Cricket Adopts Cycling's "Domestique" Strategy

Goutham ChakravarthiCorrespondent IAugust 29, 2009

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 21:  The peloton rides through Aldgate during stage two of the 2009 Tour Down Under at Hanhdorf to Stirling on January 21, 2009 in Adelaide, Australia.  (Photo by James Knowler/Getty Images)

Are set-pieces only a thing of football (soccer) and hockey (field)? Are target hitters only shooters, archers and baseline tennis players? How far are the strategies in one sport or one genre of sport embraced in the others? Does only cricket adopt ice-hockey's power-play methodologies to spice things up?

Here, I take a look at cricket's adaptation of cycling's "domestique" strategy. I had written this as means of demonstrating the strides Rajastan Royals had made in terms of incorporating the best sporting strategies on and off the field during the IPL this year. Have a read:

This article was first published in Cricbuzz

May 01, 2009

In cycling parlance, a domestique is a rider who does everything to help the team's main rider—a Lance Armstrong—win the race. During the course of a race, a team will use a domestique to pull the leader from the pack of cyclists (also called the peloton) and push ahead of the field.

A domestique is used to shield the main rider from gusts of strong winds, and even asked to give up his wheel if the main rider has a flat tyre. A team generally uses multiple domestiques to help the rider through different stages—a steep mountain climb, a flat fast run, or even just run up to the team van and fetch the lead rider an energy drink because he feels spent. Finally, when they have all done their jobs, they let the lead rider floor the pedal and take them to victory.

We see a similar pattern emerging in cricket through T20 cricket. Teams seem to have identified their lead match-winner—a batsman and/or a bowler—and use the others to do the brick-building so that a launch pad is ready to unleash them. We are getting to see football-style set pieces with some teams settling for one over bowling spells. Some teams use certain bowlers fully up front while others seem to hold back all four overs of a bowler for the business end of the innings. Some medium pacers bowl an entire over of slower balls at the slog!

Rajasthan Royals have clearly led the way in this regard. They have identified Yusuf Pathan as their match-winner and seem to have settled on the strategy to hold him back for the last eight overs of the innings.

It is a lot easier for Rajasthan to get people to serve as domestiques, as they are a team with very few superstars. They executed their plan perfectly in the game against Delhi when they successfully held back Pathan even while losing early wickets. Shane Warne promoted himself up the order so as to keep Pathan for the end of the innings. Even Graeme Smith played a willing domestique to Pathan and ensured that he shielded Pathan from the pace of Nannes and let him loose when the spin of Vettori and Mishra came along. And Pathan took them home easily in the end.

Crucially, they seem to understand that Pathan can win them the matches from situations where they need say 50 or 60 runs from the last five overs (when it is more than that they struggle, as they found out against Chennai in their last game on Thursday evening). Their set pieces are impressive and their strategy is devised keeping in mind the limitations of their players.

For example, the role of playing through the innings is given to Smith and not to Pathan. While Smith plays domestique to the likes of Pathan and Mascarenhas to set up the game for them in the last five overs, the likes of Asnodkar and Quiney play domestique to Smith by playing attacking cricket at the top of their batting innings. It ensures Smith sticks to his game plan. 

The set pieces are not restricted to batting alone. In the same match against Rajasthan Royals, Delhi Daredevils set up the game for their main player, Daniel Vettori. Vettori has been among the best players when it comes to restricting the scoring in ODIs and T20 cricket. Unlike many teams that give one or two over spells to their bowlers, Sehwag held back Vettori till late into the innings.

When he came on to bowl, we had two teams playing their trump card. Rajasthan had brought in Pathan to take them home and Delhi brought in Vettori to stop Pathan from doing just that. The Royals were hoping for 25 balls of Pathan and Delhi were hoping for two quiet overs from Vettori. The scales would tip based on the winner of this battle.

