Ben Jones analyses the delivery of the day.
In the age of 300+ scores, middle overs wickets are key. It’s rapidly become a key tenet of ODI strategy that, within your bowling ranks, you need someone who can strike in Overs 11-40, because the overwhelming majority of modern batsman can score rapidly when set. Containing them is all but impossible. The only way to keep scores down, is by taking wickets.
That’s what defined Hasan Ali’s Champions Trophy in 2017. He was the middle overs king, averaging just 10.77 runs per wicket in Powerplay 2. Pakistan won the final at the Oval because of Amir’s opening blitz, but they won the tournament because of Hasan in those middle overs.
Many of Pakistan’s ODI difficulties since that triumph have come from Hasan’s inability to recapture that form. Amir would take you on up front, and if you got through that barrage, then Hasan would mop you up, but that strategy only works if both men are on form. Hasan’s strike rate in the middle has soared ever since that final.
Today, Pakistan were lacking the spark that Hasan used to provide. KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma started like a house on fire, building the sort of opening partnership that you dream of as an opening pair, gaining a stranglehold on the game that Pakistan could never really loosen. Pakistan, for a team supposedly full of maverick talents, were unable to find anyone to break the game open – and worst of all, the contrast with India couldn’t have been more stark.
What’s more it was also beautifully distilled into a single moment. The delivery from Kuldeep Yadav to Babar Azam was the moment of the day, the piece of outstanding skill which lit up a contest that, in truth, failed to live up to its billing. The perfect delivery to the right-hander, Kuldeep drew the batsman forward with a teasing length, and a line wide enough – helped by the unique angle of the left-arm wrist-spinner – that Babar couldn’t play it under his eyes. It then gripped, came back through the gate, and bowled him. It was the piece of partnership breaking magic that Pakistan had been unable to find.
Because of the angle, the spin was the most immediately striking aspect. It turned 5.8° off the surface – given that Kuldeep’s average career delivery turns 3.6°, it could have surprised even him, and it certainly surprised Babar. The Pakistan No.3 played down the line of that career average, expecting a more realistic degree of turn, and was gone.
The spin was remarkable, but in reality it was only the icing on the cake. The real work had gone on beforehand. In golf, they say you drive for show, putt for dough, i.e. that the flamboyance of the tee shots have to be matched with finesse on the green. The same could be said of the relationship between spin and drift. Turn off the pitch is the obvious, shouty member of the double-act, but it’s the movement through the air which really foxes the very best batsmen – and it was the 2.96° of drift which really did for Babar.
As shown, plenty of deliveries spun more than the wicket ball; only six, from all spinners who bowled today, moved more through the air. Babar is a top class player, and a good judge of length; to deceive him the way that Kuldeep did, requires something special. In his ODI career, just 7.7% of Babar’s shots against spin have resulted in an edge or a miss; only two men to face as many balls as him can better that record, and they’re Kohli and Kane Williamson. To freeze Babar’s feet in his stance, and prevent a press either forward or back, demands a delivery either unusually slow, or swerving unexpectedly, disrupting the triggers and alignments that allow batsmen to remain in control.
Kuldeep very subtly changed his pace as well. There was a change of pace as well. The previous ball, at 74kph, was the slowest he’d bowled at that point in the innings. Thus, the speed of the wicket ball – 78kph, nondescript in isolation – was a threat, a variation from the previous. It’s a chaotic world, facing wrist-spin. Whilst the length was almost exactly the same as the ball before, Kuldeep had dragged the previous too straight – the wicket ball was back on the right trajectory.
Aside from the set-up, the context in which it was delivered, it was a magic ball in its own right. It was the sort of ball we’ve all bowled a million times in our heads, in corridors as we mimic our heroes, aping their actions and imaging the ball pirouetting through the air, arcing, drifting, pitching and gripping before knocking the stumps out of the ground. Yet Kuldeep hadn’t done it in his mind, he’d done it in the World Cup, against Pakistan – and it won India the game.
That’s what tends to prosper in the middle overs, when partnerships are set and the first line of attack has been fought off. Atypical skills. Extreme pace, wrist-spin, or unusual tactics. That’s why Kuldeep and Chahal are so valuable to India, because as well as being reliable performers, they still retain that quality of unpredictability. Pakistan’s bowlers didn’t have that today.
Ultimately, India were always in control of this match. Their chances with WinViz never fell below 50%, rarely fell below 70% once Rohit and Rahul got going. Babar and Fakhar were unlikely to go on and chase the runs required – but there was hope that they might, an opportunity that these excellent players could thwart India as they had done two years previously. There was a slowly building sense, throughout that partnership, that what was being asked was possible. It may have only been a spell that the neutral was willingly falling for, but it was working – and Kuldeep’s brilliance broke it in an instant.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.