Must-read blogger Samir Chopra has a post on Cricinfo’s Different Strokes (“Samir Chopra: Because One Blog Ain’t Enough“) about flexibility and the Indian lineup. My thinking isn’t completely sorted out in the matter, but I think I disagree with Chopra’s reasoning. I’m afraid we haven’t fully appreciated the difficulty of balancing stability and adaptability.
Chopra mainly argues that Dhoni wrongly tries to achieve a flexible batting lineup rather than flexible batsmen. So, as Dhoni recently said, who went in as No. 3 depended on who fell first; if it was Rohit Sharma, then Raina would enter, if Gambhir, then Dhoni came in. Chopra argues Dhoni should just tell each batsman to play according to the match situation and be done with it, rather than indulge in a game of musical chairs every match. Good players, Chopra writes, adapt:
If you are a No. 3, and an early wicket falls, you play a little differently than you do if there are a hundred runs on the board. If you are a No. 6, and the team is in trouble, as opposed to looking for a declaration, you bat a little differently. And so on.
OK. So far, so good. But then I’m a tad confused when Chopra talks of one benefit of a more established lineup:
Sure, sending them in at different positions challenges them. But why not give them stability in their expectations of where they are to play and instead demand adaptiveness in their responses to match situations?
And here’s my problem: if we go with Chopra’s argument and each batsman must come in and adapt accordingly to each game (and each situation), then surely that batsman doesn’t enjoy much stability, regardless of where he comes onto the field, right? So, if you tell me I’m your No. 3 no matter what, but that how I play depends on what’s going on, I’d not feel all that stable.
At the very least, I’d feel just as stable as if I had a fixed role in the lineup — pinch-hitter, anchor, whatever — and was sent in whenever my captain felt best. Say I’m Yusuf Pathan and I eat bowlers for breakfast. Why don’t I just hone that skill and then display it whenever my captain thinks the score needs to be accelerated?
My point isn’t that the first system is better than the second. I only mean either way, there’s not that much stability. In the first system, I may be a great pinch-hitter at No. 6, but if a few wickets have fallen quickly, I might end up having to hit singles around for a good 10 overs. Not ideal. In the second model, I don’t even know when to get my pads on. Either way, I have to balance stability and flexibility.
I’ll just add two independent points: first, I think Greg Chappell first introduced this notion of a roving lineup as coach because he felt players had ossified in their traditional roles, stifling creativity and on-the-go thinking. Rather than see a player think for himself during a particular moment in a match, we’d witness too many revolve around the team’s Big Guns — Ganguly, Dravid, Tendulkar — with no one having a credible answer when the three failed. In a way, then, a flexible batting lineup encourages what Chopra wants; it’s a teaching tool. Some may say international cricket isn’t the place to learn the game, but others won’t dismiss it lightly given the average age of this young Indian team.
And secondly, I think we only get to an ideal place in a lineup when everything works according to plan. That’s why the Australians did so well for so long: their openers regularly saw off the new ball (and then some); their No. 3 went on to nicely bridge the middle order along; their lower-order and tail nicely finished off any hint of opposition.
When something gets misplaced in this elaborate jigsaw, things fall apart, as they did for India. No Sehwag at the top and a flailing Gambhir almost ensured things would go screwy. You send Rohit Sharma to No. 2, but then what happens to No. 4 or No. 5? By 2011, however, I’m sure the top-order will look like this: Sehwag, Gambhir, Sharma, Raina, Yuvraj, Dhoni, and Y. Pathan. Good enough for me, no matter who’s where.