|Possibly not the most balanced field in an ODI.|
In a couple of days, New Zealand and South Africa will play an ODI in Paarl. And the press box will be almost empty. There was close to 60 people in the press box just down the road at Newlands for the test match. Admittedly quite a few of them weren’t actually press, but just people who managed to get a pass in order to get a good seat some free food, and internet access to block up the lines for the people who actually needed it, but there were still a significant number of writers there, hunting out stories about the epic mismatch. In Paarl there is likely to be less than 10 actual journalists.
Part of that is because there is the African Cup of Nations on at the same time, and some of the newspapers and agencies only have so much budget to cover sport. Paarl is a long way away from Potchefstroom and Kimberly, where the other two matches are. A number of the writers are going to watch the first match on TV in Johannesburg and then drive to the other two matches. Others are not going to go to any of the matches, watching instead on television.
But as much as budget is a reason, so is the fact that most of them don’t actually like one-day cricket. Some of them like tests and t20’s, some of them just like tests, and some of them don’t really like cricket at all, they just like how many stories there are in a cricket match.
I hear people saying things like “there’s those horrible overs between over 10 and over 40” and “it’s dreadful, killing the game.” Both of these sentiments make me wonder if they actually like cricket at all. Because for me the middle overs of an ODI are almost as pure as cricket gets. When I said that to some South African cricket writers over dinner they looked at me as if I was crazy. One of them actually suggested getting me professional help. However, let me explain why I love the middle overs.
Part of it probably stems from growing up in New Zealand in the 80’s and 90’s. The first cricket game I went to by myself was during the Cricket World Cup in 1992, where dibbly-dobbly bowling almost took New Zealand to the title. I also played as a spin bowler who often didn’t spin the ball much, and relied on variations in flight, pace and bounce to get wickets. However I think my love of ODI cricket, and the middle overs in particular are more than just nostalgia.
Cricket is more than a simple bat and ball game that involves hitting a ball as far as you can. The subtlety is what makes cricket a better game (in my opinion) than baseball, softball, rounders or any other similar game. Cricket is, at its core, a game of risk vs reward decision-making. Most batsmen are capable of scoring at close to 2 runs a ball, for a while. The problem is that when they try that it is very risky. They tend to get out quite quickly if they aim to go at 2 a ball. So they find ways to reduce that risk. Instead of trying to hit the ball over mid off, they try and place it past him along the ground. Instead of trying to hit the ball over the covers for 4, they push it down to third man for a single, or leave it alone.
A defensive shot is pure foolishness in baseball, it’s booed and jeered in kilikiti but it has merit in cricket. Even the most attacking players have a balance between attack and defence. But pure defence is only occasionally called for. Different game states call for different mindsets from the batsmen. But not just the batsmen. The bowlers and captains also have to make decisions about how attacking/defensively they play.
A out-swing bowler is most likely to get wickets if they bowl half volleys. The only problem with this is that they are also likely to get hit for four if they do that. There are times when they are prepared to roll the dice and try, but it’s risky. So they weigh risk and reward, and tend to only bowl half volleys occasionally (or at least they intend not to bowl them). Likewise a spin bowler is more likely to take wickets with a slow, flighted delivery, that's full enough to bring a batsman forward, but short enough to turn. However if he bowls that ball too often the batsman is likely to step out of his crease and deposit him over the straight boundary. Accordingly the spin bowler mixes up their flight, pace and line (and sometimes spin direction) to keep the batsman tied down.
A captain has a lot of options when it comes to setting a field, even within the ODI rules about field placement. There are 16 main zones where a batsman scores runs, and 9 fielders. Accordingly the art to setting a defensive field is often damage limitation. However a good captain and bowler will work together to make sure the easiest runs have an element of danger to them. For example, a captain will set a deep point to an off-spinner, and leave a gap for a batsman to score a single there. However to do that requires hitting against the spin, and if the ball bounces a little more, or turns a little more, there’s a chance that playing the ball out to that man will result in an edge.
Likewise a popular tactic is for a left arm spinner to come round the wicket and bowl on leg stump, with a field set in close on the off side, and (other than one player) deep on the leg side. A batsman can score a single off most deliveries without much risk, but to try and score more is a significant risk. And if he misjudges slightly he is at risk of creating a run out, where the man at (normally) shortish mid-wicket can field the ball and throw down the stumps. That has become a position for some of the best fielders in world cricket. Previously the likes of Ponting, Rhodes and Harris fielded at backward point, now Guptill, Gibbs and Warner can often be seen in at shortish mid-wicket.
This balance, and battle of wits between batsman and fielders is most on display during the middle overs of an ODI. There are what Gary Naylor of 99.94 and testmatchsofa brilliantly described as “agreed singles” where both teams are happy with a single off a delivery, and these can be frustrating, but not if you watch what the bowler is trying to do. A bowler like Andrew Symonds or Chris Harris would often leave mid off back, apparently gifting the batsman an easy single, but then they would back themselves to save any ball hit there. When watching this period I ask myself what the plan is to try and get a wicket without taking a risk. What is the shot that the captain is letting the batsman have, and what’s the risk for him in that? These are the questions that make the middle overs enjoyable.
Sure there are less fours, sixes and wickets. However there is still the battle of wits. I’m not sure what the attraction is in watching big hit after big hit. I prefer the balance between the mental and physical battle that only cricket really provides. And, for me, there’s nowhere better for that than the “boring middle overs.”