31 January 2014

The importance of dot balls

Sunil Gavaskar scored 36 off 174 balls with a single boundary and bat thorough 60 overs against England in the very first match of world cup 1975. His strike rate was 20.69%! That's a lot of dot-balls.  Those were 'early days' of limited over cricket, one must not forget however. 

I believe the term ‘Dot Ball’ in cricket was coined from the practice of scorers using a ‘dot’ to indicate a delivery off which no run has been scored.  Dot balls are important for the fielding team.  They are the curse of batting sides, especially in limited over encounters.  So the bowler looks for dot balls; if he grabs a wicket it is a bonus.  You can have it the other way too: to get a batsman out you have to bowl well and if you bowl well you’ll get some dot balls in.  That’s if you want to be clinically mathematical about it.

On the face of it one is prompted to say ‘waste’ (on the part of the batsman).  One could, for instance, add up all the dot balls in a single innings and obtain a minimum score where all those deliveries off which no runs were scored actually yielded the minimum, a single run.  So if there were on average 2 dot balls per over in a 50-over encounter, you’ll get 100 runs had those dot balls been converted into singles.  Logic suggests that the batting team should have as one of its objective to minimize dot balls.  That’s 300 runs right there, folks, not counting extras, fours and sixers.

It’s a neat little equation but one that is flawed.  One has to factor in human error and also the occasional unplayable delivery.  It’s even tougher when chasing a stiff target.  Top batsmen can be counted on to get a single off any delivery but the best, but there are no teams that have 11 top notch batters.  You have to keep your wickets if you want to win.  There’s no point scoring at 10 runs an over for 20 overs in a 50-over game where the team batting first has scored 350 and find that you are all out.  You’ll still lose by 150 runs. 

Then there is a thing called ‘the wicket’, i.e. the area between the two sets of stumps.  With experience any cricketer would be able to make an educated guess regarding how the wicket would play during the course of a game, be it an ODI or a Test match.  This is why there is something called ‘playing yourself in’.  One has to take stock of how the wicket would behave in addition to reading the bowlers.  There’s only so much that video footage can give.  Getting into the bowler’s head, being able to read him there is as important as the ability to read the ball from the moment it leaves his hand, through the air and off the pitch.  If the focus is to minimize dot balls, you will be looking to score a run every ball.  The situation sometimes doesn’t offer too many options of course, but if you start playing the percentages then you have to understand that there’s a greater chance of erring.  Thirty off thirty is great, but if your team needs you to stay there until the end, there’s little to celebrate a ’30 and out’ in a run-a-ball knock. 

The point is that things can’t be averaged out and the averages factored into the decision.  If the RRR (Required Run Rate) is 9.0, you can deduce that you need to score at a rate that exceeds a run a ball.  In a 50 over game, reality doesn’t follow simple arithmetic, subject of course to the caveat that thanks to Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana it is now understood that all logic, whatever the source, is amenable to ruthless wrecking. 

This is where intelligent crickets talk about ‘small targets’ such as ‘let’s try to get so many runs in so many overs and then reassess’.  The keyword is ‘reassess’.  The key premise is that we are all human and therefore endowed with both intelligence and ignorance. We cannot factor in everything and even if we do we cannot accurately calculate the weight of each factor.  One should not to lose sight of the ultimate objective of course, but one should not let us be a burden.  That’s how Pakistan won the third test against Sri Lanka in Sharjah, scoring 300 runs just two sessions at a rate that neither team achieved in the preceding seven sessions.  Small targets without losing sight of the overall objective and without letting the latter become a weight so big that it restricts movement and thinking. 
Eminently applicable to any situation in life.  It’s simple, really.  You can take it this way: the parts may add up to the sum but the sum is not necessarily obtained just by dividing it into equal parts.   

There’s an old Native American trick to help one cover long distances on foot without exhausting and without dropping overall pace: ‘run 100 steps, walk 100 steps’.

It’s good to know numbers, but it is best that you use them intelligently.  Misbah-ul-Haq’s gallant Pakistan team taught me this a few days ago.  It’s not necessary not to have dot balls. 

 Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of THE NATION and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com