We see cricket as a story – a novel, novella or short story depending on the type of the game. But in fact, it is a stop-start series of discrete events – 600 of them, if we are talking of an ODI that goes the distance.
In that vein, this is not a match report in the sense of unified narrative, but a series of discrete points, itemised.
#1: The West Indies quicks sent down an astonishing 66% of their deliveries against Pakistan, on this same Trent Bridge, either short or just back of length and blasted the opposition out for 105. Wise heads nodded and said, yeah, works against a sub-continental team but just try it against Australia – which has the second best average behind the Kiwis to that length -- and see how you go.
What price theory? Jason Holder won the toss and counter-intuitively opted to bowl first on a used pitch. And the two tall Jamaican opening bowlers, Oshane Thomas and Sheldon Cottrell, bounced at pace, finding life on a wicket that the pundits said was better for batting. The result? Australia 24 for 2 after four overs, and 79 for 5 after 16.1 overs.
“You’ve got two bouncers per over,” Windies skipper Jason Holder said recently. “You might as well use them.”
Moral of the story: Trust your skills, not the statistics.
#2: The bouncer is not the wicket-taking ball – its shadow, its threat, is what gets you out. Aaron Finch was hit on the body a couple of times; as a result he was parked on his backfoot in dread of the next bouncer, the next bruise. When Thomas produced the length ball lifting and seaming away, his weight was back going into the drive and he nicked off. The two quicks only bounced David Warner once, but the threat remained; Warner stayed back and on the leg stump and when he got width, was in no position to pull off the square drive.
Usman Khawaja got hit on the helmet by Andre Russell; along came the fuller ball that the batsman swatted at with back foot parked deep and Shai Hope took a blinder. Glenn Maxwell got bounced first ball, Cottrell produced another with his next delivery and Maxwell’s fight or flight instinct kicked in – he decided he had to take it on to avoid being tenderised, and skied it. Jason Holder, with no real pace, pitched short; Marcus Stoinis first expected the ball to climb, saw it wasn’t rising above the midriff, launched a pull late, and picked out midwicket.
Except for Maxwell’s brain fade, every other batsman got out not to the bouncer but the defensive mindset its threat imposed on them.
#3: No matter how good a batsman you are, you can’t score runs from the dressing room. Vide Alex Carey, who walked in with the score on 79/5 and the Windies quicks all over the Aussies, like a wolfpack that has scented blood.
The southpaw, playing his 20th ODI, hung on for dear life. He managed just one run in the first 17 balls he faced. With Steve Smith similarly beleaguered at the other end, the 24 balls in overs 17-20 produced just four runs.
Carey’s patience paid off. His crease occupation frustrated the Windies; the bowlers tried too hard, and Carey cashed in. The overs 23, 24 and 25 produced six fours, five of them to Carey. And not off the non-regulars either: two of the fours were off Cottrell, three off Thomas as the main strike bowlers tried to take him out.
His 45/55 powered a 68-run partnership with Smith and insured against a total collapse. And the key to it was those initial 17 balls he gritted out, respecting the quality of the bowling, respecting the game itself. Unlike Maxwell.
Or take Steve Smith, who walked in at 2/26 in the 4th over and showed the bottle to absorb the boos of the crowd, the fire of Windies quicks with their tails up and a fielding unit that gave no freebies, and still soldier on, eking out runs when he could, defending grimly when he had to, subsuming his ego throughout his innings, and taking the innings deep because when you do that, you give the team a chance.
#4: If you build partnerships consistently – in other words, if you don’t lose wickets in clusters -- anything is possible. And if you can string two or three together back to back, you dominate. The first four Australian partnerships were 15, 11, 10 and 2. Then Stoinis and Smith got together to check the Windies (41 off 51). Smith and Carey built on that (68 off 87). And then came the Nathan Coulter-Nile/Smith association – a World Cup record for the 7th wicket -- which swung the momentum around (102 off 82).
Three pairs willing to do whatever it took, and they took Australia from a bleak 38/4 in the 8th over, when Maxwell was out, to 249/7 in the 45th when Smith fell.
#5: Bowl to a lower order batsman the way you would bowl to a top batsman: old jungle saying.
When Nathan Coulter-Nile came out to bat, the Windies bowled to him like a tail-ender: Length or better, on the stumps. And Coulter-Nile took toll, driving the bowlers to distraction, stepping across or away from the stumps to open up both sides of the field and targeting the short boundaries square of the wicket.
By the time the Windies caught on that the man can bat and shortened their lengths, it was too late – Coulter-Nile had the wind in his sails, and when he eventually holed out for 92 (off 60 balls, with eight fours and a six), you felt sorry he fell eight shy of the century he so richly deserved.
