HAVE WE SEEN THE LAST OF THE GREAT FIN­ISH­ERS?

The Cricket Paper - - OPINION - DEREK PRINGLE

Look­ing at Eng­land’s squad for the Cham­pi­ons Tro­phy, the only real sur­prise is the lack of an ob­vi­ous fin­isher in the mould of a Michael Be­van or Graham Thorpe. But then modern one-day cricket, with its long bat­ting or­ders and en­thu­si­as­tic tails, has prob­a­bly dis­pensed with them as surely as it has done the ‘five-over trundler’.

If they have been deemed sur­plus to re­quire­ments it is a shame. Cricket has of­ten been de­scribed as an art form, but not of­ten in the white-ball form of the game. Ex­cept, that is, when a renowned fin­isher like Be­van has gone about the chase, their in­nings a thrilling com­bi­na­tion of cal­cu­lated risk, clever ge­om­e­try and the de­li­cious un­cer­tainty that surely they won’t do it once again.

Eoin Mor­gan, Eng­land’s captain, al­most ac­quired a rep­u­ta­tion as a fin­isher at the start of his ca­reer, while Jos But­tler was iden­ti­fied as hav­ing the po­ten­tial to be one. Nei­ther, to my mind, has quite nailed the role though that may be due more to the na­ture of to­day’s white-ball cricket than any char­ac­ter flaw on their part.

For it is char­ac­ter that counts most, as well as a fine con­trol of the bat. Fin­ish­ers have to be nerve­less or at least use their anx­i­ety to drive them to as­sess and man­age risk with calm cal­cu­la­tion. In the days when a mis­cued aerial shot usu­ally ended in dis­missal, they had to be sure of mak­ing the right de­ci­sion at the right mo­ment.

It is dif­fer­ent now. To­day’s mantra, at least for Eng­land, is to ‘play with­out fear’. It is an ad­mirable am­bi­tion, but one that can only be re­alised if you be­lieve there is some­one be­low you in the bat­ting or­der, all the way down to num­ber 10 or 11, who can do the job if you get out. Es­sen­tially, it plays a mind game with play­ers that while there is re­spon­si­bil­ity on them, they can al­le­vi­ate it by pre­tend­ing to have none.

It ab­solves them from er­ror, which is the op­po­site mind­set to that of the fin­isher, who be­lieves he is the only one who can win the game, and that those be­low him will play a sup­port­ing role at best. I have never seen Be­van or Thorpe, or even AB de Vil­liers quizzed as to their thought pro­cesses while chas­ing down a tar­get, but I’ll bet they never liked los­ing at any­thing when they were kids. The primeval in­stinct to put one over an­other is within all of us, it is just that it beats stronger in some. Like Uhtred of Beb­ban­burg in BBC’s TV series The Last King­dom, “Des­tiny is all,” for old school fin­ish­ers.

Back in Be­van’s day and be­yond, re­spon­si­bil­ity was im­pressed upon the mid­dle-or­der be­cause teams did not bat as deep as they do now. I can re­mem­ber in the 1987 World Cup, which was held in In­dia and Pak­istan, Mike Gat­ting ex­plain­ing to jour­nal­ists the need for more bowl­ing op­tions than bat­ting ones, due to the docile na­ture of the pitches. To that end, he felt that five spe­cial­ist bats­men were enough and that is what Eng­land de­ployed.

Modern-day cricket, with its long bat­ting or­ders and en­thu­si­atic tails, has dis­pensed with the fin­isher like it has the ‘five-over trundler’

If it sounds barmy now, Eng­land reached the fi­nal where they lost to Aus­tralia, the de­feat pre­cip­i­tated when Gat­ting failed to man­age the risk of the chase by play­ing an un­nec­es­sary (with re­gard to the state of the game) re­verse-sweep. It was a shot for which he was cas­ti­gated at the time, but which would not at­tract the slight­est con­dem­na­tion to­day.Yet he ac­cepted the crit­i­cism. As one of five spe­cial­ist bats­men, as well as one well es­tab­lished at the crease at the time (he had 41), Gat­ting was ex­pected to go on and win the game, some­thing not nec­es­sar­ily the case to­day when even num­ber 10s have made sev­eral first-class hun­dreds. A closer look at how Be­van and Thorpe used to work their magic may ex­plain why fin­ish­ers like them are not much in ser­vice to­day. Their strength was to hit the gap and run hard to the point, of­ten, where they would judge it well enough to get back on strike.

They only re­ally at­tempted the risk of a big hit when ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary, so there were of­ten lots of twos in those in­nings that ex­ceeded 30.

These days, shrink­ing bound­aries and more ath­letic field­ers cov­er­ing a smaller area have largely put paid to twos and threes so bats­men deal in sin­gles and bound­aries, the first mul­ti­ply­ing the need for the lat­ter. Also, the tar­gets teams chase are far higher these days, so a strike rate of 74.16 (Be­van’s ca­reer SR) and 71.2 (Thorpe’s SR,) would no longer do the busi­ness. Be­van, though, was not dis­missed in well over a third of his in­nings, sug­gest­ing that he has been the great­est when it comes to see­ing the job through.

Aside from De Vil­liers, one of to­day’s play­ers who can still wear the fin­isher’s man­tle is In­dia’s MS Dhoni. His ca­reer strike rate of 88.9 is well above that of Be­van’s, though he has re­mained un­beaten in only 26 per cent of his in­nings.

An ex­pe­ri­enced cam­paigner, Dhoni was at his best the other day when play­ing for Ris­ing Pune Su­per­giants against Sun­ris­ers Hy­der­abad in the In­dian Premier League. He be­gan cir­cum­spectly, at least for T20, with 26 runs off 23 balls, ex­plod­ing into ac­tion only once he needed to and once his eye was in. There­after, he helped his team score 47 off 18 balls in­clud­ing an as­sault against Bhu­vnesh­war Ku­mar, the lead­ing bowler in this year’s IPL, which saw the lat­ter smashed for 35 runs off 11 balls. Dhoni fin­ished un­beaten on 61 from 34.

That is the modern fin­isher, one whose method is honed by range hit­ting and re­liant upon modern bats and pinched bound­aries. In­stead of lit­er­ally chas­ing a tar­get, as Be­van used to do, they reach the re­quired rate, of­ten with oth­ers con­tribut­ing to the fi­nal thrash, with a flurry of fours and sixes.

It can be thrilling but does it com­pare to the broader solo vir­tu­os­ity of a Michael Be­van, whose like we are un­likely to see again now that teams tend to con­cede more runs and pack their bat­ting as a con­se­quence? If it does, it won’t come under art.

PIC­TURE: Getty Im­ages

Get­ting the job done: Michael Be­van was the king of the chase when he was at his pomp for Aus­tralia

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