CricViz Analysis: The Failure of India’s Strategy

Ben Jones analyses the passage which turned the game

From the last World Cup, to yesterday, nobody lost fewer wickets against the new ball than India. Their whole strategy was set-up so that, even in the worst case scenario, they wouldn’t lose a fatal amount of wickets in the first 10 overs. No side in the world loses early wickets more rarely than India.

Virat Kohli’s men don’t attack. They stay calm. They retain wickets, they control the game, they hold onto the situation. Whether it’s off the back of Rohit and Shikhar, Rohit and KL, or any other combination of world class openers, no other side in this World Cup has built as deserved a reputation for security against the early threat; the constant, is that India always lack intent.

They don’t lose early wickets. They don’t lose early wickets. They don’t lose early wickets. It’s the consistent truth that a nation’s hopes were founded upon.

And yet.

This match was decided over two days, rather unusually for a one-day international – but really it was decided over rather less than that. It was decided during 46 minutes of Manchester madness, in a comeback worth of the storied football team from just up the road. 45 + Fergie time, but this time it was Lockie, not Sir Alex.

Matt Henry’s opening spell was something rather special. With nip and nerves in the air and off the pitch, he recognised that he needed to keep his role straightforward. Put the ball in the right areas, let the rest do the work. 64% of his deliveries in that opening spell, that opening spell that left four years of Indian planning in the dirt, were on a good length. 64% of his balls pitched between 6m and 8m away from the batsman’s stumps. He pulled Rohit forward, he pushed Rahul back, like a forceful puppeteer with an aggressive agenda. He knew what he was doing and he went through India’s top order like warm butter. Nobody does that. It is not normal.

And yet, whilst the pressure was applied, New Zealand’s bowling wasn’t that lethal today. According to our model, their Expected Wickets in the first 10 overs was 2.5; four wickets fell, a result of Jimmy Neesham’s phenomenal catch to remove Dinesh Karthik, and some injudicious shots. The most injudicious, the fend from KL Rahul, has attracted very little criticism, and that was because it is inherently a defensive shot. Essentially, New Zealand bowled well, and India responded badly; but New Zealand didn’t bowl like geniuses.

The Rahul issue is indicative of the broader point. Sometimes, a simple lack of intent is not enough to win you a game of cricket. When people question the intent of English batsmen, of New Zealand batsmen in 2015, of any batting unit who “are too used to playing T20”, or “don’t know how to bat time”, they are offering something more abstract than simply criticising the intent. They are criticising a certain way of thinking about the game, a way of thinking that was not en vouge when they were in town. It’s the idea that perhaps, attacking a bowler forces them into bowling worse deliveries, forces them into being less of a threat – and makes your wicket more secure. It is one way of thinking. It is sometimes the wrong way of thinking.

On record, India have never played more defensively in the first 10 overs than they did today. They lost four wickets. It did them no good.

The final resistance came from a man on his last stand, in his final showing on this stage. From an analytical viewpoint, it is very easy to criticise MS Dhoni. He has been consistently poor for years now, surviving on a cocktail of past triumphs and a cult of personality to rival any in the sporting realm. He is a finisher that has scored at 4.92rpo since the last World Cup; it should not be heresy to say he is holding India back.

For the last four years, for this World Cup campaign he has been poor – but not really today. His Batting Impact in this match, +15, is more than you could have expected given his form and the circumstance; it was a fair whack short of a fine farewell, but it wasn’t a disgrace. The issue is that India’s middle order batted as if they knew a good Dhoni performance would be a pleasant surprise, not a reliable certainty.`

The point is, anyone can collapse. Anyone with the intention to score, to try anything. If you’re a batsman stood in front of a bowler, waiting for a delivery, you can get out. Sport, particularly cricket, is a wonderful cavalcade of the random, and the inherent threat in every innings is that if today the fates are against you, then wickets are going to fall.

A conservative approach ensures only one thing – it ensures you won’t score many runs. What it does not ensure is that you will get through the early stages unscathed every time. As today showed.

Equally, let’s not get carried away. Just as England’s approach is justified by the fact that over a long period of time it does its job, so does India’s. Generally, over a big sample of games, India are considerably more secure than the rest, just as England score considerably more than the rest; given a whole World Cup cycle, England will prove their ability to blast 400+, and India will prove their ability to lock the door and padlock it shut for the first 15 overs.

No matter how delicately you try to crack an egg, sometimes you get shell in the mix. You can spend four years perfecting a strategy, regardless of what that strategy is, and it can go wrong. Yet people rarely delight in the failure of a defensive strategy as much as they do an attacking one. Who knows why, but it seems to be the way we all are.

Today, regardless of who was holding the bat, we saw the limitations of a cautious strategy. It’s important to recognise this. It’s not about experience or youth; it’s not about aggression or defence; it’s about good cricket, and bad cricket. Today India’s nailed on strategy went wrong, but it doesn’t mean their strategy was the wrong way to go. World Cups do funny things – but on this occasion, it’s fallen in New Zealand’s favour.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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