In the 225 minutes he spent bossing around at the Eden Gardens on Thursday, Rohit Sharma did more than just rewrite the history books. Consider this stunning stat: Only 10 batsmen had managed to hit 20 or more fours in a single innings from the time the first fielding restrictions were introduced in 1992 and the onset of powerplays in 2005. However, on Thursday, Rohit hit 21 fours just in the arc between point and long-off. Eighteen of those came during the non-powerplay overs where only four Sri Lankans were allowed outside the 30-yard circle.
In a way, Rohit’s blitz also justified the lament of every international captain about the new fielding restrictions. Their unyielding diatribe over the disappearing fifth boundary rider. And their hapless quest since June 2012 to find a foolproof formula to calibrate the four fielders at their disposal for almost three quarters of an ODI innings.
This is not to say that his record-breaking 264 was solely a result of the new fielding restrictions but even he would agree that it had a role to play. Just like it has in the increasing discrepancy between bat and ball in the 50-over format.
So how would Sri Lanka have plugged that hole if they had the extra man in the outfield? Ever since the new restrictions took effect, the one outfielder who’s been sacrificed most often is the sweeper cover. Like the Lankans did on Thursday and were made to pay for it. With nobody behind them, the four men inside the circle on the off-side couldn’t form a packed ring, which Rohit exploited to the core by piercing the available gap repeatedly. When he connected they flew into the stands, and even when he didn’t, the infielders had to run back to snare it, always more difficult than having a fielder running in from the deep as was the case in the past.
And when you have a batsman like Rohit, whose repertoire stretches across the dial, the captain’s woes only get more vexing. Do you risk bringing in fine-leg and allow him to play the lap sweep? Or do you bring thirdman in and expect the bowler to get the yorker right every time? So what do you do Jack?
On Thursday, Angelo Mathews tried all of it. He pushed fine-leg back, brought him in, pushed thirdman back, brought him in, had deep square-leg in the circle, pushed him square. All in vain.
Being an ODI captain was a relatively easier job in 1990s. When it came to field placements during the middle overs of ODIs anyway. The first 15 overs were more about where you wanted to place the two mandatory close-in fielders rather than the two allowed to man the boundary. Once it was time to ‘spread the field’, you pretty much knew what was to be done. Long-off, long-on, thirdman, fine-leg and either a sweeper cover or a deep backward square-leg till the very end. Maybe a deep point if you were feeling a tad innovative.
Field placement is as much about basic geometry as it is about strategy and tactics. Now imagine having an arena with four sentinel at your disposal to man it. The most natural formation would be to post them in the four corners. But in the switch-hit era, captains have to think about multi-dimensional fielding positions.
Some captains end up having a fielder between cow corner (deep midwicket) and backward square, leaving him the unenviable task of manning the vast expanse between fine-leg and long-on. With smaller square boundaries to defend, the captains are often forced to bring in both long-on and long-off,allowing the batsman a free-hit towards the straight field. It does upset the bowler’s rhythm.
Like we saw with Amit Mishra last month against West Indies in the Kochi ODI. He was given a deep point, with long-off in, and one could sense that Mishra didn’t trust him to bowl fuller due to the fear of being lofted to the straight boundary. Instead he ‘bowled to his field’ pitched it short and kept getting pulled over mid-wicket.
Also, having a new-ball at either end has virtually killed reverse-swing, leaving the bowler with few options to counter the carnage.
The powerplay was brought in because it was deemed that the middle overs during the 15-over field restrictions era had become too boring. But the new laws have resulted in batting onslaughts that at times have bordered on being boorish.
In Australia during the World Cup, captains will have bigger grounds and finer angles to deal with. Just how they pull off a Houdini and overcome the one-man handicap in their arsenal could well decide which way the Cup goes Down Under.