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Keep wickets in hand or go hard? A look at the first 25 years of ODI history

During Bob Simpson's time as coach, Australia's ODI team focused on scoring at least 100 singles while batting and restricting the opposition's singles to fewer than that Getty Images

Limited-overs cricket, in the form of the Gillette Cup in 1963, came about due to a perceived crisis in attendances for County Championship matches in England in the 1960s. By the end of the 1960s, international cricket was similarly in crisis. The D'Oliveira affair had led to the cancellation of South Africa's 1970 tour to England. Apartheid South Africa were banned from the international game. Consequently, only six Tests were played worldwide in all of 1970. When the first three days of the Melbourne Ashes Test which began on the last day of 1970 were rained out, the authorities decided to abandon the Test and instead hold a single-innings match between England and Australia with 40 eight-ball overs per innings. This was the first one-day international.

The four-innings game is one of control, where the bowlers try to dismiss batsmen who try to avoid being dismissed. Scoring rates and dismissal rates in that format have remained more or less stable over more than a century. Periods where teams have tried to score quickly have also been periods where wickets fall more quickly. The contest between bat and ball is optimally balanced in the four-innings contest.

In contrast, the limited-overs game is a contest of efficiency. Given a certain number of deliveries, how efficiently can a batting side risk its wickets to score the highest possible total? Similarly, what kind of bowling attack is best equipped to restrict opponents to the smallest possible total, given a certain number of deliveries? Over the 48 years since 1971, different answers have been offered to these questions.

The graph below shows the batting average, dismissal rate and economy rate in ODI cricket history, with increments of 200 matches as markers. ODI teams' quest for efficiency has meant that while a wicket fell every 40 balls and roughly four runs were scored per over in the first 200 ODI games, in the most recent 200 ODI games, the corresponding figures are 35 balls and five runs per over. Broadly, ODI teams today are prepared to "spend" a wicket every six overs instead of one every seven overs in the early days, and to produce an extra run every over compared to the early days. Another way to think about this is that while batting teams spent between seven and eight wickets on average over the course of their allotted overs in the early days, today they spend between eight and nine wickets on average.

These changes have not come about evenly. Nor have they been only a consequence of players learning to think differently. The ICC has, especially in recent years, updated the rules governing the ODI game several times to modify the incentives available (especially) to batsmen. The consequences of these rule changes are evident in the record. The history of limited-overs cricket has been the history of a continuing quest for an elusive equilibrium.

Since its inception, and especially since administrators felt compelled to treat the game as a cash cow rather than as a sport that needs to produce an income in order to thrive, the ODI format has struggled with striking a balance between being a contest and being exciting. Creating a predetermined finite length for each team innings (be it 65, 60, 55, 50, 45, 40 or 20 overs) creates peculiar, often perverse, incentives for bowlers and batsmen. The imperative to provide excitement and entertainment meant that rational competitive choices made by batting and bowling sides in circumstances where there was too little time to provide the bowling side with the leverage to attack the batsmen produced stalemates - especially in the middle of the innings, when batsmen had an incentive to keep wickets in hand and bowlers had an incentive to keep the run-scoring in check with a ball that was no longer new. Ultimately, this stalemate is what led to the Powerplay era.

In the early years, ODIs were considered secondary to the main event of Test cricket on international tours, and as a consequence, ODIs were infrequent. The 200th ODI was the opening game of the 1983 World Cup. The tournament marked the elevation of ODI cricket into a format on its own terms. The first 200 ODIs took just over 12 years. The next 200 took only three. By 1994, over a hundred ODIs were being played each year. The high point of ODI cricket was in the run-up to the 2007 World Cup, just before the emergence of T20.

West Indies dominated limited-overs cricket in these early years. They had an outstanding attack and the best limited-overs batsman in the world by some distance. By the time Viv Richards played his final limited-overs game, in May 1991, he had compiled 6721 runs at an average of 47 and a scoring rate of 90. The average middle-order batsman scored at 70 runs per hundred balls during the first 20 years of ODI cricket. Richards was ahead of his time in a way no batsman has since approached. Every other top limited-overs middle-order batsman of his era scored at a rate between 65 and 78 runs per hundred balls faced. Saleem Malik and Zaheer Abbas were exceptional in that they scored at a rate in the mid-'80s. Kapil Dev scored at a run a ball, which he achieved at the cost of consistency, compared to Richards: he averaged 21 runs fewer than Richards per dismissal.

