Column | Unlikely heroes emerge at the death

Ashutosh Sharma
Ashutosh Sharma has excelled in his his role as a finisher for Punjab Kings. File photo: PTI/Vijay Verma

Romario Shepherd, a West Indian cricketer known more for his skills with the ball than with the willow, was the hero for Mumbai Indians on April 7 when they registered their first victory in the current edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL). Batting in the last over against Delhi Capitals (DC), Shepherd plundered 32 runs off six balls, which included four well-struck sixes to take his side to a big total of 234/5 in the allotted 20 overs. DC fell 29 runs short in their reply, thus underlining the fact that the difference between the two sides on that night was the pyrotechnics showcased by Shepherd, who won the player-of-the-match award for this standout performance. 

Two days later, at Mullanpur, Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) overcame a stiff fight from Punjab Kings (PBKS) to win a closely-contested match by two runs. PBKS needed 29 runs when the last over commenced, with Ashutosh Sharma on strike. He and Shashank Singh launched a murderous assault in the final over, scoring 26 runs, which included three sixes. Unadkat was also guilty of bowling three wides in the last over. Though this brought PBKS to within striking distance of the target, SRH managed to hold their nerve and got the better of their opponents by a whisker. This effort by the batsmen was no flash in the pan as in PBKS' previous tie against Gujarat Titans, the same duo of Shashank and Ashutosh had hit 34 runs in 12 balls, during the 18th and 19th overs, to set up a win for their side. 

Who are Shepherd, Shashank and Ashutosh? Shepherd is a medium-pace-bowler from Guyana and a member of the West Indies side in white ball-cricket for the last five years. Ashutosh hails from Madhya Pradesh but plays for Railways in the Ranji Trophy, where he made his debut in January and celebrated the occasion by striking a century, which was embellished with eight sixes! Shashank, an all-rounder, was forced to move to Chhattisgarh to play Ranji Trophy from 2019 onwards as he was unable to break into the strong Mumbai side.

Shepherd, Ashutosh and Shashank were not exactly household names before this IPL commenced but they have, through their exploits with the willow during the last fortnight, become popular with fans of the game across the country.

Now let us examine who were the bowlers at the receiving end of these assaults. Shepherd launched his assault on Anrich Nortje, one of the most exciting fast bowling talents to emerge from South Africa in recent years. Nortje has, till date, played in 19 Tests, 22 One-Day Internationals (ODIs) and 31 T20 Internationals, with a total haul of 144 wickets in international cricket. He started playing the IPL from 2020 and had a tally of 53 wickets in 40 games at an economy rate of 8.33 till the start of this season. A stress fracture had ruled him out of top grade cricket since September and the current IPL is the first major outing on his comeback trail. 

Romario Shepherd
Romario Shepherd plundered 32 runs off Anrich Nortje's final over. File photo: AFP/Indranil Mukerjee

Jayadev Unadkat, the left-arm medium-pacer, was the one who bowled the last over for SRH against PBKS. He has turned out for the country in all formats of the game, albeit with limited success. However, he has been a regular at the IPL, playing in all seasons from 2010 onwards, with 91 wickets to his credit from 94 matches till the start of the current edition, with an economy rate of 8.85. He did not do well in 2023 but had bowled well within himself in the first three matches this year. He had conceded only 23 runs from his first three overs besides picking up a wicket when Ashutosh and Shashank tore into him at Mullanpur. In any case, he was the one entrusted with this job in an attack that had in its ranks experienced bowlers such as Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Cummins and T Natarajan.

From the above, it can be seen that the bowlers who got the stick in the last over were accomplished players, good enough to play for the country based on their ability with the ball alone, while only one of the three batsmen involved had played at the highest level. Even this player was selected to don the national colours on the strength his prowess as a bowler and not on the basis of his skills with the bat. In other words, willow-wielders with little pedigree have torn to shreds the reputation of bowlers renowned for skill and accomplishment. 

