As the din of the world cup dies down and the focus shifts to the IPL, the moment is right to reflect on India’s progress as an ODI team in the last decade. A telling example of India’s mindset is that majority of its fans believed they had a chance to win the semifinal until the thirteenth over of the chase. There was a time in India’s cricketing history when every fan would twitch uneasily whenever India chased. No target was too easy and no victory was taken for granted in the 1990s. What caused this turnaround? Many people reckon that the turnaround happened under Sourav Ganguly and attribute the pivotal moment to that chase at Lord’s. This article aims to get cozy with the data and look for the facts of India’s chasing prowess.
Note: All statistics are correct till March 31, 2015 and the data used for the graphs can be found in this file: 6- The thrill of the chase stats.
Scene 1: World cup 1999
It was the second half of the year 1999. Just a couple months had passed after the purported apocalypse prediction by Nostradamus. The chatter amongst Bangalore school kids was that although the brilliant Nostradamus had not failed in his earlier predictions, he was slightly off with this one with the Y2K bug right around the corner being the latest interpretation of his prophecy. The cricket fan in me however, had seen apocalypse at the 1999 World cup in England. The super 6 match against Australia was a disaster. Chasing 283 for victory and grabbing the 2 points which were essential for progress (India had not collected any points from their group due to their losses against SA and Zimbabwe), the team lost by a massive 77 runs- the margin of victory was far smaller compared to the extent of domination of the Australian team. It was due to the fifth wicket partnership between Jadeja and Robin Singh after being reduced to 17/4 in the seventh over which brought a semblance of respectability to the scorecard. Glenn McGrath was the wrecker in chief, grabbing the prized scalp of Tendulkar in the first over. Several Indian cricket fans would have used a snarky gallows humour reference to this Pepsi ad (if Twitter were to exist in 1999) to question who was on strike in the first over- SRT or SRK. India would later exit the tournament playing a dead rubber against New Zealand but leaving with seemingly meaningless records such as the first hundred, 6 of the 12 highest scores and four different batsmen scoring hundreds.
Scene 2: LG cup 1999
Fast forward to October, India had limped on after the disappointment of the world cup to the LG cup series in Kenya. My hero Sachin Tendulkar missed the series due to injury thus giving the seaon’s Ranji trophy top scorer, Vijay Bharadwaj, a chance to play for the Indian team. I was naturally chuffed that the shining light of Karnataka’s Ranji season was going to represent India and I was upbeat about his chances. He looked exactly the kind of the player India needed- a composed middle order batsman who was handy with the ball. Unfortunately in the final, India collapsed at the cusp of making the final push and lost the match. He was the sixth wicket to depart after scoring a brisk 24 with 45 to get in 42 balls. He didn’t disappoint in the series. He contributed some handy runs and was the joint highest wicket taker, earning him the man of the series. He also pinned the blame of the loss on himself, further endearing himself to me and my cricket follower brethren. He would later become a footnote along with the Gyanendra Pandeys of the 1990s, disappearing into international cricketing obscurity after a couple of disappointing outings in the subsequent series. The lasting image of the 1990s was that of a team which would find new ways to lose when the push came to shove in an ODI series. This would last well into Ganguly’s celebrated time where India won only 1 out of the 14 finals it took part in. Even in the VB series when India challenged Australia for majority of the tournament, it only had one victory to show from three close matches. These are broad brushstrokes no doubt, but it was more than a decade of unshakeable, lingering disappointment. A by- product of India’s inability to close out higher targets was that the bulk of the blame (of him not being a clutch player) would be pointed in the direction of Sachin Tendulkar, an opening batsman, who, by the virtue of his batting position would be mostly out by the time the last act of the match unfolded. It is too much to expect an opening batsman to carry the bat and finish the job given that the best opening batsmen, Tendulkar included, are not out in less than 15% of the innings while chasing. On the other hand, the best middle order batsmen stay unbeaten in a chase 25- 35% of the time. What India longed for was a finisher in the mould of Miandad or Bevan- someone who could shepherd the chase in the evening and take the team home.
