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One of the more curious relationships in modern, limited-overs cricket is the one which exists between most teams and “net run rate”. It is spoken about privately but rarely do players or coaches publicly acknowledge it as a factor in their plans.

The fear of arrogance and complacency, whether real or perceived, the centuries-old respect for “Mother Cricket” and a dose of old-fashioned superstition preclude any recognition of the importance of net run rate until the last possible moment. Or when it’s too late.

Nobody wants to talk about winning quickly, or easily, before a contest has started. It’s not just a bad look but tempting fate and running the risk of incurring the wrath of Mother Cricket persuades teams to focus on winning “and the rest will take care of itself”.

Using net run rate as a tiebreaker is more likely to produce a “fair” outcome over the course of a protracted tournament like the IPL, which finally finished its group matches at the weekend with no less than four teams tied for fourth place and the final spot in the play-off matches. Faf du Plessis and his Bangalore team won their final six matches comprehensively and just squeezed the others out.

It is far from foolproof, however, and when it is used to decide qualifiers over a much shorter spam of games, the result can be badly skewed by a single, outlying result. In a tournament like the T20 World Cup starting in 12 days, the “big” teams need to do all they can to beat the smaller teams convincingly in the five-team group stages to avoid “chasing” the run rate to qualify for the Super Eight stage. It happened in the 2021 T20 World Cup, lest you need reminding.

SA, England and Australia finished level with four wins from five matches but SA were eliminated. A huge victory in their penultimate match against Bangladesh could have changed that. They completed the first part of the job by dismissing the Banglas for a meagre 84 with Kagiso Rabada (3/20) and Anrich Nortjé (3/8) to the fore at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi.

They needed to score the runs in 10 overs to overtake Australia’s net run rate but, on a surprisingly spicy pitch, the Proteas stumbled to 33/3. What was required was a “no-fear” policy of attack but the fear of such an approach resulting in defeat persuaded Rassie van der Dussen that securing victory was more important than doing so in the required time frame.

Van der Dussen is a logical, pragmatic and sensible man. “What if we’re bowled out and don’t even win the game? What’s the point of run rate then? And who knows what will happen when Australia play the West Indies tomorrow? Australia might lose.” They were characteristically sensible thoughts. And also fatal.

Rassie was dismissed for 22 from 27 balls just five runs short of victory, pedestrian by any T20 standards. But he had secured victory in 13.4 overs. The next day an elderly West Indies team, already eliminated, treated their final game against Australia as a knockabout benefit match for Chris Gayle and Dwayne Bravo and lost, heavily, in a blaze of ignominy.

Though the Proteas thrashed England in their final match it wasn’t enough to edge out the Aussies who went on to win the tournament.

June’s tournament starts with four groups of five teams with the top two progressing to the Super Eight stage. It is no coincidence that England and Australia are grouped with three minnows (Namibia, Scotland and Oman), as are India and Pakistan (Ireland, Canada and the US). The ICC cannot afford an early exit for those four nations.

Hosts West Indies have a trickier group, which includes New Zealand and Afghanistan, as well as Papua New Guinea and Uganda, while SA face an equally slippery route with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh as well as their bogey team, the Netherlands. They surely won’t stumble against Nepal? It is entirely possible that each of the big three teams in the group will lose once to each other and win the other four matches, as happened three years ago.    

When the net run rate tiebreaker was first introduced it was seriously unpopular among players, mostly because they didn’t have a clue how it worked. And still don’t. In the 1979 Benson & Hedges Cup in England, Somerset were top of their group playing the final group match against Worcestershire. They could afford to lose, but with a heavy loss they would have been eliminated, on net rate.

Captain Brian Rose won the toss and chose to bat first. And declared at 2/0 after one over, effectively conceding the match but proceeding to the quarterfinals. “If they make stupid rules then they should expect people to take advantage of them,” Rose said.

Somerset were subsequently thrown out of the competition and the laws of the game were changed to ban declarations in professional limited-overs cricket.

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