Pathan got to play 30 balls and Rajasthan won. Vettori, after being hit for 2 monstrous sixes, induced a top edge which on another day would have fetched him Pathan's wicket, and Delhi its win. The strategic battle was fascinating and Warne had managed to outwit the street-smart Sehwag. But only just. 

Warne opened with the part-time spin of Yusuf Pathan against Gayle and also against Matt Hayden. Kevin Pietersen picked up the cue and bowled himself and Roelof van der Merwe against Gayle and McCullum. We see Tendulkar bowl Harbhajan in the first six overs even when there are field restrictions and Dhoni bowls his bowlers in one over spells more toward the end so batsmen can't line them up. We see fast bowlers bowl with a short third-man and a short fine-leg to batsmen who hit the ball strongly down the ground and with a backward point, cover point, deep gully, sweeper cover and a square third-man for people who are strong square of the wicket. Field placing has long been an art and some tend to get it better than the others. 

Chennai seem desperately struggling to find domestiques. They do not seem to have clear roles defined for their batsmen. Outside of Hayden, everybody else seems to be confused about their roles. As a result their set pieces lack thought. For example, Albie Morkel is South Africa's go-to man for power plays in ODI cricket. They take the power play when he is in and with a clear mandate to make the most of it. Here, he seems to be lost sharing it with Oram, Raina and Hayden. Often they end up batting together without knowing whose role is what. They also seem to have no role for Badrinath and Joginder Sharma. We saw better utilization of Badrinath in their last game against the Rajasthan Royals. Also, Dhoni slotted himself on either side of the big hitting Oram and Albie Morkel. It promises a good run for Chennai now. 

Delhi and Hyderabad intend to play their cards upfront with their batting, trying to make the best use of the field restrictions in the first 6 overs. Also, the more successful teams tend to go after the opposition in the first few overs in their bowling innings with some quick bowling—Mumbai with Malinga, Hyderabad with Edwards, Delhi with Nannes and Rajasthan with Kamran Khan. Teams with unequivocal strategies, and clear-cut, individually defined roles and fearless execution are emerging as the sides to beat in the competition. 

As the competition is closing in on the halfway mark, the bottom six teams are closely packed together, the top two slightly ahead but still within sight of the rest. In cycling, the cyclists try to stay in the pack till the last stages of the race. Rarely does somebody break away from the pack ahead of everybody else. It is important not to fall back as it is harder to make up the distance closer to the end of the league phase.

Teams like Bangalore and Kolkata will have to get back very quickly. Leaving the charge late might not be enough. As the Mumbai Indians found out last season, even six straight wins were not enough to take them into the semifinals. Kings XI Punjab were languishing at the bottom only last week, but with three straight wins they have managed to get back into the pack and are in contention now for the semifinal spot. Bangalore seems to have turned the corner with a win, albeit against the provisional wooden spoon holders KKR. With only three points separating the bottom six teams, all sides will believe they have a chance of finishing in the top four. 

If the charge is left too late, the bottom teams might end up staring at a complex quadratic equation that allows them the theoretical possibility of qualifying for the semi-finals based on which team loses to whom how many times, and suddenly the players' focus will be taken away from cover drives and dot balls to mathematical probabilities. 

When your fate hangs on algebraic equations, you know you are in trouble. And as every cricketer will tell you, solving mathematical equations doesn't win you matches on the cricket field.

As an aside, the ECB has announced their version of a domestic T20 tournament—the P20—that is expected to rival the IPL. There is a new American Premier league starting later this year, while South Africa, New Zealand and Australia are all conceiving their own variants of T20 leagues.

However, all these developments will leave the IPL unaffected. Its future doesn't depend on any mathematical equation—their balance sheets give them their answer, with an annual turnover of $2.4 billion last year. Moreover, Cricket South Africa, Cricket Australia and the ECB are joint partners in the BCCI's Champions League. For the moment, all the BCCI's competitors are its domestiques! 

I primarily blog here