The thrill of the chase
One of the most valued skills in the one- day game (recently, in the T20 game as well) is the role of a finisher. This is not to say that it is undervalued in the test format or that the role of the characters in the earlier acts of the game is any lesser, be it while batting or bowling. The finisher grapples with two major problems in any given match. One, he is limited to the situation that he is dealt with in terms of support from his batting partners. A top order batsman usually has the assurance of at least a couple of batsmen after his position. The finisher on the other hand might be forced to play the role of both an accumulator and aggressor. Two, he is also limited by the number of balls remaining in order to overcome the target, often under duress. This has a special significance in the way the different formats are played. In the test format, the constraint of balls remaining in the context of a fourth innings victory target is very rare. Conversely, the threat of a steep target is real in every match where the team chases in ODIs. The finisher, therefore, needs to have a very good grasp of the interpretation of his role- it could be to bide his time & damage limitation when the top order fails, it could be partaking in a final flourish the moment you step into the action in a match which is on the tenterhooks or it could even be in maintaining a steady tempo and motor along while the team collects a victory from a tricky situation. In any case, the finisher should, by default, possess the quality of getting the pulse of the game, make the defining contribution and deliver the game’s denouement in the final act, often under lights. Therefore, by definition, the finisher should count on composure under pressure as his strongest suit.
In order to understand and examine India’s chasing worries, it is important to look at it from the perspective of the baseline across the world at the time. The average ODI batsman has found it easier to bat with each passing decade, with the batting average increasing to 29 runs at a strike rate of 80. There are subtle differences in the way an average batsman performed while batting first vis -à- vis batting second. Keeping this in mind as our baseline, let us proceed to dissect India’s performance from different eras to examine whether India had an affinity to chase a target. The figure below contains data of India’s ODI prowess over the years- the fields are pretty self-explanatory. The present top 8 in test cricket is the composition of the top 8 of the figure on the right. I know that I will be copping a fair share of criticism for this choice. Some may say labelling SL amongst the top 8 in the 1970s is unfair and me ignoring the Zimbabwe sides of the early 80s & straddling the millennium is not a good idea. I also concede that present form wise, a couple of test biggies may not deserve their place. In my defence, I chose the cop out as I did not want to check for different teams across eras and also that these data points are in addition to the entire playing field, not instead of. To put it another way, top 8 represents a slightly tougher than average playing field across eras.
It is a very fair observation that India were one of the very poor sides in ODIs in the 1970s. They played only a handful of matches, winning less than one in five matches played. They were especially poor against the “top” teams while chasing and did not manage to win a single match during the decade. As India played more matches over the years, India’s W/L ratio improved with these similar trends across decades:
- The W/L overall increases steadily with time against all opposition. The trend repeats itself for the top 8, albeit at a lower level, which implies that India performed worse against top opposition when compared to the baseline. This observation can deduced from an educated guess and is not exactly rocket science.
- India has shown an affinity for the chase over the ages. The W/L ratio is better for chasing when compared to batting first, even against top 8 opposition. The only counter example is in the 1970s where India failed to win a single match while chasing against a top team. Here too, across the ages, India has a poorer record against the top 8. The data suggests that India won more matches while chasing (even in the worst decade namely- 1990s), thus contradicting the hypothesis. How did this happen? We need to relook the data in order to reexamine our premise.
- The point of inflexion (upon merely eyeballing the figures) is around the 2000s where India nearly won as many matches as they lost against the top 8. They were also on the right side of 1 while chasing against top teams.
Proceeding to split hairs from the period of the 2000s across smaller eras of 5 years (using the data of the 1990s as our baseline), the statistics are more revealing. India’s record in the 2000-04 era is worse even compared to the dark era of the 1990s. India won more than they lost against all teams in the first 5 years of the new millennium. However, against top teams, they won only 7 times out of 17 matches- be it be while chasing or setting a target. The upturn was seen in the latter half of the noughties where India performed better against all opposition, including the top 8. 2005- 2009 was the first era where the Indian team won more than they lost, irrespective of the level of the opposition and the outcome of the toss.
