I was mulling over the suggestion of a fellow cricket buff, who is also a reader of this column, to write on the finishers in the sport when Mahendra Singh Dhoni reminded everyone about his prowess in this area in a superb manner. The 33rd match of this edition of Indian Premier League (IPL) saw Chennai Super Kings (CSK) pitted against Mumbai Indians (MI) at Navi Mumbai on April 23. Chasing a target of 156, CSK found themselves needing to score 17 runs off the last over, a seemingly difficult task. Jayadev Unadkat, bowling the last over for MI, started off well, trapping Dwaine Pretorius leg before wicket with the first ball. Dwayne Bravo, the new man, managed to nudge the second ball for a single, which brought the target down to 16 runs off four balls. But more importantly, this run brought Dhoni to the striker’s end. And Dhoni promptly took Unadkat to the cleaners hitting 6,4,2 and 4 off the next four deliveries to clinch a win in style.
Finishers are a new genre that have come up in cricket in the background of the increasing popularity of limited overs matches and, in particular the T20 version of the game. Conventional cricket, which is played over a duration exceeding one day with two innings for both sides, has norms over the order in which players go out to bat. According to this, opening the innings is considered a specialist task, while the best batsmen in the side are tasked with batting at No. 3 and 4 in the order. The No. 5 position is reserved for newcomers while the next slot is usually filled by an experienced and senior batsman. The wicketkeeper or the all-rounder come in next, if they fancy their ability with the bat, and the tail starts from No. 8 onwards.
In the initial years, limited overs cricket too followed this pattern. It was only with the introduction of restrictions in field placements that experiments with changes in batting order started. The requirement that nine players should be inside the circle during the initial 15 overs, out of which two fielders should be in a stationary catching position, created scoring opportunities for those batsmen willing to loft the ball over the infield. Sachin Tendulkar saw the potential involved in moving to the top of order early on, during the tour of New Zealand in 1994, where he coaxed coach Ajit Wadekar and skipper Mohammed Azharuddin to give him one chance to open the batting. He grabbed this opportunity with both hands to score 82 off a mere 49 balls and went on to retain this spot till his retirement from the game two decades later. The same logic spurred the move of Sourav Ganguly and Virender Sehwag to the opening position from middle order where they began their career. It should, however, be reiterated that contributions of these players invariably helped the side to get off to a good start.
It was towards the turn of the century that the importance of having a batsman who could bat through the end overs was recognised. It is universally acknowledged that batting towards the end of the innings is more difficult in limited overs cricket. Though there are some limitations on the placement of fielding during the entire game, teams ensure that the power play segment, when restrictions are more stringent, are usually exhausted before the last five overs. Hence more fielders would be patrolling the boundary line than during the initial overs. Further, the ball would have been in use for more than 40 overs which makes it more difficult to score off as the batsmen have to use more force to get it off the square. Plus, some of the pitches start slowing down with the result that the ball does not come on to the bat, and this in turn, dampens the pace of scoring runs. In addition to all these, batting collapses also tend to happen as wickets to tend to fall in a heap when indiscriminate strokeplay is attempted during the end overs to maximise the total. This tends to give an extra wind to the bowlers, making run scoring even more difficult. Thus, the challenges that batsmen face towards the finals overs of an innings in limited overs games are numerous and complicated than the ones faced by those at the top of the order.
Though champion sides right from the mid 1980s had players who batted well in the end overs - like Mike Valetta and Steve Waugh of Australia during 1987 ICC World Cup and Inzamam Ul Haq and Javed Miandad during the 1992 edition - it was only with the advent of Michael Bevan that the word finisher gained repute. Bevan, a left-handed middle order batsman who also bowled occasional left-arm spin, was a regular member of the Australian limited overs team for a decade after making his debut in 1994. His forte was his calm temperament and ability to steal singles almost at will. He was not a big hitter, but could place them in the gaps with near perfect precision and run between the wickets like a hare. His presence in the middle had a disrupting influence on the bowling side as his tactics created mayhem in their ranks. Australia’s successful campaigns during the 1999 and 2003 editions of the ICC World Cup owe a lot to the presence of Bevan in their ranks.
The importance of a finisher came to be recognised by sides more after the arrival of T20 cricket.
Adoption of innovations and new tactics designed to push up the scoring rates in the shortest version of the game had its impact on the 50 overs-a-side matches as well. The strike rate of individual batsmen started to go up exponentially while sides came to terms with the fact that an asking rate of 10 runs per over was not impossible to achieve. Rules and playing conditions have been tweaked so much in favour of batsmen that clearing the boundaries and hitting sixes are now a regular occurrence. This has also resulted in the dot ball being considered worthy of a cheer while the maiden over has attained the status of a rarity. However, these developments have brought more pressure on the middle and lower order batsmen as they get very little time to settle down and are expected to fire away right from the first ball they face. This makes the job of the finishers even more difficult as they enter the fray with few balls remaining and too many runs to get.
Dhoni was universally acknowledged as the best finisher in the game during the second decade of the present century. He was not quick to start off the blocks and needed time to settle down and gauge the pace and bounce of the wicket as well as to assess the bowling. But once he got his eye in, he took charge of the game in a manner few had done before him. He boldly took the game deep, always leaving stiff targets for the last over, when the battle was directly between him and the bowler. He knew instinctively that in a one to one contest between a well set batsman and a bowler, it was the former who held all the aces. Though Dhoni’s abilities to pick the line of the ball early and strike it clean and hard were valuable assets, what made him really potent was his calm demeanour which alone was capable of sending chill down the spine of the bowler. To the spectator it might appear as though Dhoni was capable of hitting any ball to the boundary; but, in reality, it was more the case of bowler being psyched by the batsman to place the ball in areas from where it could be easily hit beyond the ropes.
Dhoni’s abilities as a finisher showed a decline during his last year in international cricket but he still remains a potent force in the final overs in other grades of the game. During their prime, AB de Villiers and Shahid Afridi were rated very highly for their ability to score heavily during the last overs of the innings. Jos Buttler of England, who also opens the innings when required, is currently rated very highly as a finisher. But new players are fast emerging on the horizon such as Rashid Khan, more renowned for his skills as a leg-spinner, showed in the IPL game last week against Sunrisers Hyderabad, where he smashed three straight sixes in the last over bowled by Marco Jansen to set up a win for Gujarat Titans.
Even as new cricketers come to the stage to take up the positions vacated by veterans as Dhoni, De Villiers and Afridi, the fundamental principles involved in the making of a finisher remain the same. They are possessing a cool head, being able to retain focus and break up the target into simple attainable numbers, an unerring ability to pick up scoring opportunities and milk them to the maximum and a unique capacity to establish dominance over the bowler so completely that he keeps landing the ball in those areas favoured by the batsman. These skills are not easy to come by, but, in years to come, more and more players will master them as finishing the game is set to become as important a task as opening the batting or bowling in limited overs cricket.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)