April 28, 2005

Kaif stands tall in ODI history among No 7 batters

By H Natarajan

A passionate non-resident Indian cricket fan, a friend of mine, is of the unflinching belief that Mohammad Kaif is a passenger and a complete waste in the Indian one-day team. Of course, he is not alone in his belief. And that’s what made me dig deep to argue how flawed such thinking is.

Let’s discuss fleetingly Kaif’s worth as a fielder before venturing to place his batting merits under the microscope. In my reckoning he is almost in the Jonty Rhodes class as a fielder, a good 25 or 30+ entering the field. One can count the number of runs he saves by the stops he effects, but his actual worth is much more if a realistic view is taken of the runs he saves by his sheer intimidating presence. Often batsmen are unsure if a close run is worth risking when played in the wide fielding range of Kaif, and that split-second indecisiveness ends in aborting the idea of a run. Those are runs saved, too. Some of the catches he took in the NatWest series in England and the one he pouched in the outfield tumbling over a colleague in Pakistan were catches that were as magical as any seen in the game’s history. Because he is blessed with such tremendous foot speed and the skill and will to skate a long way on his body, his coverage area is very, very vast. And it’s because of these abilities that he invariably gets both hands to the ball. That he conjures up those catches beyond the realms of ordinary mortals also proves that he thinks on his feet.

One can do a thesis on Kaif’s fielding, but the crux of the column is Kaif’s role as a No 7 batter and how he compares in that slot to the best in the history of the ODI game.

Batting at No 7 in one-dayers is a thankless and an unenviable job. Unlike those batting higher up in the order who have both the time and the overs to assess the wicket, gauge the bowling and build their innings without indulging in risks, No 7 batters invariably come in to bat in the slog phase and have to throw their bat around. Which is why conventional stats fail to do justice, especially while making comparative studies with those batting higher up.

I once asked Steve Waugh how he had just one century to his credit after played so many matches. “You must remember how low I had batted in these matches,” was his reply. Waugh scored his first ODI hundred in his 187th outing and though he played in 288 ODIs – he scored just three hundreds, all of which came batting at No 4 and 5. In the 86 innings he batted at No 6 and 7, Waugh averaged just over 28.

If one were to take 20 innings as the minimum cut-off point to assess No 7 batters, Kaif’s batting average of 33.11 is the highest in ODI history. If one were to lower the minimum qualification, then Michael Bevan tops with an average of 48.43 from 18 innings. Many connoisseurs would like to believe that Bevan is the best one-day player ever. But it’s significant that he could not once get to the half-century mark in that position. In comparison, Kaif has got two fifties and a hundred batting at No 7. If India realises the long-term value of Kaif and give him the necessary importance, he could be a great, long-term asset. So far he has had just 13 opportunities of batting at No 5, where he has averaged close to 48.

The Doubting Thomases would probably call for strike rate numbers. Well, the bludgeoner Fred Flintoff has a strike-rate of 74.33 from 10 innings at No 7 while Bevan has figures of 83.70. Kaif’s stands way ahead of the two at 90.30. Again, if one were to use 20 innings as the base for judging top strike rates in ODIs, only Chris Cairns (96.96), Abdul Razzaq (95.18) and Andrew Symonds (91.01) have higher strike-rates than Kaif in the No 7 slot.

One has heard people signing paeans of Robin Singh. But his average at No 7 is just 71.09. None of the big-hitting Indians come anywhere close to. Even acknowledged big-hitting Indians like Kapil Dev (86.60) and Ravi Shastri (80.41) fall well short of Kaif’s mark.

Kaif has made a mark not only as an undisputed team man and pro but also as a batsman who can be relied upon in crisis situations. That NatWest clash against England in the final at Lord’s could best be described as “Escape to victory.” When Kaif walked out to join Yuvraj Singh in the middle, India were 146 for 5 with another slide and defeat looking a distinct possibility. The English target of 226 looked far too much in the distance. India needed a scoring rate of almost seven-and-half an over in excess of 26 overs with only the tailend batters in the pavilion. Even after the Yuvraj-Kaif fightback ended, victory still looked difficult, as 59 were needed in 50 balls. It was important that Kaif stayed till the end if a Houdini-like miracle had to happen. Kaif ensured that. India won with three balls to spare, as Kaif remained unbeaten with 87 off 75 balls.

Kaif’s hundred at No 7 is only the second such occurrence in ODI history - Hashan Tillekeratne was the first - and the only batsman whose effort went on to win the game for his side. This innings, too, came when India needed most as he came in to bat with the score 87 for five and only the bowlers remaining in the hut. Like at Lord’s, this too was big stage – the ICC Champions Trophy at Colombo – and like in that game, this too won him the Man of the match award.

When you consider that till date 2240 have been played over 34 years, the magnitude of Kaif’s effort stands in proper perspective.