One over to go – seven runs to get and six wickets in hand. This is an equation that undoubtedly looks in favour of the batting side. But when the game is played between India and Pakistan and the venue is Dubai, past performances and predictions do not count for much. It is a question of who blinks first or who handles the pressure better. It is just a question of temperament and not technique. The side which has players who hold their nerve better than the opponents will win this big game.
The Asia Cup match between India and Pakistan held last week in Dubai highlighted the aspect about winners holding their nerve better. In a closely fought game that nearly went down to the wire, India defeated Pakistan by five wickets, with only two balls to spare.
While giving full credit to Hardik Pandya for maintaining his nerve and seeing India home, one’s heart went out to Mohammad Nawaz. He had bowled brilliantly through the match and picked up crucial wickets. And in the final over he did not do anything wrong. It was his bad luck that he ran into Pandya, who was all set and seeing the ball well. Nawaz might have got Pandya too in the last over, if the latter had not timed the last shot so well for six. But that was not to be and he ended up looking like the villain of the piece despite bowling so well.
One could not but remember Chetan Sharma, who was widely criticised for bowling the last-ball full toss to Javed Miandad at Sharjah in the final of the 1986 Australasia Cup final. Miandad smashed the last-ball for a six to snatch an unbelievable one-wicket win for Pakistan. Nawaz’s case was slightly different in that this was neither the last ball of the match nor did he bowl a loose delivery.
This brings to the question as to what could have been done in such situations when the odds are stocked so firmly in favour of the batsmen. It is very rare that bowling sides stage a comeback during the last over. Two instances where India did so come clearly to mind and they are worth recounting. The first took place in the semifinals of the Hero Cup held in India in 1993, where the hosts took on South Africa. Chasing a target of 196, South Africa stumbled a bit during the middle overs but came back strongly, thanks to a 44-run partnership for the eighth wicket between Brian McMillan and Dave Richardson that took the total to 189 when the latter was dismissed. With South Africa needing six to win off the last over, skipper Mohammad Azharuddin brought in Sachin Tendulkar to bowl the last over, though Kapil Dev, Manoj Prabhakar and Javagal Srinath, all specialist bowlers, had overs remaining in their quota. This move clicked as Tendulkar very cleverly bowled his slow spin on a pitch where ball was not coming on to the bat. This confused the batsmen, including McMillan who was close to a half-century, and they could only score four off the final over. Allan Donald did not help South Africa's cause as the No. 11 could manage only one off four balls. This left India winners by a margin of two runs in a thrilling, low-scoring match.
The other occasion was the final the of inaugural ICC T20 World Cup in 2007, where India took on Pakistan. Batting first, India scored 157/5 in the allotted 20 overs. Excellent bowling by R P Singh and Irfan Pathan limited Pakistan to 104/7 when 16 overs were completed. But Misbah-ul-Haq launched a brilliant counter attack and took Pakistan to 145, with one wicket remaining, when the final over began. It was expected that captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni would hand over the ball to Harbhajan Singh, the most experienced bowler in the side, to deliver the last over. But he shocked everyone by calling Joginder Sharma to do the honours. Sharma was tense and started with a wide ball. His second ball was a full toss which Misbah clobbered for a six. Now with only six runs needed for a win and four balls remaining, a cocky Misbah attempted to play the scoop shot, only to hit the ball into the hands of S Sreesanth at short fine leg to hand over the match and trophy to India.
It can be seen that in both the above instances, Indian skippers chose a less fancied bowler to turn his arm in the last over. This was surprising as conventional wisdom would suggest that a tense situation required the presence of the most experienced bowler. But the captains deliberately chose not to do so only to disrupt the thought process of the batsmen at the crease. Both McMillan and Misbah would know what to expect from Kapil Dev and Harbhajan respectively as they had played them in the past while Tendulkar and Sharma were relatively unknown as bowlers. McMillan took a single off the first ball and got the strike back only off the final delivery. On the other hand, Misbah grew complacent and relaxed thinking that he had the match in his bag, which was a crucial mistake and led to silly scoop shot, which he would have avoided against a bowler of the calibre of Harbhajan.
The lesson that one gains from these matches are that bowling the last over successfully is not the responsibility of the bowler alone. The captain plays as big a role in this regard as his choice as to who is the bowler to deliver the critical six balls will have a huge bearing on the fate of the match. What could have happened had Babar Azam asked one of the non-regular bowlers to send down the last over? One cannot state for certain that such a move would have won the match but this would have definitely disrupted the thought process of Ravindra Jadeja and Pandya and opened up numerous possibilities. Though Nawaz tried his best, the advantage of bowling to batsmen thrown off their comfort zone was not available to him.
In closely fought matches, captains who bring in out-of-the box ideas are more likely to throw their opponents off balance. A pre-planned and cautious approach is less likely to yield positive results than dynamic methods, which could even be unorthodox. Such moves by shrewd captains have the potential to be the difference between winning and losing, in addition to the obvious additional charm they bring to the game.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)