Pakistan’s remarkable victory in their do-or-die World Cup clash with New Zealand has ensured the tournament will have the grandstand group stage finish many thought unlikely.
With one game each left to play, Babar Azam’s men are only net run rate behind the Black Caps, courtesy of their Duckworth-Lewis-Stern system-assisted 21-run win chasing New Zealand’s monumental total of 401.
With their match, against an embattled England with nought but pride to play for, coming after Kane Williamson’s team face Sri Lanka mid-week, Pakistan – and the cricket world – will know exactly what they must do to reach the final four.
But while their win over New Zealand is unquestionably fantastic for the tournament and its stakeholders, as well as the millions of fans watching on from around the globe, the nature of the Black Caps’ defeat demands closer inspection – because as incredible as it would be to have Pakistan claw their way from nowhere into a semi-final berth, especially if they come up against bitter foes India, the match exposed a major problem with the DLS system.
Put simply, there is no possible way any cricket supporter could suggest Pakistan were in front in that match when rain arrived to call halt to proceedings – while their tally of 1/200 off 25.3 overs was a sensational batting performance, particularly from match-winning centurion Fakhar Zaman, they were still less than halfway to the Black Caps’ imposing target when the game was called off.
At best, the match was evenly poised – and I’d argue, with 201 runs still to make, New Zealand were still in the box seat, if sitting nervously.
For every successful chase like South Africa’s infamous hunt down of Australia’s 434 back in 2006, there are a dozen examples of teams falling short, as the Black Caps themselves did against the Aussies’ target of 400 just a week ago.
How many times in gargantuan ODI chases have we seen teams make brisk starts, only to eventually see inevitable wickets fall to the need to keep accelerating that either slow things down or collapse the innings entirely?
Knowing rain was around in Bengaluru, Pakistan could set their focus on staying ahead of the DLS ‘par’ score, which was always going to be far less daunting than the 401 staring at them on the scoreboard. That was a huge advantage which in no doubt allowed Zaman and Babar Azam to spy a way to pinch a victory with a little luck from the weather gods, and surely freed them psychologically enough to bat as magnificently as they did.
Even the originally revised DLS target following the first bout of rain, which amounted to Pakistan needing 182 runs off 117 balls in what had effectively become a T20 match, had New Zealand in the box seat, if in no way assured of victory.
For New Zealand to lose a match in which they not only posted a 400-plus total, but also finished with a superior run rate in their innings to Pakistan’s when the match was called off (8.02 to 7.84), is the latest example of cricket’s unluckiest team falling victim to bureaucracy at a major tournament rather than being outplayed – the infamous ‘boundary countback’ to decide the 2019 World Cup final, of course, the other major example of this.
The intent of the Duckworth-Lewis-Stern system is to give rain-affected ODI and T20I matches the best chance possible at a result, which is a noble and essential pursuit. The problem is that the system, by its nature, can also manufacture results in scenarios such as what faced New Zealand and Pakistan on Saturday.
The solution is simple: the system can and should always be allowed to revise a target, and the process by which it does this (one I and surely most cricket fans just take for granted rather than trying to decipher its web of complexity) is probably the best one we can possibly come up with.
But the issue that should be rectified is the ‘par score’ component that allows a result to be obtained in situations like on Saturday where the revised number of overs can’t be completed: under the current system, once the second innings is 20 overs old, the match is deemed worthy of awarding a winner and a loser.
In cases like New Zealand and Pakistan’s, that is manifestly unfair: neither Pakistan nor New Zealand deserved to lose that game, so intriguingly was it poised when rain intervened. And I’d feel the same way had Pakistan been a handful of runs behind the target instead of 21 runs ahead of it.
(Which raises another issue with the DLS: Pakistan could theoretically have been on 180 runs, and batting a full run per over slower than in New Zealand’s innings, and still been one run ahead of the par score, which is just silly.)
The solution is simple – forget the 20-over minimum, and make it so a match is only complete if the DLS revised overs number for the second innings, no matter how many times it needs to be altered, is met.
If that meant Pakistan’s target was whittled down slowly across the evening from 180 off 20 overs, to 100 off 10, to 60 off 5, or even to 20 off one over, then so be it: that would at least allow both teams the chance to earn a victory in the traditional way of cricket – by either hitting the winning runs or denying the opposition the same.
Yes, this change will mean more ‘no result’ matches than there are currently, but I’d argue for us cricket fans, whether we’re watching at home or in the stands, it makes no difference whether a game rained out midway through it has a winner awarded in the dry dressing room, or is deemed a draw.
Either way, the match can’t really be said to have finished, rather just having petered out – and surely even celebrating Pakistan fans would feel even one per cent sheepish about the way their ‘win’ panned out.
(On second thoughts, no they wouldn’t: and why would they?)
I know I was disappointed that rain intervened on Saturday, because the match looked set to be a classic encounter – and it made zero difference to my enjoyment of what proceeded it, or my sadness that we couldn’t get a full 100 overs of it, for Pakistan to be awarded victors based on a wildly complicated system I don’t fully understand.
Sure, there will be times where a clear winner is denied a deserved victory, while well ahead of the DLS ‘par score’, due to rain intervening: but those exist now, too.
At last year’s T20 World Cup, South Africa were 0/51 after three overs in a rain-affected run chase against Zimbabwe, needing just 13 more runs in four overs for victory.
But because the innings hadn’t reached the threshold to award a result, the match was declared null and void – and a few weeks later, it would cost the Proteas a semi-final berth.
Neither Pakistan or New Zealand deserved to lose the most important match of the World Cup yet – and by the same token, neither deserved to win it.
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But the fact the laws of the game are such as to declare a result anyway looks set to shape the most prestigious tournament of all – and it wouldn’t be fair to the Black Caps, once again copping the rough end of the stick, to allow the system that enabled such an unfair result to remain unchanged.