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Cricket news - Why a floating pinch-hitter is the need of hour at 2019 WC
November 8, 1987, Kolkata's Eden Gardens, and Australia, attempting to win a first World Cup, are 151 for 1 in the 37th over when Dean Jones chips England's Eddie Hemmings to mid wicket and out walks Craig McDermott, down on the scorecard to come in at number nine.
The big Queenslander would only make 14 from eight balls, but in a game of fine margins - Australia's seven-run victory is the closest World Cup final thus far - it gave the innings impetus, while effectively lengthening the batting order. Although the partnership that followed between Allan Border and Mike Veletta received the plaudits, for Graham Gooch, McDermott's contribution was "crucial".
While the Sri Lankans famously rode all the way to World Cup victory in 1996 by using pinch-hitters at the top of the order to exploit the opening powerplay (such has been the evolution of post-T20 ODI cricket that regular openers are now so uniformly aggressive, and explosiveness so generalised, that it is no longer a specialist role as such), the floating pinch-hitter is not all that common a sight in modern ODI cricket, perhaps because their 'role clarity' comes at the expense of others'.
Hardik Pandya has been used as a floater by India; Glenn Maxwell has done the job for Australia; and England's dazzling four-year makeover into the world's most feared batting line-up has occasionally seen Jos Buttler in a floating role. Indeed, he moved up two places in both of England's world record ODI totals: in the 481 against Australia last year he entered the fray at 310 for 2 off 34.1 overs but only managed 11 off 12 balls (imagine the score if he had got himself in), while two years earlier against Pakistan he came in at 281 for 2 off 37 and bludgeoned 90 not out from 51 balls as England made 444. And [yesterday] in Cardiff against Bangladesh, with a platform of 205 for 2 off 31.3, England again bumped Buttler up to number four.
Nevertheless, it is one thing to use a floater from a position of strength when batting first, quite another to throw one in when chasing a sizeable score with mounting scorecard pressure, particularly in a World Cup. And yet, in two of the three best matches of the tournament's opening ten days - the games that best embodied the slow-burn tension of the classic ODI - there was a strong case for throwing in a floating pinch-hitter.
West Indies' pursuit of 288 at Trent Bridge against an Australian side that earlier had been a punch or two from the canvas never really required a floater: first, because the run-rate was always well within manageable range; second, because their line-up are mostly all power-hitters in any case. However, England's pursuit of 345 against Pakistan on the same ground and South Africa's effort to haul in Bangladesh's 330 at the Oval a day previous - run chases that would each have been World Cup records, even if they felt eminently gettable within the ever-expanding possibilities of today's gym-buff, no-fear ODI cricket - both had moments when sending in a floater seemed, if not exactly a no-brainer, then certainly a sound, if bold, tactical move.
In both chases, the required run-rates (RRRs) were starting to become devilishly tricky - especially for teams that had already lost one or two too many of their prized wickets - when a wicket fell in what might be considered the optimal window for the floater: i.e. between overs 36 and 40, the last five of the second powerplay, with teams still restricted to four men outside the circle. In neither instance was a floater deployed. Both games were lost.
When David Miller skewed the first ball of the 36th over to backward point, South Africa were 202 for 4, requiring 129 from 89 balls. In walked JP Duminy, a player who generally takes a while to get going and who was thus likely to increase the pressure on the inexperienced Rassie van der Dussen (24 from 27 balls) to tick the board over.
The logic for Duminy, aside from instinctive tactical caution, must have been to get within range and then hope that the two set batsman, along with the hard-hitting Andile Phehlukweyo and big-hitting Chris Morris, could get the Proteas over the line. As it happened, with Bangladesh's frontline spinners, Mehidi and Shakib, each still having two overs left, the RRR spiralled, the pressure told, and South Africa fell 21 short.
What might have happened had South Africa been more pro-active and deployed a floater, either Morris or perhaps even Kagiso Rabada. Like McDermott, Rabada was an expendable player. He also had ball-striking talent, as seen with the mighty final-over six he launched into the stands, albeit in vain. A T20-style contribution of, say, 19 from 7 balls or 28 from 12 might have made given the innings its ECT jolt and made the difference. Given the floater's necessary expendability, provided they go kamikaze and launch from ball one - hit out or get out - there can be no real damage to your remaining batting resources.
The following day, England were four down inside 22 overs, Ben Stokes following Eion Morgan in being undone by one of the pair of veteran Pakistani part-time off-spinners who had to cover the fifth bowler's allocation after a tactical re-jig sidelined Imad Wasim to give the side greater batting strength. Even with 231 needed from 172 balls and the RRR already over 8 per over, this was not the moment for a floater. Joe Root had a run-a-ball 54 and Jos Buttler - in chases, more finisher than floater - had plenty of time to get himself in and then bring things home in his own inimitably brutal style.
The pair added 130 in 17.3 overs as the 'win predictor' was brought slowly down until it hovered for several overs of exquisite tension around the 50-50 mark (only once, according to the algorithm, did England have the upper hand, and even then only 51-49). Amidst all this, however, Mohammad Hafeez and Shoaib Malik were hustling through a combined 10-0-53-2 (1.4 runs per over under the RRR, England's margin of defeat) and neither Buttler nor Root felt inclined to play the field-disrupting reverse-sweeps at which they both excel.
Why? Because too many resources had been lost - if T20 has taught us that, in the shortest format, wickets are an over-valued resource when judging when to 'push the button', they remain valuable across 50 overs (unless you're an expendable floater) - and so the risk of a canny, sliding straight-oner acquainting itself with the front bad had to be duly calibrated and averted. The trick shots remained in the cupboard. Besides, Jos had got this.
Then Root spooned Shadab's quicker ball to short third man with 101 required from 67 balls, which - confidence in Buttler's mighty powers notwithstanding - seemed an opportune moment to have thrown in a floater. Even with Plunkett sitting out, England had a capable candidate in Jofra Archer: not only 'expendable' but with decent ball-striking potential (this being an obvious pre-requisite for the floater). Instead, Morgan stuck to the plan. Moeen came out, a clean hitter when well set but also a batsman who was going to think like a finisher and thus not someone who was capable of immediately alleviating the pressure on Buttler, who took absolutely no risks from Shadab's final two overs, allowing the RRR to climb.
Of course, there is a lot of conjecture in all this - and not just with speculative hindsight but even if the tactical call is made at the time, surfing the unfolding waves of the game - but what if a floater, Archer, with absolute licence to swing, had cuffed a couple of sixes off Shadab? An over taken for 16 or 17 would have transformed the game, not only lowering the RRR but scrambling the tactics, perhaps forcing Sarfaraz Ahmed to bring back a death-bowler early and thus allowing Buttler to wait until closer to the endgame before taking risks himself. As it was, at the start of the 45th over, in which Buttler also spooned a change-of-pace ball to short third man, the RRR was 10.83 and Moeen was struggling to locate the middle of his bat. After Buttler's departure, the game ebbed quickly away.
Morgan has shown himself to be a flexible thinker, while England's preparation for this tournament across three or four years has embraced self-imposed variety in the effort to encounter as many scenarios as possible. The team is packed with power-hitters, players in whom Morgan trusts.
And yet, even if the sports psychology axiom of 'role clarity' has become something of a cricketing article of faith, there may well be a strong case in tournament conditions - with ordinary scoreboard pressure doubled by the ICC branding that frames it - not only for the first-innings floater to come in and bludgeon already bloodied opponents, but for the floater who swings his blade hard and self-sacrificially through the forest of a difficult run-chase so that the eminent experts in the entourage behind him can be given more tranquil passage to their destination.
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