ALSO READ: Is Kohli up there with Richards and Tendulkar as an ODI batsman?

Openers tended to be even more cautious. They scored at a rate between 50 and 70 runs per hundred balls faced during those first 20 years. This was the orthodoxy of the time, borrowed from first-class and Test cricket, in which the new ball was respected and the role of the batsman early in an innings was to preserve their wicket so that the middle-order batsmen could make hay when the conditions were more favourable. This was the logic of control operating in a contest of efficiency. The operating question was not "How do we spend the ten wickets we have over 50 overs most efficiently to produce the highest possible total?" Rather, it was "How do we ensure that we preserve as many of our wickets for as long as possible?"

The first great theorist of the international limited-overs game was Bobby Simpson. It is debatable how much of his reputation was due to Australia's success in the 1987 World Cup and how much of expertise was the basis of that success. Simpson was Australia head coach for nearly a decade, a period that included three World Cups. In his book The Reasons Why, published in 1996, Simpson laid out his three-point theory of ODI cricket:

1. The team that scores at a run-a-ball wins nearly all its games.
2. Australia would target 100 from the first 25 overs, and a run a ball thereafter, including at least 60 in the final ten overs.
3. Wickets in hand were essential for the final 15 overs of the innings.

As plans go, this was a succinct statement of the advanced orthodoxy of his day. Simpson also held that batting teams should target 100 singles in 300 balls, and bowling sides should try to keep this figure down to two figures. Keeping wickets in hand for the final 15 overs was a popular idea. The premise was that while a game could be lost in the first half of the innings, it could not be won.

Imran Khan and Javed Miandad manned the Pakistan middle order in the middle overs to set the table for Saleem Malik and others (including, later, Inzamam-ul-Haq) to score quicker in the last few overs of the innings. Sachin Tendulkar reported that when Ajit Wadekar and Mohammad Azharuddin sent him up the order in New Zealand in 1994, Wadekar told him that he expected India to reach 100 by the 25th over.

Simpson presented the thinking in his day in the form of an explicit plan. It allowed him to persuade his team to improve their ground fielding because this helped with keeping the number of singles down. It made thinking about efficiency possible by creating avenues for improvement.

The big problem still lay with openers. This was the central tactical innovation of the 1990s.

The graph below shows the scoring rates for openers and Nos. 3 and 4 through the history ODI cricket, with increments of 200 matches as markers. The scoring rate of openers began to catch up with that of the middle-order engine room by the mid-1990s. If considered by year, 1996 was the first year in which ODI openers scored quicker than the batsmen batting at three and four. The evident inefficiency in the 1980s approach to opening the batting (and the use of wickets as resources to be spent more generally) was addressed in three ways during the 1990s. Two of these were successful, the third was arguably not.

The first approach, which is arguably the best known, was to take advantage of the fielding restrictions imposed during the first 15 overs of the innings (a legacy of Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket) by granting a licence to one or both openers to chance their arm. Romesh Kaluwitharana and Sanath Jayasuriya, a wicketkeeper and a spin-bowling lower-order batsman, did this most famously for Sri Lanka in the mid-'90s. Jayasuriya went on to become one of the outstanding limited-overs openers of all time.

Martin Crowe's New Zealand side of 1992 is often heralded as a path-breaking ODI team. They opened the bowling with the offspinner Dipak Patel and the batting with a pinch-hitter, Mark Greatbatch, who had a great World Cup in that role. He made 313 runs in seven innings at 88 runs per hundred balls faced. After the tournament his form fell away and he made only 909 further runs in his ODI career, at a strike rate of 65. Greatbatch's World Cup success might be considered to owe as much to form in home conditions as to his approach. Krishnamachari Srikkanth, for instance, made 248 runs in seven innings at a strike rate of 83 during the 1987 World Cup, well above his career rate of 72 runs per hundred balls. During their brief purple patches at the top of the order, Srikkanth and Greatbatch demonstrated that it was possible for the opener to take advantage of the fielding restrictions.

