Two balls to go, five runs to win. The first ball is struck to long off, giving the batsman the opportunity to take an easy single which will bring the target down to four runs off the last ball. Should he take that run and leave it to the non-striker, who is new to the crease, to hit a boundary off the last ball? Or should the batsman on strike refuse that single and take it upon himself to hit a six off the final ball?
This was the dilemma faced by Rajasthan Royals (RR) cap tain Sanju Samson in their first match of IPL 2021 against Punjab Kings (PBKS) in the week that went by. Chasing a target of 222 in the allotted 20 overs, Sanju held the innings together with a stroke-filled century even as wickets fell at the other end. When RR crossed the landmark of 200 runs by the conclusion of 18th over, it appeared that a victory was within the realm of the possible, as the asking rate of 10.5 runs in an over was below the prevailing scoring rate of 11.1. When Rahul Tewatia fell off the first ball of the 19th over, Chris Morris joined Sanju at the crease.
Morris was in the news couple of months earlier as the player who fetched the highest amount in the IPL auction. In addition to being a fast bowler, he also has a reputation for being a fearless baseman in the end overs with a strike rate of 172.22 in last edition of IPL. Thus, it appeared that RR had the perfect pair to launch the final assault on the PBKS bowlers to romp home to a victory.
Eight runs came off the 19th over, with Sanju scoring seven off two balls and Morris one off three. Thus, RR needed 13 runs when Arshdeep Singh started the last over for PBKS,. The first delivery was a dot ball while Sanju and Morris took a single off the next two balls, bringing down the equation to 11 off three balls. Sanju lofted the fourth ball over cover for a six to bring down the target to five runs from two deliveries. He then drove the next ball to long off, which gave the option for taking an easy single, when the dilemma detailed above presented itself.
Sanju refused the single, taking upon himself the challenge of scoring five runs off the last ball, which effectively meant hitting a six. The ball was in the same slot as the one he had hit for a six over cover, but Sanju sliced the shot and the ball went up more, thus covering less distance and ended up as a catch for Deepka Hooda patrolling the deep cover fence. The end result showed that PBKS won the match by four runs, despite Sanju’s valiant knock of 119 runs, which saw him hit 12 boundaries and seven sixes.
No sooner had the catch been taken than a debate started off whether Sanju did the correct thing in refusing the single off the penultimate ball. As written earlier, Morris holds a great reputation for scoring runs at a fast clip in the end overs and the possibility of scoring of four runs off the last ball is much higher than hitting a six. Further, Morris had shown his surprise at Sanju for refusing the single, indicating that he felt confident of scoring the required runs off the final delivery.
Kumar Sangakkara, RR's director of cricket, supported Sanju and praised his belief for backing himself to finish the game. Though disappointed at the final outcome, Sanju stated that he will do the same thing if a similar situation presents in future as well. As opinions and debates raged around in print, visual and social media about the correctness or otherwise of Sanju's actions, it will be interesting to take a look at how players responded to similar situations in the past and the instances where batsmen struck five runs or more off the last ball to win a game for their side.
A peek into statistics of IPL shows only two players have struck a six to win the match for their team when more than four runs were needed off the last ball. The first, of course, is Mahendra Singh Dhoni, one of the greatest finishers of all time, who struck a six when his side, Rising Pune Supergiants, needed six runs to win the game against Kings XI Punjab in 2016. The other player is Dwayne Bravo, who hit a six when Chennai Super Kings needed five runs to win against Kolkata Knight Riders in 2012. There have been eight instances when winning runs were scored through a six off the last ball, but in all the other six instances, four or less runs were needed. Thus, what Sanju attempted to pull off was a feat that had been accomplished by only two cricketers before in the IPL. On the other hand, there are numerous instances of batsmen hitting a boundary off the last ball to win matches and that option certainly carried a higher statistical probability of reaching the target.
When it comes to last-ball sixes, the one struck by Javed Miandad off Chetan Sharma in the final of the Austral-Asia Cup at Sharjah on April 18, 1986, will remain etched in the minds of all those who watched that match. Chasing an Indian score of 245 runs in 50 overs, Miandad played the innings of his life time to take Pakistan to 236/7 wickets when Chetan Sharma started the last over. Pakistan lost two more wickets while adding five runs off the first four balls. Last man Tauseef Ahmed blocked the fifth ball and ran; he would have been run out by yards had Mohammad Azharudeen’s throw from close range hit the stumps. With four runs required off the last ball, a visibly tense Chetan Sharma's attempted yorker ended up as a full toss and Miandad gleefully swatted over mid-wicket for a six to snatch a remarkable win for his side.
In September, 1986, Australia reached India to play a three-Test series, the first match of which was held at Chennai. On the last day of this game, the Aussie skipper Alan Border made a sporting declaration, setting India a target of 348. Helped by half-centuries from Sunil Gavaskar and Mohinder Amarnath, India mounted a spirited chase, that saw them reach 344 when the ninth wicket fell off the last ball of the penultimate over. When Greg Mathews started the last over, India needed four runs to win and Ravi Shastri, unbeaten on 45, was on strike, with Maninder Singh, the No. 11, at the other end. Shastri took a couple off the second ball and pushed for a single from the third, to tie the scores. But this brought Maninder Singh on strike and Mathews, who was bowling a dream spell, needed just two balls to trap him in front of the wicket to secure a tie. Shastri later justified his decision to take a single stating that he wanted to make it safe for India. But the fact remains that had he retained the strike and not taken that single, India might have won the match.
This tendency to play safe and avoid risks was an attitude that guided most Indian cricketers during the last century. This contrasted with the confidence and daredevilry of players from other countries like Miandad. This was one of the reasons why our national side seldom performed to its full in the international arena during those days. The exceptions to this rule were the victories in 1983 World Cup when Kapil Dev led from the front in style the 1985 World Championship of Cricket in 1985 when the usually risk averse Gavaskar experimented boldly. It was only under Sourav Ganguly, who took over the reins of the national side in 2000, that India finally put behind them the practice of playing “safe and percentage cricket” and began to take the fight to the camp of their opponents.
Sanju’s decision to finish off the match is required to be viewed from this perspective as well. He chose to forgo the easier and relatively safer option of taking a single and leaving it to Morris to try his luck with the last ball. This shows tremendous faith and confidence in own abilities, besides an ability to back himself to the hilt in a crisis. Further, he felt instinctively that he had got a measure of the bowler, which would help him to predict accurately where the next ball would pitch. Morris did not possess these advantages as he had arrived at the wicket only 11 balls ago. This was the reason why the decision of Sanju to turn down the single was the correct one.
Arshdeep pitched the ball at the exact spot where he had landed the fourth ball that was hit for a six over cover. But Sanju allowed excitement to get the better of him when he saw the ball pitching exactly where he wished it to land. He rushed into the shot, thus playing the ball slightly early and ended up slicing it so that it went higher and did not clear the fence. A Dhoni would have waited that extra fraction of a second and launched into the shot at the correct moment and deposited the ball into the gallery behind cover fence. Sanju would have realised where he erred which was why Sangakkara concluded by saying that next time Sanju will hit the ball 10 yards further to win the game.
Well played, Sanju Samson! Your assurance, attitude and approach to the game are surefire winners and will stand you in good stead as you take your career to the next level.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)