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.
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.
This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, April 28 2017
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