Surprises in the English summer of 2017

There seems to be a fundamental shift in the game itself irrespective of the format. Well, that’s the beauty of this glorious game, its dynamic nature and the ability to keep moving the goal-post.

Pakistan players with the Champions Trophy perform the victory lap at The Oval.   -  AP

“Come the 18th of June, I won’t be surprised if Virat is standing with the Champions Trophy,” is what I had written in my last column. He did come close, but not close enough. Even though India went into the final against Pakistan as the favourite, it was Pakistan who outplayed India in every department to lift the trophy.

The 2017 Champions Trophy had all the thrills and spills that a tournament of this magnitude promises, starting with ‘rain-affected’ Australia’s exit to Pakistan’s victory in the final.

At the start of the tournament, the odds were against Pakistan even qualifying for the semifinals, leave alone winning it. Yes, I’d agree it was unexpected, but Pakistan thoroughly deserved it. Barring the first match against India, it outplayed every other team, including the pre- tournament favourites, England and India, and also one of the dark horses, South Africa.

It might not be all that surprising for some, as the famed English pitches (ABOVE, THE OVAL) have been changing for the past few seasons, ever since the outfield has changed to a sand-based one. With sand-based outfield and better drainage system, the excess water, which kept the grass on the pitch green and juicy, has disappeared. The pitches are a lot more dry now. They have grass, but it’s dry and very well roled in, hence the brown colour.   -  Getty Images

 

Every tournament leaves its footprint, and so did the 2017 Champions Trophy.

The first takeaway has to be the change in the English conditions. When we talk about the conditions, let’s separate the weather from the ground conditions. As far as the weather is concerned, it was as unpredictable as it is notorious for, especially during the first half of the tournament. The Australians will vouch for it.

Let’s get to the ground conditions now. The pitches in England are known to be seamer-friendly, specially in the first half of the English summer. And with two new Kookaburras being used from both ends, the seamers and the technically accomplished batters found preferences to counter the assumed conditions. Let’s take the Indian playing XI for the first game. The team went in with four seamers and one spinner, but eventually had to move back to the two-spinner theory.

It might not be all that surprising for some, as the famed English pitches have been changing for the past few seasons, ever since the outfield has changed to a sand-based one. With sand-based outfield and better drainage system, the excess water, which kept the grass on the pitch green and juicy, has disappeared. The pitches are a lot more dry now. They have grass, but it’s dry and very well roled in, hence the brown colour.

This doesn’t really help lateral movement; at the most, it offers a slow, spongy bounce. In some of the matches we did see that, but mostly the pitches were more like the motorways in England. The grass covered outfield also meant not much reverse swing for the fast bowlers.

The other important takeaway is the effect of T20 cricket in ODIs. It seems most teams are trying to convert the 50-overs game into a 20-overs match. On rather flat pitches, one would have thought the openers would go after the bowlers in the first Powerplay overs, but none of the teams actually went in with that kind of strategy. The teams were more keen on seeing through the first Powerplay with wickets in hand. The experience of T20 cricket has ensured that, with wickets in hand, 150-175 is possible in the last 20 overs of an ODI.

Earlier, the batting strategy had three phases: First, going hard at the top, then consolidation in the middle overs, and in the final phase, going all out in the end overs. Now, it seems rather different. It is more like an opera, starting on a softer note and then slowly building into a crescendo.

This brings the bowlers back into the spotlight — not the economical ones, but the wicket-taking bowlers. They aim for wickets specially in the first 30 overs, making sure that the batting team does not get into a comfort zone in the last 20 overs with wickets in hand. This is where the spinners get into the picture, especially the attacking ones like Imran Tahir and Adil Rashid. It’s not surprising that the team which took the most wickets ended up as the champion.

There seems to be a fundamental shift in the game itself — from strategies being formed based on Test cricket to strategies being devised based on T20 cricket — irrespective of the format. Well, that’s the beauty of this glorious game, its dynamic nature and the ability to keep moving the goal-post. Everytime it seems the code has been cracked, the code itself changes.