The high score chase problem
How can we reconcile the above findings of India winning more matches while chasing with our initial hypothesis of India struggling in chases? It is instructive to examine the variation of India’s prowess with the size of the target score. I’ve split the data into 4 groups- sub 200, 201-250, 251-300 and 300 plus. Since the 1980s, India has performed close to or better than the ODI world while chasing. However, the bulk of Indian victories came in low pressure targets. Even in the 2000s, the moment the asking run rate at the start of the match went north of 5 per over (target of greater than 250), India won only 4 out of 9 matches played. The worst statistics was in the decade of the 90s (a clear drop in performance from the 1980s) against all opposition- India could barely win 3 out of 13 matches once the target was above 250. This is in line with our earlier observations and perceptions. Narrow the playing field further to the top 8 and the stats drop across the board but the trends remain; India regressed as a chasing side in the 1990s, making heavy weather of targets above 250- something that would continue till the first half of the noughties as well (during Ganguly’s era). The team has been robust in chasing down targets (W/L in excess of 1) even in the case of targets 250-300 since 2005 (Dravid’s and Dhoni’s era).
The par score transition
A nice way to capture the information is to get a sense of how the par score for India moved with every era. A par score by definition is a score which both sides have an even chance to win i.e. W/L= 1. Consider plotting the W/L ratio on the Y axis against increasing target runs on the X axis- the targets have been segmented into the same ranges as shown in the figures. As a first order approximation, the W/L ratio of a range has been assigned to the midpoint of a segment- for eg. in the 2000-04 era, I have assumed that a W/L ratio 0.83 can be assigned to the midpoint of 200-250 i.e. for a score of 225. In the case of the extremes (sub 200 and 300 plus targets), I have assigned the ratio to 25 runs off the terminal scores i.e. 175 and 325. A better approximation can be obtained if the intervals are narrowed further but an interval of 50 runs seems intuitive as it corresponds to one extra run scored per over for a 50 over ODI and also for the fact that there are enough matches in every interval.
When this exercise is repeated over all eras from the 1980s, we get an indication of how the W/L ratio moves with an increasing target in a very approximate manner. Please note that until the 1990s, 60 overs a side was being played but this does not affect the par score (India played only 50 over ODIs since the late 1986) as only the target is utilized for this metric. Now, the values are interpolated to produce continuous variation of W/L for each target score, the score at which the W/L is 1 is the par score- i.e. each side has a 50-50 chance of winning the tie. Using the same principle in the case of the Indian team across the eras, we can find that the par score has continuously moved to the right (i.e., the Indian team has chased higher targets more comfortably over time). If the curve is zoomed for the region of W/L= 1, we obtain par scores for all the eras. This figure is even more revealing of how India has banished its former worries of a chase- the par score decreased from ~245 in the 80s to ~225 between 1990-2004 against top 8 opposition; over the last ten years, this figure has hovered at about ~275, a full 50 runs above the dark days of 1990-2004. The par score during the dark ages increased by 15 runs (still less than 250) against all opposition, as seen in the second figure, suggesting that the team was a minnow basher. During Sourav Ganguly’s captaincy, India lost 10 out of the 14 finals it took part in (3 no results), with 6 of the losses coming in chases (2 no results). The only victory came in the immortal Natwest triseries final which some reckon to be the match where India learnt to chase. In my opinion, this moment would come only later during the contentious Greg Chappell- Rahul Dravid era where the team won 17 matches on the trot while chasing.
The puffed up chest, collar up attitude has clearly helped Sourav Ganguly’s perception as a leader of men; it is another matter that the statistics show otherwise. Ganguly’s team were minnow bashers, as seen by their extraordinarily poor record while chasing (par score ~210 against top 8 opposition). No doubt, the warm afterglow of good showings in ICC tournaments and an iconic final chase help his cause and fan the supporters’ opinion about his impact, including mine. But the fact remains that few isolated moments aside, he had the worst win loss record ever seen by an Indian ODI team in the last 35 years. Rahul Dravid’s extraordinary chasing record is pockmarked by his team’s failings in setting a target with the 2007 World cup exit being a case in point. Plus, there is the small matter of the tumultuous Greg Chappell era along with Dravid’s not so confident body language that counts against his time. Dhoni, on the other hand, has a stellar record whichever way you look at it. A fantastic record against the top teams, good showings in the major tournaments and his era accounts for 6 of the 11 series (at least 3 matches in a series) whitewashes inflicted by the Indian team since the 1970s. One only can wonder how Dhoni would have performed with a bowling attack capable of defending a low score. The ODI team of the 1980s was the first good Indian side which also performed well in the multi-nation events (especially 1983-1987). But the Indian team in the last decade is in another league considering its much better performance overall.
