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ICC Cricket World Cup: Why teams need to adapt tactics or perish

The World Cup's ten venues offer different batting and bowling conditions. This is why the teams that adapt tactics for each game are flourishing

Winning or losing the toss is not as important as getting tactics right.
Winning or losing the toss is not as important as getting tactics right. (AFP)

To bat first or bowl first? To play another specialist bowler or an extra all-rounder? To contain the batsmen or try to get them out? To smash fours and sixes or bat conservatively with singles and twos?

The answers to these questions vary from venue to venue, apart from depending on the game situation, opposition, and a team’s resources. That’s what makes the 2023 ODI World Cup in India fascinating. Tactics are making or breaking teams more than ever in these circumstances.

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Take the toss for starters. In most Test matches and even ODIs, it’s fairly obvious how to gain an advantage from winning the toss. Not so in this World Cup.Australia won the toss in their first two games. They chose to bat first against India in Chennai and lost that game. Then they decided to bowl first against South Africa in Lucknow, and lost again. They lost the toss but won the game against Sri Lanka in Lucknow. Coincidence or a prompt to rethink the toss?

On the eve of their fourth game against Pakistan in Bengaluru, at the pre-match press conference, Lounge asked the Aussie captain, Pat Cummins, if he was hoping to lose the toss the next day.Cummins had a laugh, but then responded on a more serious note, maintaining that the toss was not a significant factor. “When you look at the statistics around the toss, just about every venue is 50-50,” he said. “In the first two games, we were totally outplayed. Whether we batted or bowled first, I don’t think it would have mattered too much.”

Afghanistan captain Hashmatullah Shahidi celebrates after defeating Pakistan.
Afghanistan captain Hashmatullah Shahidi celebrates after defeating Pakistan. (AFP)

Well, Australia did lose the toss against Pakistan in Bengaluru, and won the game. Pak skipper Babar Azam chose to bowl first, anticipating dew at night, which never arrived. They then succumbed to the scoreboard pressure of chasing the big Aussie total of 367.

Cummins also points out that hoping to take advantage of dew is a double-edged sword. “Dew may play a part in the last 15-20 overs where bowling gets difficult at the back end. But the ball might zip and seam around more under lights (at the start of the second half). So it’s a balancing act.” India, for instance, were three down for two runs in Chennai and could have lost Virat Kohli’s wicket soon afterwards if Australia hadn’t spilt a simple catch.

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Babar Azam appears to share Cummins’ view, because he chose to bat first against Afghanistan in Chennai, after the loss in Bengaluru. That Afghanistan chased down a stiff target of 283 to register their first-ever ODI win over Pakistan, losing only two wickets in the process, seems to confirm that the Chepauk pitch eases up at night.

The only result that went contrary to this in Chennai was New Zealand’s win over Afghanistan in the previous game. Commentators were harsh in their criticism of Afghanistan for choosing to bowl first in that game, supposedly undercutting their strength of defending a target, like they did against England in Delhi. But Afghan captain Hashmatullah Shahidi argued that his team had let the Kiwis off the hook with dropped catches, and not by choosing to chase—a stand vindicated by the successful chase against Pakistan in their next game.

Of course, Afghanistan had a brilliant game and Pakistan made mistakes, but the decision at the toss made a difference too. Afghanistan also reaped the rewards of their bold, unconventional move to play four top-rung spinners, each one different from the others.

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Babar Azam’s tactics, on the other hand, missed a step. Afghanistan came under pressure when they lost the second wicket and the Pak pacers started getting reverse swing. But Babar brought his leg-spinners back to complete their quota of overs right after the 40th over, when a fifth fielder can go into the outfield. The 18 runs the Afghan batsmen got in the next three overs settled nerves and they romped home from there.

Every team faces a quandary in decision-making. India’s problem is choosing between a slow medium-pacer who can bat a bit at No. 8, Shardul Thakur, and a strike bowler who may be a bit less reliable with the bat: Mohammed Shami. Thakur was preferred and he bowled 17 overs in three games, conceding 102 runs for 2 wickets. And he was not required to bat.

Virat Kohli in action against New Zealand.
Virat Kohli in action against New Zealand. (ANI)

The Indian think tank was forced to make a change for the fifth game, after all-rounder Hardik Pandya twisted his ankle. Pandya had to be replaced with a specialist batsman, Suryakumar Yadav, which meant the fifth bowler had to be a specialist, and Thakur made way for Shami. The strike bowler took 5 for 54, restricting New Zealand to 273 and helping India win their closest game so far.

It appears that India may have hit upon their best 11 by accident. It would make sense to retain Shami even after Pandya returns to the team, reclaiming his spot from Suryakumar Yadav.

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Meanwhile, defending champions England are in dire straits, landing at the bottom of the table with three losses in four games. With India, Pakistan, and Australia among the teams they are yet to face, it will take a small miracle for them to make it to the semi-finals.

Tactically, England have been torch-bearers for the world of limited overs cricket, adopting an aggressive-at-all-costs approach after their early exit from the 2015 ODI World Cup. This change won them the 2019 ODI World Cup and 2022 T20 World Cup. Most teams, including India, took a leaf out of their book, especially in batting with more intent to maintain a high strike rate. Indian skipper Rohit Sharma has led by example in doing that.

But tactics have to be adapted to conditions, and the Jos Buttler-led team has failed to do so in India. The tone got set in their very first game when they lost their fifth wicket in the 34th over and were unable to accelerate, remaining below a run a ball at the back end.

Time and again in this World Cup the old virtues of keeping the scoreboard ticking with risk-free batting in well-placed singles and twos, have proven smarter than trying to blast fours and sixes. The master chaser, Virat Kohli, exemplified this in two tough run chases against Australia and New Zealand. A one-size-fits-all mindset just won’t cut it, given the varying conditions in the ten venues.

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The South African batting looked awe-inspiring while setting up thumping wins over Sri Lanka, Australia, and England on batting-friendly wickets. And yet, in a rain-affected game in Dharamsala, they collapsed in a heap for 207, while chasing 246 in 43 overs, against the Netherlands. How they fare in the spin-friendly venues of Chennai and Kolkata against Pakistan andIndia respectively will give a clearer picture of their prowess.

The Chennai clash on Friday, 27 October, will also be a last chance for Pakistan to redeem themselves, after the Pakistan Cricket Board was forced to issue a statement denying rumours of a rift between skipper Babar Azam and star pacer Shaheen Shah Afridi.The leaders and players can ill afford to take their eye off the ball at this stage.

Babar will be better off sharpening his tactics than posting pictures on social media to show his friendship with Afridi. Will he switch to the option of chasing if he wins the toss again? And will South Africa prefer the other option, given their early successes with batting first? That these are unresolved questions halfway through the league phase is part of the allure of the 2023 ODI World Cup.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.

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