrangement. It plays on Sehwag’s ego as well as his temperament. The first time I saw that set up was during the India-Sri Lanka tests series in 2005 when Sehwag tried to cut a short-and-wide delivery from Malinga and was caught there, off the first ball of the 2nd innings. It was a well thought out plan and executed.

The most important aspect when it comes to captaincy, is the ability to trust your instincts. These instincts are not random. They come from experience and diligent preparation. It also requires evidence that your plans work which further goes on to positively reinforce the trust in your instincts. However, when things don’t necessarily go to plan, the captain needs to remain calm and have the conviction to follow through on his plans, rather than abandon them and start chasing the ball – which is one of the reasons – in my opinion anyway – Sachin Tendulkar never had great success as a leader of men.

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