The third innings goes from place-holder to match decider

A long time ago at an Asian Games table tennis event, a Korean coach explained to me the importance of attacking the third ball. He breaks it down like this: You serve, wait for the return, and attack it. It is common now. The strategy was innovative at the time and coaches joked about fourth-ball and fifth-ball strikes.

Baseball is the new mantra in England (sometimes called ‘benball’ — perhaps not enough credit to Captain Stokes) and the fans love it. More cynical would say that the character of English cricket – safety-before-safety, risk-aversion, look-before-you-leap – is too deeply ingrained and successful enough to throw everything overboard now. They say something has to be given.

The return of the masses

But it’s new (for England), it’s attractive, it can reduce the number of drawn games and it’s starting to bring the crowd back. Soon, as other countries catch up, the strategy shifts from innovative to traditional. And when the baseball’s strength is tested. How do you deal with your own tactics that other teams throw at you?

Earlier, as the West Indies under Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards and then Australia under Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting ruled the cricket world, such tactics were called ‘positive’ cricket or ‘playing to win’.

Sometimes it took just three days to get 20 wickets after scoring big in the middle. Great teams usually play a baseball style of cricket – for example Bradman’s Australia. No one called it Broadball or Loyball or Waffleball or anything.

Today’s audience prefers strategies to carry a label, perhaps for a quick reference, perhaps because they seem kinder. And perhaps because there is enough ambiguity to squeeze well-established maneuvers into recent policy. There’s no harm in that, and if Brendon McCullum wants to be remembered for ‘baseball’ rather than his brilliant hitting at the top of the batting order, that’s how things sometimes pan out.

An important aspect of baseball, however, is the third innings of a match (which is why I recall the third-ball strike from another sport). Both New Zealand and India, who lost all four matches in England, messed up their second innings and the third innings of the match.

Serving England well

And with their own top batsmen in form, England consistently scored over 250 to finish fourth. England played ‘Third Innings Attack’ brilliantly. It will be interesting to see how England play the third innings when they bat first, the third innings attack can sometimes be the work of the bowlers.

Cricket rarely finds the third innings decisive in a Test. First, obviously, a good start is an important factor in any game. Fourth, inevitably, this is where teams hang on for a draw or play above themselves to win. The second innings (four) is usually like the return of serve – it can start a debate or end it decisively. But that third inning somehow became so insignificant, not talked about much, that it was used only to mark time. Cricket is the ugly sister in the fairy tale – but now emerges as a princess, with golden sandals and a glittering crown.

Philosophers comparing cricket to life talk about the way a player is given a second chance. Success comes after failure. But, as England showed in the Edgbaston Test against India, the reverse can be just as true.

A victory – with India leading by 132 runs in the first innings – could be followed by a failure. Because the sport is a zero-sum game, one team’s victory is usually the opponent’s loss, but whatever happens in the first two innings of a match, that’s what baseball says about the third. And it’s interesting.

Before drawing conclusions

It is too early to draw any conclusions. But England’s recovery was impressive. In the previous twelve years, England’s strike rate in the fourth innings was 47. This summer it has risen to 75 in four Tests. They scored 4.6 runs per over compared to 2.95 previously. Jonny Bairstow’s strike rate is 100 with four Tests and four centuries.

Can any team sustain this? Can England do that in India or Australia? It doesn’t matter. Perhaps baseball’s greatest contribution has been a shift in focus. Its stated goal is not just to win or lose, but to bring more people into the game. And that’s not such a bad thing.

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Written by filmysector

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