Pinch-hitting was not the only approach to exploiting inefficiencies in the first half of the innings. A second approach was based on the idea that, given an innings lasted only 50 overs, it made great sense to ensure that the best batsman in the side had the opportunity to face most of those overs, since he would exploit those 50 overs most efficiently more often than any other player. This meant that the best batsman in the side - typically the one who batted at three, four or five in the Test batting order - would open the batting in the limited-overs side. Inzamam and Brian Lara were sent up to open the batting under this theory, as were Mark Waugh and Sachin Tendulkar. Contra Simpson, the reasoning here was that given only 50 overs, there was no point in protecting the best batsman from the new ball, as one would in a Test match.

The third, and most common approach, was the conventional one. It involved using the Test opener as the limited-overs opener. The majority of ODI openers in the 1990s were also Test openers. They had mixed success as Test and ODI openers, but played in both formats as openers.

ALSO READ: The three phases of Sachin Tendulkar's ODI batting

Tendulkar was the outstanding opener of this period. He was as far ahead of his contemporaries as Richards was in his day. No player could match the speed and certainty of his run production. Virender Sehwag, Jayasuriya, Adam Gilchrist and Shahid Afridi scored quicker than Tendulkar, but this cost them at least ten runs in batting average compared to him.

To illustrate this, consider that Tendulkar's average contribution as opener was 49 in 55 balls. The next best player was arguably Gilchrist, whose average contribution was 36 in 38 balls. If you prefer consistency to power, then the next best player was arguably Lara, whose average contribution was 47 in 63 balls.

The chart below shows the records of Richards and Tendulkar relative to their contemporaries. Richards' record spans a career of 167 matches. The first 15 years of Tendulkar's record spans 241 matches.

The table below lists all ODI openers who scored at least 1500 runs at the top of the batting order from 1990 to May 2005 (when the Powerplay era began). The pinch-hitting openers are in green, the best-player openers are in blue, and the conventional openers are on a white background.

The pursuit of efficiency was not limited to the batting side of things. Teams were considering how to squeeze out more runs from the batting order. This led to the keeper-batsman becoming an increasingly valued figure. India took this idea as far as it could go by relying on Rahul Dravid to keep wicket so that they could play the extra batsman.

The bowler who could hit the ball hard also emerged during this period as a specialist limited-overs allrounder. Chris Harris, Abdul Razzaq, Azhar Mahmood, Lance Klusener, Nicky Boje, Ian Harvey, Brad Hogg, and Shahid Afridi built an identity as players of this sort, distinct from their success (or lack of it) in the Test team. Others like Shaun Pollock were world-class all-format allrounders.

This tendency to look for players who could contribute with the bat, in addition to their primary skill as a bowler or wicketkeeper, had an important consequence. It created bowling attacks in which nearly half the bowlers were picked with one eye on their ability to bat. This meant that bowling attacks were no longer capable of challenging batsmen's defences for most of the 50 overs. Teams would try to take wickets with the new ball if the conditions permitted, and then with a great spinner or first-change fast bowler (Allan Donald was the best example).

But beyond that, the name of the game was restriction. Once the field-setting constraints were lifted after 15 overs, the game settled into a pattern where the batting side was content to milk the bowling and accept whatever uncontested runs might be offered by the spread-out field (unless the bowling was rank bad), and the bowling side was content to keep a lid on things. The bowlers would be accurate but generally non-threatening. (Kumar Dharmasena, now a distinguished Test umpire, was a great example of this type of bowler.) With resources saved up, batting sides would then attempt to explode during the last 10-15 overs of the innings.

This stalemate came to be known as the "middle-overs problem". In 2005, the ICC decided to change the rules to try and disturb the stalemate. Over ten years from 2005 to 2015, the rules were changed frequently in pursuit of the perfect formula that would sustain excitement.

The first team that dominated ODI cricket had batsmen whose job was to bat and bowlers whose job was to take wickets. When opponents got to face Richards or Larry Gomes when batting against West Indies in an ODI innings, this was viewed as a respite from having to fight for survival. Absent such depth in bowling, teams decided to compromise. Specialist bowlers and batsmen gave way to allrounders. This produced a contest in which neither batsman nor bowler felt the need to look for more than that which was being offered by the opponent. The ICC's efforts to tackle this will be the subject of the second part of this essay.

Part two of this essay looks at ODI cricket from 1992 onwards and how the ICC's Powerplay rules influenced the bat-ball balance