Before the 2016 IPL began, a friend called me up to take my advice. He was into betting on cricket, and wanted strategic wisdom.
“Give me some tips, Amit,” he implored, his voice cracking with the pain of years of losing money. “I want to win this year.”
I hadn’t studied the teams in much detail that season. So I said, “I have no nuanced wisdom to offer, my friend. But I will say one thing: you will make a profit if you bet on the side batting second in every single game.”
He snorted with disgust. “What about team composition? Past records? Pitch? Weather? Gut feel?”
“Ignore all that, bro,” I said. “Keep it simple. Bet on the side batting second.”
He ignored my advice. When I checked with him after 14 games, he had lost a fortune and gained five kilos. Also, the team batting second had won 13 of those 14 matches, in an average of 17.2 overs, with an average 6.6 wickets in hand. The trend was less lopsided in the rest of the IPL, but the team batting second won the majority of the games.
The side batting second does have an informational advantage – and I’ll elaborate on that later in this piece. But the reason for my confidence was different. Most of the teams, at that point, hadn’t adjusted adequately for the structure of Twenty20 cricket. They approached it with the mindset of one-day cricket – but it was a whole different sport.
Let me break that down for you. All human activity comes down to an interplay between resources and constraints. The resources that a side is allowed in an ODI and a T20 game are the same: 11 players. But the constraints are radically different: 50 overs and 20 overs respectively. In a T20 game, therefore, a wicket has less value and a delivery has more.
For example, the cost of a dot ball is higher in a T20 than an ODI because there are fewer balls being bowled. The cost is negligible in a Test match, in fact. But the value of a wicket is lower because you have to spread your resources out over only 20 overs, as opposed to 50 or even more in a Test match.
If a wicket is less valuable and runs and deliveries are more, that changes the value of aggression. You should be more willing to risk your wicket to lift the scoring rate. This is intuitively obvious – but most people still do not get to what degree this is true.
When ODI cricket began, teams approached it with the grammar of Test cricket: 200 was once a respectable score in a 50-over game. It took time to adjust. Similarly, too many teams approach T20 cricket with an ODI mindset. The grammar of an ODI innings used to be, build-build-smash. Then, with the likes of Mark Greatbatch in 1992 and the Jayasuriya-Kaluwatharana pair in the 1996 World Cup, it shifted to smash-build-smash. Teams brought this approach to T20s as well, aiming to smash in the first six overs when field restrictions apply, build the innings for a few overs, and then smash again at the end.Getty Images
But this is wrong, because those 11 players you have, of which at least seven can usually bat, have only 20 overs to negotiate, not 50. And so, to revive a term I used in this context, they should ‘frontload’. They should smash from ball one, and keep smashing till the end. In case they happen to lose quick wickets, drastically changing the resources-to-constraints equation, they can shift to building. But Plan A should be to smash all the way through.
Think of it this way: teams will often save the smashing for the last four overs. Sometimes it works, and they make 60 off those four overs. Sometimes it doesn’t, and they make, say, 30. Now, imagine if they did this at the start. When it works, they have the 60 off 4 and the innings continues with this great momentum. When it doesn’t, well, they can then rebuild and nothing is lost because they would have ended that way anyway. But it unsettles the bowling, and its utility is underestimated.
It took years, but many teams figured this out. West Indies won the 2016 World Cup frontloading, and you will see the successful IPL teams do this as well. The grammar is simple: smash from the start unless you lose wickets in a heap. If that happens, build for a while, then smash at the end. For this reason, in fact, players who are good at building but not smashing should come lower in the order. Your top five players should be good smashers, with the mandate to go out and hit. And if any team ends an innings losing only two or three wickets, their coach should give them a hollering regardless of their score, because they wasted resources, and were not optimally aggressive.
Most teams hadn’t understood this at the time of the 2016 IPL, which is why I was so confident that the teams batting second would do well. The teams batting first tended to underestimate the par score, and aim lower than they should. The teams batting second knew what they needed to get, and batted accordingly. In fact, Virat Kohli, being at the losing end after batting first on multiple occasions, said in the post-match interview each time that he was flummoxed, and he thought his team had gotten the par score. Well, no they hadn’t. He was underestimating the par score.Source: BCCI
Frontloading is not a mantra to be followed blindly. It depends on the quality of your resources as well. But what is important is that teams be aware of the changed dynamics of the game, and not play a T20 game like a one-day game, as some teams still do. Every event in a game – a wicket, a boundary, a dot ball – changes the relationship between resources and constraints, and alters the bounds of the possible. Teams need to quantify this, and adjust accordingly. And these adjustments have to become reflexive.
Some teams have wisened up with time – and some haven’t. That said, even if every team played optimally, the side batting second would still have an advantage. The team batting first does not know what they need to get, and can overreach and underperform. The side chasing can always pace their innings perfectly. This means that teams batting second will win more often – but the bookies account for this immediately after a toss, so there is no profit to be made here. The odds you get from bookies, in fact, often reveal deeper truths about the game than teams and fans take into account.
(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. He is currently editor of the online journal Pragati, and a columnist for the Times of India).