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Moving Past the Tyranny of Spells

In a twenty-over game, just as batsmen don’t have the time to settle down, bowlers also have to be on the game from ball one. They don’t have the luxury to find their groove.

Amit Varma |May 11, 2019, 11:50 PM IST
Moving Past the Tyranny of Spells

One of the frustrating things about the IPL is how many teams and players still play T20 cricket with the grammar of ODI cricket. Many captains and coaches haven’t figured out that a T20 innings needs to be constructed differently from an ODI innings. The powerplay-consolidation-slog template is wrong; as I wrote in an earlier column, teams need to attack more. But the difference is not just in how they use their batting resources, but also their bowlers.

Mumbai Indians deserve to be in the final because, among other things, they have figured out how bowlers should be used in a T20 game. In the first qualifier of the IPL, they hammered CSK by 6 wickets with nine balls to spare, after restricting them to 131. That CSK lost only four wickets in their innings indicates that they didn’t attack enough, wasting the valuable batting resources that waited in the pavilion. It also indicates that MI got the bowling spot on.

Consider this: during the CSK innings, the MI bowlers bowled their 20 overs in 19 spells. There was only one spell of more than one over: Jasprit Bumrah bowling the 18th and 20th overs. Apart from that two-over spell, everyone bowled in one-over spells. Here’s how the overs proceeded: Malinga, Krunal, Chahar, Jayant, Bumrah, Krunal, Chahar, Hardik, Krunal, Jayant, Malinga, Bumrah, Chahar, Jayant, Hardik, Krunal, Chahar, Bumrah, Malinga, Bumrah.

Conventional wisdom says that bowlers need to bowl in spells. There are two obvious reasons for this. One, bowlers need time to find their rhythm. Two, bowlers need to set batsmen up to take their wickets. Neither of these reasons apply in T20 cricket.

In a twenty-over game, just as batsmen don’t have the time to settle down, bowlers also have to be on the game from ball one. They don’t have the luxury to find their groove. As for setting a batsman up, that is useful in a Test match where there is much more time and only 11 wickets. In a T20 game, though, time is far more valuable and wickets far less. It is more important to keep runs down than take wickets. (Yes, taking wickets is one way of keeping runs down, but you need to take them by choking up the runs, not by buying them with runs.)

The disadvantage of a spell is that a batsman gets the time to get used to a bowler. The more consecutive deliveries he faces from a bowler, the more likely he is to hit boundaries. I haven’t looked at the stats, but I think it likely that if you look at all two-over spells in the IPL, the second will be more expensive than the first. And in all three-over spells, the third will be the costliest. (The death overs can skew this, but the powerplay should balance it out.)

Ideally, teams should keep mixing it up, and not let batsmen settle. Also, rotating the bowlers like this makes it harder for the batting team to plan a slog. Sometimes the batsmen will target a weak fifth bowler for quick runs, but that planning is harder if everyone is bowling random one-over spells.

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There are valid counter-arguments. One is the principle that players (and teams) should focus on their strengths, not their weaknesses. That is why Bumrah bowled overs 18 and 20 in that CSK innings: he is the best death bowler in the world, and it would be silly to waste his overs elsewhere while giving those crucial death overs to a non-specialist. By the same logic, CSK like to give spells lasting three or four overs at the start of the innings to Deepak Chahar, who can be lethal upfront but is not so good at the death. There are bowlers for whom the opposite logic applies.

Also, sometimes a particular batsman may be troubled by a specific bowler, and it might make sense to keep him on. For example, if a leggie is troubling two right-handers, you might want to give him a spell as they get frustrated. Some batsmen have bowlers they struggle against, and tactics can then dictate successive overs for a bowler, while strategy may not.

I would argue that in general, the right strategy is to do what Rohit Sharma did in that first qualifier: if a bowler has a particular area of strength, use him there; otherwise mix it up. Make exceptions for tactical reasons. I leave it to some intrepid statistician to figure out the cost of bowling in spells, but I reckon this approach should save at least half a run per over – and that’s a decisive margin in T20 cricket.

(Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He has been a journalist for 15 years, some of it in cricket journalism as managing editor at Cricinfo. He has won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism twice.)

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