Tuesday, June 6, 2023

In T20, speed thrills, and wins

How far can great strike rates take you in T20 cricket? Ask KL Rahul, Virat Kohli, Faf du Plessis or Shubman Gill and you may get the feeling it’s overrated, that it shouldn’t matter as long as the team wins.

But shift your focus to a different subset of players – Nicholas Pooran, Marcus Stoinis, Rinku Singh, Shardul Thakur-and you could be forced into a rethink.

The first set of players almost habitually exploit the luxury of time to pace their innings. Some go all the way and finish with a near 150 strike rate, like Shikhar Dhawan this season or Jos Buttler last year. Some provide rousing starts but fritter it away, like Kohli did in Monday’s last-ball thriller against Lucknow Super Giants, ending with a strike rate of 138 from 168 after the powerplay that included a phase where he took ten balls to go from 42 to 50. Then there are some, KL Rahul for example, who get out before even making up for a very slow start.

It’s difficult to maintain a high tempo throughout 20 overs. But it’s becoming evident that having more batters with high strike rates, irrespective of their scores, is enabling teams to reach more winning positions now. The last few days of IPL have witnessed some sensational come-from-behind assaults: Thakur’s 68 off 29, Ajinkya Rahane’s 61 off 27, Rinku’s 48 off 21, Stoinis hitting 65 off 30 before Pooran almost single-handedly winning LSG the thriller on Monday with a 19-ball 62. Each of these innings came in a winning cause after the top order had been knocked off, the recovery made possible only due to the outrageous strike rates.

Teams harp on adding batting depth to their eleven but only few have walked the talk so far. “If you look at the middle order, Nos 5, 6 and 7, they win you the crunch games,” Rahul said after Monday’s win. “The top order will get the bulk of runs but it’s those positions that matter and that’s why we invested in power, in Pooran, Stoinis and (Ayush) Badoni.”

Look no further than the IPL points table for corroboration. Each of the top four before Tuesday’s match – Lucknow Super Giants, Rajasthan Royals, Kolkata Knight Riders and Gujarat Titans – have scored over 180 at least twice, partly because of their lower-order might.

It’s not a template though. Kyle Mayers, Ruturaj Gaikwad, Yashasvi Jaiswal, Buttler, Bhanuka Rajapaksa, du Plessis and Kohli are all examples of openers/top-order bats who have returned great strike rates this IPL. But not every franchise has the depth to take matches to the wire. If teams are ranked purely by the number of batters who have strike rates of more than 140, the three worst performing franchises are Delhi Capitals (0), Sunrisers Hyderabad (0) and Mumbai Indians (1-Tilak Verma). And they are the bottom three in the points table.

Even among other teams, the thin difference in position stems from their approach to batting. Like how they play spin. On Monday for example, RCB scored 93 in the 10 overs of spin. In reply, LSG carted Karn Sharma and Shahbaz Ahmed for 65 runs in four overs. In hindsight, Kohli’s sudden lull and du Plessis’s slow start may have cost RCB a few more runs.

That tends to happen when you are setting targets. While chasing, there can’t be any confusion. LSG went with an “all or nothing approach” because they have the depth to chase big score. “When I came in we were 20 for 3 but I knew I had to attack,” said Stoinis. Pooran too followed his instincts. “Even when Badoni came, he played really well and we were scoring boundaries, scoring at 10 runs an over and in the blink of an eye, the game changes that fast. So, we were able to control the game for a couple of overs from there. We brought down the scoring (rate) from 14 to 10,” Pooran said.

KKR is another example of a team with multiple batters who can change the complexion of the game in a few deliveries. In the home win against RCB, Thakur was going hammer and tongs as Rinku Singh kept company. But on Sunday, Rinku hit those five sixes in a row (off the last five deliveries) against Gujarat Titans because no one else was left to do it.

“When the target is 200, you cannot have silent overs,” said Venkatesh Iyer, who, as KKR’s Impact Player, came at No 3 and scored a 40-ball 83. “Me and Nitish (Rana) had a nice partnership and that set the tone. We lost wickets then but thankfully Lord Rinku saved the day. This teaches us a lesson – we should not give up until the last ball.”

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