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Vertical Limit

December 28, 2007

Ever since Australia started their ascent to the top of the cricketing summit, their strategy has been straightforward. Bat first, score over 600, dismiss opposition quickly, bat again – take victory out of the equation for the opposition by sheer weight of runs and with five sessions remaining, set attacking fields – demolish opposition. All and sundry would debate in specific match situations whether they should’ve enforced the follow-on or whether they would not be better served to offer a ‘gettable’ 4th innings target so that opposition batsmen play a few shots and not just shut shop. While they’ve had the occasional slip-up (like the famous follow on in Kolkata 2000-01 series), this strategy has worked well for them as is evident by their record.

They stuck by their playbook for the first test at the MCG and have set India 500 to win in the 4th innings. If achieved, it will easily be the highest total by any team in the history of the game. There is one crucial difference however. Instead of the customary five sessions and a bit, they have given India all of eight sessions! At 90 overs a day, that means, India needs to score at only 2.73 runs an over to win this game. This is quite a reversal from watching captains declare only after the probability of defeat has been all but eliminated.

What Ricky Ponting has done is to throw the concept of ‘playing for time’ out the window and has asked India the question whether they have it in them to score the runs. He probably could not have picked a better team to do it against. India’s batsmen, while run-machines when they get going, tend to withdraw into their shells at the first hint of trouble. Given that they have been in trouble since the end of day 2, their likely approach is to ‘bat out the first session for minimal casualties’, continue in subsequent sessions. It does not sound much like a plan because it isn’t. Scratching around at the crease with defensive pokes and lack of intent will make the match like one of those shooting contests at the fair; it might take a few shots, but eventually the targets will be hit.

The line of reasoning that the Indian team could adopt is purely inductive: Unlike in most situations where the batting side oscillates between batting for a draw or going for the win, that option does not exist in this case (if a team can bat out 180 overs, why would they ever worry about losing?). There is no saving this game, they either lose it (85% probability) or win it (15%). Which means that they need have only one thing in their sights – the number 500 and work backwards from that number to see how best to get to it. They know the bowlers Australia will be using over the next few sessions, identify what would best unsettle them, whether it is constant rotation of the strike or boundary hitting, and decide that is how they will bat. In a nutshell; have a plan and implement it.

Given the history of test cricket and the situation, odds are that India will go down at the MCG. What will have a strong bearing on the remainder of the series is how they do it. Fold up for a meek 200 on day 4 or go down guns blazing with 350 odd on the board. The former might ensure a 4-0 scoreline while the latter might just ignite the series.

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