Finishers: When the end is nigh, they fly sky high!

Finishers are meant to finish the game. They lend a sense of finality to the proceedings. You can’t do without them. The fact of the matter is that their job is the toughest, and they are often judged the harshest. But they are here to stay.

Michael Bevan was a past master at piling up the runs in the end overs. Perhaps he was the first batsman to be referred to as the "finisher."   -  GETTY IMAGES

Mahendra Singh Dhoni has always adopted a fearless approach.   -  GETTY IMAGES

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word ‘finisher’ can mean many things. For starters, a finisher is “a person or thing that finishes something, in particular”. It can also refer to “a person who reaches the end of a race or other competition” or “a worker or a machine performing the last operation in a manufacturing process” and, even, “an animal that has been fattened, and is ready for slaughter”.

For the sheer sake of civility, let’s just ignore the last connotation. After all, a finisher in cricket or football is more crucial to sport than pork vindaloo is to an Easter Sunday spread. In other words, you can do without a variant of meat, but you just can’t have a team sans a finisher.

More often than not, limited-overs cricket is about its glamorous openers — those fiery willow-wielders who walk out to face the music first up or give it back depending on the situation. But, more often than not, openers are slaves of the Powerplay. They are bound to crack when the going gets tough.

 

And, that’s why we have guys batting at Nos. 3, 4 and 5. They are usually the most reliable and accomplished of the lot. If you are a Virat Kohli or an AB de Villiers, it’s obviously about you, for you are the fulcrum of the batting line-up. The middle overs belong to you. Once you’re out, the probability of your team winning goes down by several notches.

Having said that, once the game approaches its business end, what race-goers call the ‘home stretch’, who would you want to bat with the equation reading 90 off 13 overs in an ODI or 40 off 13 balls in a Twenty20? Surely the finisher! He is the pictogram of the fan, who thinks cricket, but doesn’t necessarily breathe, eat or drink it. He is the one, an idealist, who doesn’t care about the aesthetics and artistry of batting. He is the one for whom sport is about winning and nothing else. That’s why a finisher is usually ‘not out’. Both Michael Bevan and M. S. Dhoni have 67 such asterisks in ODIs. Dhoni has 79 more in all T20s. Alas, Bevan retired before the T20 format took over our collective consciousness.

Finishers are ruthless, detached, immovable and sphinx-like. At the same time, they are cool, calculative, smart and sagely. You don’t expect a classy, silken Tendulkar-esque straight drive from him. You better not.

As the 2016 ICC World Twenty20 approaches its climax, one can’t but think of the significance of the finisher. Look what Chris Gayle did to England; how Joe Root resurrected his team’s campaign two days later, against South Africa; what Virat Kohli conjured at the Eden; how Jos Buttler kept Sri Lanka at bay…

Interestingly, this edition of the tournament has taught us that the finisher is not just your No. 6 or No. 7. In a match that effectively lasts less than half the duration of a completed ODI, even the opener is a finisher. So is your No. 3.

Many a time, we come across multiple finishers across teams. The Windies have Gayle and Marlon Samuels. They also have Dwayne Bravo, Darren Sammy and Andre Fletcher. India have Dhoni, Kohli and Yuvraj. You get the point.

If your team boasts names like Lasith Malinga and Jasprit Bumrah, then you are doubly blessed. Finishing is not only about running quick ones and twos or smashing fours and sixes. It’s also about denying the opposition all these freebies. Ask any bowler and he will tell you that batsmen are thieves — “They snatch and steal runs, so I might as well don a cop’s cap and make sure he doesn’t. Why don’t I just finish him?” Pardon the pun, but death-over specialists who can bowl the yorker in their sleep are as crucial to the game as the Dhonis and Bevans.

 

Another fascinating aspect of batting witnessed during this tournament was the relevance of the good ol’ Test match temperament. In view of the ever-changing conditions wherein customised pitches are the norm (especially if you are M. S. Dhoni and your home board virtually runs the sport), then huge totals are an anomaly.

Ask any fan worth his salt to choose between Gayle’s six-hitting spree at the Wankhede and Kohli’s vigilant display against Pakistan, and he’ll go for the latter. The manner in which the big Jamaican subdued the English attack was stunning. There is absolutely no doubt about that.

Gayle’s knock was a story in itself. But, after a point, you just knew what was coming. It was a matter of guessing where the ball would land — in the Sachin Tendulkar Stand, the Garware Pavilion or in between the two enclosures. And, just like that, Gayle accumulated 11 maximums, two more than the England line-up.

On the other hand, Kohli’s inning was one for the ages. Up against a hostile attack on a spiteful — nay atrocious given that Kolkata is one of Indian cricket’s spiritual homes — pitch, Kohli overcame an assortment of hurdles to come up trumps. That he kept India’s campaign alive, and kicking, meant a lot. Kohli’s batting was testimony to the fact that orthodoxy had its own deserving place in Twenty20 cricket.

Barely two weeks before this classic, Kohli scored a match-winning 49 to take India out of the pits against the same attack in Dhaka. That was a different kind of a wicket, but no less treacherous. And the situation was worse: India were three down with just eight on the board, and Mohammad Amir was breathing fire. All of a sudden, the 84-run target looked like a lot more.

After that knock, Kohli spoke of the “mental switch” from a Twenty20 mode to an ODI zone. Apart from keeping the scoreboard “ticking” and not giving away (any more) wickets, he said that the idea was to play “proper cricketing shots” because it was “very important” to do so “on this kind of a pitch”. Acknowledging that it was a “challenging knock”, and that “chasing a low total is always tricky” with the ball swinging around, Kohli explained the importance of “carving out an innings”. Talking about the satisfaction of coming out unscathed, he said, “You feel a lot better when you come out of spells like that rather than on a track that is batsman-friendly. I am very happy that I could face may be 12 to 13 overs of hostile bowling like that.”

So, there you go. The arsenal of the modern-day finisher in limited-overs cricket has to be an amalgamation of sorts. He must sound a sound head on his shoulders — when to hit, whom to hit and how to hit. He ought to be a good, string bloke — fours and sixes are celebrated for a reason. He should also be an excellent runner between the wickets — Mr. Gavaskar is right when he tells us about the importance of converting ones into twos and twos into threes. But most importantly, it’s about the presence of mind — what’s the target, who’s the bowler, where are the fielders.

The finisher’s job is often the most thankless yet the most exhilarating. Not for him the charm associated with opening or the pleasures of joyfully building an innings when the score is 133/2 after 26 overs. If you are a finisher, all you are expected to do is finish the game. Do so, and the masses will adore you; don’t, and you are likely to be branded a villain. Never mind even if the opener took his own sweet time during the ‘Nervous 90s’.

Finishers are meant to finish the game. They lend a sense of finality to the proceedings. You can’t do without them. The fact of the matter is that their job is the toughest, and they are often judged the harshest. But they are here to stay. They are as significant to our sport as ‘The End’ is to a movie. You get the point.