Two ODIs, Two Different Games

Wednesday, October 30, 2013 saw two one day internationals play out to two different tunes, combining the ridiculous and the sublime, one reminding us of how it used to be and the other what some fear could quite possibly be the way of the future. Pakistan chasing a very modest 184 incredibly found a way to collapse from a comfortable 165/4 to lose by a run against South Africa, while India completed their second run chase of more than 350 runs in two weeks against Australia.

While Pakistan contrived to record the 27th one-run loss in the history of the ODIs, India recorded the third highest run chase ever. As Pakistan floundered to a defeat that looked impossible at one stage, falling prey to the leg spin of Imran Tahir and the medium pace of Wayne Parnell, Virat Kohli dismantled the Australian bowlers on his way to the third fastest ODI century by an Indian, close on the heels of setting the record just 14 days earlier.

The India-Australia ODI series has been no doubt a batathon, with 7 of the 9 completed innings registering scores in excess of 300 (4 350+). Flat pitches, ordinary bowlers, dew factor, the new ODI fielding restrictions have all contributed to it but the quality of batsmanship exhibited by Shikhar Dhawan, George Bailey and especially Kohli has been extraordinary.

At Sharjah, Pakistan reduced South Africa (missing their lynchpin Hashim Amla) to 86/6 and only a dogged 52-run 9th wicket partnership between Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Parnell brought some semblance of respectability to their final total, which by modern ODI standards can only be called “putrid”. George Bailey recorded the highest score by an Australian against India with his career best 156, and with the help of a century from Shane Watson helped Australia finish at 350, which as it turned out, wasn’t going to be enough.

The mastery of Saeed Ajmal broke the heart of the South African line up after the Pakistani pacers had provided an opening. Afridi did what he does best – wipe out lower order batsmen. It was a throwback game in many ways. Cautious batsmen, aggressive bowlers, run rate that doesn’t shoot like it has been riddled with cocaine. In reply, Pakistan, fresh off their 99-run demise in the first innings of the Test at Dubai, calmed the nerves of the faithful with sensible knocks but as with any game involving Pakistan, drama was never too far away.

The three most recent instances of 1-run victory margins have involved South Africa or Pakistan (click here for listing of smallest margin of victories),  and both cardiac teams lived up to their respective reputations. While the Indian and Australian batsmen were dealing in some of the most authoritative batting seen in recent memory, some of the Pakistan and South African batsmen approached batting like it was an active grenade.

There was a time it was teams that faced Pakistan that collapsed from “impossible to lose” situations. It was South Africa that was known to choke away certain victories. Even though India had recorded 11 successful chases in excess of 300 before this series, they had never done it against Australia, but have no accomplished it twice in a the space of 5 games. True to form, Australia defended 300+ target in the first game of the series but since then, their bowlers haven’t been able to reel the Indian batsmen in. It’s a bizarro ODI world we are living in where up is down, day is night and black is white.

As the India-Australia match was unfolding, due to the gluttony of scoring that has been seen in this series, Social media was abuzz with the query, “Is this even interesting where the ball is being to beaten to a pulp?” It is a fair question seen from the context of a cricketing contest between bat and ball. When bowlers are reduced to bowling machines in flesh and blood, and are just being used for target practice, it takes away significantly the core essence of a cricket ‘match’. However, we ought to also recognize the India-Australia series has been skewed to such an extreme because of two things Indian – Batsmen and Bowlers.

Even with a middle order containing two batsmen who are not in any great form (Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina), India has been able to chase down record scores and set tall targets. Australia has been able to pile on the numbers as well thanks to ordinary Indian bowling.

With the batting line up that India possess, not to mention the power plays and fielding restrictions, any target south of 275 runs is basically a cakewalk for them, and the Social media would now be complaining about “formulaic” ODIs. India in the recent years has distilled the art of an ODI chase to science. With Dhoni, easily the best finisher the limited overs game has seen, a steady opening partnership of Sharma and Dhawan up top, and Kohli in remarkable vein of form, only scores in excess of 300 would regularly require India to break a sweat.

Since the end of the cricket world cup 2011, while batting first, India and Australia have been the two best ODI teams (each with Win/Loss ratio of 1.4) and also have been the two highest scoring teams, scoring at 5.63 and 5.37 runs per over, respectively. Overall, India has a Win/Loss ratio of 2.0 (at 5.49 RPO). The corresponding numbers for Australia are 1.4 and 5.31. It was inevitable that when these two teams go head-to-head, bowlers cease to have a role in the final say, and it turns in to a bat vs. bat contest. While the ODI at Sharjah did transport us briefly to a time in the last millennium when low scores (and defense of them) were common, Pakistan should have quite easily sealed the deal but the match situation got the better of an inexperienced line up.

While both of these matches provided a fair bit of entertainment in their own right, let us not fool ourselves in to thinking that these sets of matches are a good representative of bat vs. ball contests. When India plays Australia, because of the kind of batsmen these teams possess, it becomes a run fest and Pakistan with their dodgy batting line up do not put up such numbers. Neither the 350+ batathons nor the sub-200 thrillers are the norms. These are exceptions. As the saying goes, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

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