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June 10, 1999


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Pursue and perish

R Mohan

The biggest dilemma of one-day cricket lies in deciding what to do on winning the toss.

The word "chase" has more meaning in an English horses and hounds setting than in cricket, but the chase is becoming something of a pain in the World Cup.

An examination of the results of World Cup'99 makes one thing clear: the only team to have chased 250 and won is South Africa. But then, they have in Lance Klusener a Zulu warrior, who should know a thing or two about chasing after growing up on a farm in Natal.

At the start of the event it did seem that the simplest thing to do was to put the opposition in and bowl them out in conditions made ideal for bowling by a moist pitch and a cloud cover. Such a move generally meant the side chasing a target was batting in the warmth of the afternoon against a manageable target.

The older, white Duke's ball is not lending itself to being struck with a nice sense of timing alone. Klusener has specialised in sending it soaring around the grounds of England, like a golfer on the driving range, he practises his big hits for an hour or two each day. Other batsmen who rely more on their timing and the sweet spots of their favourite willows are not so assiduous.

The chase has been hazarduous, with the getting of simple targets itself proving a bit awkward. The English summer now promises more hours of bright sunshine in a day, and with all matches being played at the Test grounds rather than county venues, the chase is bound to be more rewarding if only batsmen found their touch to make a successful chase possible.

The statistics of one-day internationals show an even split between success for teams batting first and chasing. The same is true of this World Cup too, with 17 wins for teams batting first and 16 for the chasers after the first 34 matches (one no result). But the trick in chasing successfuly has more often been in getting the opponents out for a low score than in defying a big run chase.

The cricketing point about batting first has more to do with the pressures of a do-or-die situation that the chasers face. Nothing proves the efficacy of put the score on the board and dare the rivals to make it than the results on big occasions like Cup finals, in which the team batting first have invariably had the edge.

The first five World Cup finals went to teams batting first and only in the sixth did Sri Lanka defy the pattern by chasing 242 and winning in a canter.But that World Cup was held on the subcontinent, where results of one-day internationals are more even when it comes to the batters versus the chasers.

When a side's batting is in peak form, it hardly matters what the skipper wishes to do after the toss. But when the batting is not on the boil, chasing becomes too chancy, as the Pakistanis found out at Old Trafford, as did England at Edbagston, as they came a cropper against Indian bowling.

The pattern may change in the remaining matches if the better prepared Test pitches start firm and last well for a better part of a day, which is likely to be the norm, because groundsmen have been facilitated by drier weather over the last few days.

It was the thunderstorm in Manchester that may have denied Peter Marron the opportunity to prepare a better pitch for the match that became famous as the grand Asian derby and a mini World Cup within a World Cup. As it transpired, asking Pakistan to chase suited India to the hilt because the bowlers hit the straps on a slowing pitch.

The three results of the long weekend, begining on Friday, will have a definite bearing on who the four semi-finalists will be.

Pakistan's chances of beating Zimbabwe to ensure qualification probably lie more with how the physiotherapist, Dan Kiesel, fares in mending a long line of broken down players that makes the team the royal infirmary.

Pakistan are off the boil somewhat. They had a dream run in the months from February to May, when they won virtually everything, unless a rival bowler came up with a ten-wicket performance as Anil Kumble did in the Delhi Test. They pocketed two one-day trophies in that time and seemed a formidable combination when coming into the World Cup for which they were firm favourites for a while.

They have now lost three matches in a row and unless they wake up to the reality of a very shaky batting order, they could be facing the threat of being evicted. Bounce will be their ally at The Oval, where they play Zimbabwe on Friday. The hard and fast pitch there will have plenty for Pakistan's fast bowlers who can dominate the Zimbabwe batting if they get first use of the pitch.

Choosing to bowl first will bring about the same hazards as the Pakistanis faced in two of their three defeats. So they might have to fall back on the older theme of batting first and doing so safely until the end overs which have been most productive for them save in the match against India.

Wasim Akram will have a tricky choice to make if the coin lands in his favour on Friday morning.

It does appear captains are happier losing the toss and so leave the dilemma to their counterparts. Alec Stewart opted to put India in and paid the price, so too did Azhar when he gave Australia first strike.

The same advice that still holds good even in the different context of limited-overs cricket may have come from the good doctor himself. Dr.W G Grace always said that if you win the toss, think hard and then bat first. Let someone else brave the chase which is not for the faint-hearted.


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