#6: Windies have a fifth bowler problem. Actually, they have a fourth, fifth and sixth bowler problem, exacerbated by the fact that their three lead pacemen operate at their most venomous when they are given bursts of just three overs at a time.
Neither Holder nor Brathwaite have the pace and skill to hold the line; Ashley Nurse’s off breaks are at best useful to bowl a few overs when the opposition is not looking to go big. Compounding the problem is the way Holder uses -- or doesn’t use -- these resources. In this game, Holder bowled just 7 of his overs; two of them were maidens, he gave away 28 runs for a key wicket (Stoinis). So why was he three short of his quota?
Against that, Brathwaite was used for the full quota of 10 overs – and his 3 wickets of lower order batsmen looking to launch him cost 67 runs; worse, whenever he was brought on, his lack of pace meant the opposition was released from pressure. (And if he is there to strengthen the batting, well, today he got 16 off 16 and skied a Starc slow full toss at a critical juncture, so that is not a good enough reason). Between them, Brathwaite and Nurse gave away 98 off twelve overs.
Opposition teams will figure out that if they weather the first 9 overs, they are shot of Cottrell, Thomas and Russell for a bit and can look for relatively easy pickings.
#7: Cricket needs a Chris Gayle at least once every decade, because the crowds come because, as actress Vidya Balan famously said, it is all about “entertainment, entertainment, entertainment”. And not about the prissy, robotic schoolboys the Code of Conduct looks to create.
The custodians of cricket’s morality should have been watching today. When the ball came straight to Gayle and he bent down to pick up, the crowd cheered in a way they hadn’t cheered the brilliant catch by keeper Shai Hope and the balletic grace of Sheldon Cottrell on the line. When Gayle chased a ball to the third man fence, the crowd willed him on through every lumbering step.
He came out to bat against a fired up Starc. He was given out caught behind. He reviewed. He was upheld – and an almighty roar went up. Later in the same over he was given out LBW. He reviewed. He was upheld again – and again, the crowd roared its approval.
WG Grace once famously said “People come to see me play, not to see you umpire.” Cricket’s custodians might want to give that thought a think, rather than be trigger happy with its fines and its disciplinary hearings.
PS: LBW again, reviewed again, but this time it was the umpire’s call and Gayle walked off, muttering. Maybe he was saying “But people want to see me play…”. Or it could be harsh words about umpire Chris Gaffney, who tried to get him out of there thrice and was third time lucky, by a whisker. To make it worse, the ball before that was a huge no ball that Gaffney missed – so the ball Gayle was out to should have been a free hit.
#8: Codicil to #5 – batting in partnerships is not just about two batsmen sticking it out there; a good partnership is where each partner plays for the other. Vide the 3rd wicket partnership of 68 runs between Shai Hope and Nicholas Pooran. Hope had his initial problems; his contribution was just 24 off 49 deliveries.
Pooran, whose timing was honey-sweet from the get-go, took on himself the onus of keeping the run rate up, scored his 40 off just 36, and ensured that the run rate stayed a steady 5-plus, and the RRR never went above 6.2. This allowed Hope to take his time to settle in without feeling undue pressure.
#9: Good teams keep an eye on the big picture and play according. The Windies were 149/3 at the end of 27, when Maxwell was introduced. Australia had only made it to 146/3 after 30, so the Windies were well ahead. There was no need to attempt a damn fool run to a Hope drive straight to cover, that eventually resulted in Hetmeyer getting run out to end a good partnership of 50 off 49. (Just to rub that point in, at the end of 40 Australia was 206/6; Windies were 221/6 needing only 68 in the final ten).
#10: Pro tip: Whether batting first or chasing, any swing and seam movement is applicable only for the first three overs at either end, four tops. Trick is to ride that out, not lose a wicket. Jasprit Bumrah made the point in-between innings the other day; both the Windies and Australia found out how true it is, today.
#11. Keeping Mitchell Starc fit should be a national priority for Australia. He is near impossible to handle at the top of an innings, and lethal at the death – as he demonstrated when, brought on for the 46th over with the West Indies still in control, he took out first Brathwaite with a slow full toss, then Holder with a short ball that got big on the Windies captain – and pretty much stole the game back from the Windies with his five-for.
Afterthought: The Windies can bat all styles, from steady to spectacular. They have three impact bowlers. Their fielding reminds you of the glory days. And they have a captain whose calm authority tempers those fiery spirits. Today’s result notwithstanding, I’m picking them for a semi-final spot. How about you?