How did a team which was incapable of surmounting a par score of ~225 suddenly change its character at the flick of a switch in 2005? In the ODI format till the year 2005 (when Bevan owned the copyright to the art of the chase), out of the top 50 batsmen in chases ordered by batting average, only 5 were Indians. Most importantly, only 2 Indian middle order batsmen averaged above 35 out of the 24 in the world (min. 1000 runs) till then. It was no wonder that India was behind the curve when it came to chasing. On the other hand, after 1 Jan 2005, 5 out of the top 20 middle order batsman who have scored at least 1000 runs in chases are Indians. Additionally, 9 out of the top 12 Indian batsmen (min 1000 runs, ordered by average) have played in the last 10 years but only 2 of them stand out- Kohli and Dhoni. The only two batsmen who are survivors from the renaissance era are Raina and Dhoni. Kohli has a superior record to both of them but he came into the picture only in the last 5 years. Of the 2, Dhoni averages a full 13 runs higher than Raina over the same period and is equally effective in the first innings as well (unlike Kohli). Dhoni, the architect of many a successful chase, is the single most important reason for India’s improved fortunes while chasing with a direct correlation existing right from his entry. While the Indian fans might credit poster boy Yuvraj Singh for a hand in the revival but he appears far below in the chasing averages (below Azhar, Rohit Sharma and Dravid) and the fact that he is 29th on the list of middle order batsmen who have scored 1000 runs while chasing since 2000 does not make for pretty viewing. The data suggests that while Kohli and Dhoni are peerless, Raina has just about made the cut averaging 40 while chasing.
If Rahul Dravid was credited with giving the team an extra batsman (it is another matter than India still did not overcome its chasing jinx even with the extra resource as seen earlier) by donning the keeper’s gloves, due credit must be given to Dhoni who has been the only all-rounder in the team in the truest sense (capable of holding his place as a batsman as well as a keeper). Add to it the significant burden of captaincy and a good showing in the major tournaments, his impact is substantial. The most significant record that Dhoni possesses is out of the 40 not outs in chases, he has lost a match only once. Dhoni has been the bulwark of the team, playing the role of a finisher with élan for more than a decade. However, the paeans sung in his praise are not commensurate with his contribution when compared to, say, Yuvraj Singh in his pomp. It is probably due to his blending into the background and unorthodox technique that he is not recognized as the fulcrum of the highly successful ODI dynasty over the last decade. It is also due to cognitive bias of an average cricket fan, something which also affected the perception of Sachin’s performances under pressure. Dhoni deserves every bit of adulation reserved hitherto only for Sachin Tendulkar. He should also be a shoo-in for the all time ODI team (BBC’s readers don’t seem to think so). Unlike the trailblazer Gilchrist, Dhoni can hold a candle to the best batsmen in his position. His oeuvre contains innings of all types which would make a middle order batsman worth his salt puff his chest out with pride- two spectacular Tunbridge Wellseque innings at Chennai, the bludgeoning at Gwalior which pushed the score to the stratosphere, the definitive clutch innings in the World cup final and batting with the tail to win a tense nail biter at Port of Spain. Despite his recent reassurance, the concluded World cup is likely to be Dhoni’s last and given his history, he is going to walk into the sunset with minimal fuss. As articulated in this piece with a reminder of India’s position in the dark ages (although the author omits Ganguly’s era in my opinion which was equally bad, if not worse, in chases), Dhoni provided a soothing balm to the generation scalded by inept chasing. It is time to reflect on his enormous contribution to the Indian ODI side and truly recognize his value to the India team in the last legs of his career. It is customary to go over the top and commemorate heroes in India by deification. Looking at his impact on Indian ODI cricket, it won’t be too much of a surprise if people build a temple in his name one day.
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