In the previous season of the IPL, Rinku Singh had caught the attention of the entire country by hitting five consecutive sixes off the last five balls of the 20th over to help Kolkata Knight Riders pull off a thriller against Gujarat Tiatns. The hapless bowler at the receiving end was Yash Dayal, a left-arm medium-pacer without any experience of playing the game at the highest level. This innings catapulted Rinku to the national squad in white-ball cricket and he has since played in both ODIs and T20 Internationals and given a decent account of himself. But more importantly, he showed to the cricketing world that a batsmen need not baulk when confronted with a target in excess of 30 runs in the last over, but can even pull off the heist if the task is approached in a clinical manner.

Rinku Singh
Rinku Singh has made it to the Indian white-ball team, thanks to his exploits for KKR. File photo: PTI

How is it that these batsmen with little exposure to the game at levels beyond first-class cricket are able to lord over bowlers with vast experience and excellent skillsets for performing their jobs? The stress and tension of an IPL match affect both the batsmen and the bowlers in equal measure and neither can claim to be immune from the chants of the crowd and the accompanying excitement. In such situations, one expects the more experienced player to hold his nerve and win the battle, but the above instances tell us that it is the exact opposite that takes place on the field.

The main reason for the success of Shepherd, Ashutosh and Shashank is their tremendous self confidence. They believed earnestly that they could accomplish the task of scoring more than 30 runs in the last over and went all out to achieve this task.They seized the advantage early in the over and established a psychological advantage over the bowler, from which the latter was unable to break free. Once this happens, the batsmen start looking as larger than life images before the bowler, who begins to run out of ideas as to where he should pitch the ball. This adds to the self belief of the willow-wielder who is by then certain that he will be able to cart out of the ground whatever stuff the bowler hurls at him. The bowler gets into a zombie like mode and keeps sending down deliveries to the same areas that the batsman wants it. The stranglehold that the batsmen has over the bowler is complete and a run feast happens. The roar of the crowd charges up the batsman more while it deflates the bowler even further.  A completely uneven tussle between the bat and the ball ensues with the latter getting plastered to all parts of the park with ease and comfort by the former. 

Is there no way out for the bowler other than sinking fast in this quicksand that he finds himself in? The sad answer is that there are no easy ways out of this situation.  The most fortunate exit takes place if the batsman makes a mistake or mistimes a shot, in which case the bowler is able to make a comeback. Trying out all the varieties of deliveries available in the armoury is an option exercised by some bowlers, but in the pressure-cooker situation on the ground, only very few are able to actually accomplish this task with perfection. This the precise reason why “bowling at the death” has become the most difficult and daunting task in white-ball cricket. 

M S Dhoni can play the big shots at will. File photo: PTI/R Senthil Kumar

No discussion on the topic of hitting sixes in the last over in a T20 match will be complete without a mention of Mahendra Sigh Dhoni, an acknowledged master in the art of taking the game deep and winning from impossible positions by his ability to clear the field and place the ball over the ropes. Dhoni exemplifies the dictum that confidence and clear mind are the best allies for a batsman in the last overs of an innings in white-ball cricket. The calm demeanour with which he occupies the crease unnerves the bowlers no end. Incidentally Dhoni reached the record of of 100 sixes in the last two overs in T20 matches during the week that went by, when he slammed 20 runs off the last over bowled by Nortje in the game against SRH. The next best in this regard is Kieron Pollard, with a tally of 57 sixers to his credit in the 19th and 20th overs! This statistic alone would convey the huge impact that Dhoni had not only on the bowlers, but on the entire game as well, during the finishing stages of an innings in limited overs matches.

In the final analysis, cricket is a game played as much in the mind as it is on the field. The dynamics that take place on the field in the last over of a T20 innings are a reflection of the battles waged between the batsman and the bowler in their minds and do not offer an accurate portrayal of their cricketing skills. The dice is loaded heavily in favour of the batsman but there are occasions when the ball triumphs over the bat and there in lies the beauty of this fascinating game.

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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