Positive move as it is, batting first leads to some tricky problems for batsmen and captains alike.
Whether you play declaration cricket or limited overs (or even a hybrid of the two like the league I play in) there are two main problems:
- What is a good target to set?
- How are you going to go about setting that target?
The key to both those questions is that everyone shares the same strategy and you work together as a batting team to get there.
Deciding the target
The first step is to decide what strategy to employ. Unlike your opposition you will not have the benefit of a fixed target. You also know less about how conditions will play. Fortunately cricket is a long game and even if you have a 20 over match you still have time to assess.
The captain is best placed to decide the target but there is no need to rush in. I find that you can be a lot more accurate if you take your time. This is broken into stages:
- Initial guess. Before play starts you can look at your batting line up and, if you know it, their bowling attack. Add in the state of the pitch and the weather conditions and come up with a rough number. This may be as simple as setting a target for the openers in the first few overs if you are unsure.
- First few overs. In the first few overs you are watching the game for clues. How good are the opening bowlers? How is the pitch playing? How is the opposition captain setting his field? Do your opponents look like cricketers or last minute fill-ins? This will influence not only the score you think your team can get, but also your guess as to what the opposition can make.
- Second string bowling. As the game progresses keep watching. The bowling will be changed and you can see more clearly how good their attack is. You may be losing wickets or keeping them in hand which also makes a difference.
All the way through this process you are formulating your plan: How are you going to get to the target in your head?
Before we examine the 'how' of setting a target, I want to mention declarations.
If you are playing a declaration game beware of over estimating your target. If you set something unrealistic the opposition will shut up shop and you get a boring draw on your hands. In my view it's far better to set a slightly low target and give the opposition hope. This means they will play their shots and be more likely to get out.
Consider this as example: In my league we play declaration cricket, one innings each. Each innings has a maximum of 50 overs but you can declare before that giving the opposition the remaining overs. In order to win batting first you must bowl the opposition out so the draw is possible.
This means the art of batting first is setting a target that the opposition think they can get, but you know will be close. If we bat first and score 250 in 50 overs the natural inclination of the team batting second is to have a go but if early wickets are lost, to close out the game. Our bowling attack would have to be far superior on a wicket that provides enough help to have a chance. Possible but unlikely on the slow, low club pitches we play on.
On the other hand, if we declared on 200 after 45 overs we give them 55 overs to score the runs. Now the psychology has shifted. Your bowlers think you are crazy and will steel themselves to bowl brilliantly. The opposition will also think you have lost it. With plenty of time to score the runs they set off much more slowly.
After 20 overs they are on, say, 58-2. Early wickets have still been lost, but the batting team still feel they are comfortably in it. They only need 143 in 35 overs. Easy. They up the pace to stay in the race and lose some middle over wickets. After 35 overs the score is 121-6.
So they now need 80 runs off 20 overs with 4 wickets in hand. They have been scoring at the right rate so are still not considering the draw. However, the tail is either in or close to being in. Most club numbers 9-11 are unlikely to be able to score at 4 an over for any period of time. What they are likely to do is try the long handle against spin. You have a couple of tempting spinners on. The game is won easily.
Admittedly, you need to have good bowling (but not as good as you would need to break through a team set on the draw), excellent fielding and precision field settings so you can manipulate the game. However as a captain I would prefer that mental challenge to the dull job of prising out defensive batters.
Setting the target
Once you have a target in mind, there are some common elements to how a target is set whether it is in the declaration or limited over format.
- Agree the goal. Make sure everyone in the team is aware of your target, if the target changes because you are scoring faster or slower than expected, keep all the players up to date.
- Bat with urgency. All batters from openers to number 11 should strive to get on top of the bowling as quickly as possible. Run every single looking for two and hit the bad balls to the boundary.
- Bat with care. The last 4 batters will always struggle to score at more than 4 an over. Keep wickets in hand for the last push without getting bogged down.
- Set small targets. Tell your openers to set their own targets for the first few overs depending on how it plays, but make sure they know your ultimate aim too. If you are playing a 50 over format, aim to be halfway to your target after 30 overs. If you are falling behind the pace look at one big over to get you back on track.
- Everyone is a finisher.All batsmen should be prepared to bat through to the end of the innings. This is an important mindset that is different from going out to 'have a hit'. All batters should look to score as quickly as is required with the minimum risk.
Setting a target when batting first is a team effort. Conducted by a strong captain you can get very good at knowing what you need and systematically getting there.
What are your experiences with setting a target?
Image credit: pj_in_oz
Want to be a better captain? Learn from the best with the interactive online course Cricket Captaincy by Mike Brearley.