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Placid decks, daddy hundreds, huge scores….but something is always missing

Will they…? Won’t they…?

One of the greatest reasons why sports remains ever so endearing is the unpredictability that each game brings along with it. The minnows staging upsets, the close nail-affairs that are interspersed with gasps and ooohs and the edge-of-the-seat kind of thrillers that spice up any encounter. One of the main branches of psychology is how excitement forces an individual to behave emotionally, which in turn affects their decision-making abilities. As excitement forces a human to act with impulses, they tend to make choices, even bad ones, and this is what the market strives for.

In simple terms, getting a being excited can force them to form an emotional bond with the subject, and this is how the market grows. The sporting world too relies on this mindset of its consumers – churn out exciting matches, which will tingle sensations among the audiences, and eventually force more spectators to watch the game. However, as far as cricket is concerned, smaller grounds, thicker bats, two new balls and the powerplay overs have ensured that lopsided encounters have been on the rise, with challenging games that go to the last over in ODIs on the wane.

The increasing 350+ scores

As the first game of the new year between New Zealand and Sri Lanka unfolded, the early risers witnessed yet another familiar script. The land where bounce and pace once abounded had produced yet another placid track where batsmen flourished and the bowlers were severely punished. Lasith Malinga, who had staged a successful comeback to the format, was smashed around for 78 runs in his 10 overs, which was not the worst bowling performance of the day. As Martin Guptill, Ross Taylor and then James Neesham, who smashed 47 in just 13 deliveries, helped New Zealand pile on 371 runs in their stipulated overs, instead of the cricket fanatics rejoicing at the big hits, a sense of disappointment prevailed.

Read also: Is Kusal Mendis the new life saver for Sri Lanka?

For only two scenarios seemed possible, with the third being highly unlikely. Either the floundering Lankan batting unit would play freely, scoring runs in the process, but also losing regular wickets, which would stall the flow of runs and eventually ensure the side lost the match comprehensively. Or the Malinga-led side would be daunted by the challenging target and lose the plot within the first ten overs, which would then make the remainder of the game a mere formality. Yes, there was a chance that the side could chase down this target, but with teams chasing 350+ targets only thrice since the World Cup ended in 2015, the possibility seemed visibly bleak.

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Since the mega-event in Australia and New Zealand ended four years ago, targets above 350 have been set a whopping 34 times in 428 matches, or in 7.94% of the games. Previously a score above 350 had been notched only 75 times in 3646 games from 1971 – in just 2.06% of the games. With the average first innings score in the last four years increasing to 254.23 from 228.6 and the second innings target only marginally increasing to 207.3 from 193, the huge disparity between the first and second innings target has led to a kind of monotony that is threatening to eradicate the glee that viewing cricket brought with it.

Why run chases are getting harder by the day

 If grounds are flat and the rules assist the batting side then why are successful run-chases as tough? Yes, there are a few instances when sides have got close to the target only to fall short, but overall, teams are unable to scale the summit. This has a lot to do with the theory of approaching a run-chase. Predominantly, the chasing side was asked to keep wickets in hand even when the run rates fell behind the required rate, and then go for the kill in the end. Players like Imran Khan and Javed Miandad followed this theory to the ‘T’, but this theory seemed to work only when the asking run rate at the beginning was over 5 and the required rate at the end was around 7.5 to 8 an over.

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As the years rolled on and as higher scores were being notched up, sides started including big power hitters at the top, so they could attack straightaway and get the run rate down for the other batsmen to follow. Hence, Mark Greatbatch in 1992 and Brendon McCullum in the 2015 edition were entrusted with this duty, but then arose the so-called “middle-over issues”. With most teams not having powerful strikers in the middle-order – an issue that still plagues the Indian team – the dangerous men were bundled up at the top and the bottom half of the batting order. Hence, most matches have often been lost in overs 15-35, when sides are unable to capitalize on a good start.

This is exactly what panned down at the Bay Oval, as Sri Lanka after getting to 119 without the loss of a wicket in 17.3 overs were unable to keep their momentum, and despite Kusal Perera scoring a quickfire 102 off 86 deliveries, the middle-order failed to get in the act.

Hence, for sides to consistently tackle high scores in the second innings, equally distributing pressure among the batsmen throughout the order and ensuring that they overcome it is the need of the hour.

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