The Indian Premier League (IPL) 2023 has given a twist to the T20 game with the introduction of an impact player. Debates on its pros and cons began long before the tournament. But now that the cricket has begun, focus shifts to how best to use this new element.
All 10 teams in the league had an outing over the weekend and Friday’s opener. One thing became immediately clear: it’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all strategy. It will depend a lot on squad composition and ground conditions.
How the coaches and captains leverage the 12th player will evolve through the tournament. But in the first round of matches, we got a glimpse of the initial gameplan in each camp.
Before we go into that, here’s a quick encapsulation of the impact player situation. A captain goes to the toss with two lists of playing 11s, one for batting first and the other one for bowling first. When you bat first, you load up on batsmen, with the option of substituting one of them with a bowler as the impact player in the second half – and vice versa when you bowl first.
But that’s just for starters. An impact player can replace anybody from the playing 11 at any time, which means other more interesting options may arise. For example, a death overs specialist bowler could replace a new ball exponent, or an extra batsman could come in to halt a batting collapse. So it need not always be a bowler replacing a batsman and vice versa, and coaches will have to be on their toes to see all the possibilities.
How CSK missed a trick
Perhaps the trickiest aspect of the new rule is how to use an overseas impact player smartly. The rule maintains a cap of four overseas players in the playing 11. Logically, it would seem that if one overseas player replaces another, the total in the playing 11 remains four and meets the requirement. But, in effect, it would mean five overseas players getting to play in the game, even if all five are not in the 11 at the same time. And the IPL has disallowed that, presumably to create more chances for Indian players to come into the game and showcase their talent.
Be that as it may, in terms of reasoning, the twist in the rule means that a team can have only three overseas players in the starting 11 to be able to bring in an overseas impact player at a later stage. For example, Mumbai Indians (MI) left out overseas pace bowler Jason Behrendorff to accommodate an extra batsman, when they batted first in their opener against Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB). The extra batsman gave MI a lifeline at 48/4, and Behrendorff replaced a batsman in the second half.
That’s a pretty straightforward way of using an overseas player in that role. A slightly more complicated use case went abegging in the very first game of this IPL season between title-holders Gujarat Titans (GT) and Chennai Super Kings (CSK).
CSK batted first with all four of their overseas players. They replaced a batsman, Ambati Rayudu, with a pace bowler, Tushar Deshpande, in the second half, which was elementary.
But what if Deshpande had been included in the starting 11 itself in place of overseas bowler Mitchell Santner? That would have kept the option open of fielding South African speedster Sisanda Magala instead of the left-arm spinner Santner.
Normally, Santner would make the cut for the playing 11 because of his experience in Indian conditions. But as it turned out on a fresh Ahmedabad track, where pace bowlers accounted for 9 of the 12 wickets that fell, Magala may have been the bowler better suited to the conditions. And although Santner is handy with the bat, Magala can tonk the ball too.
Santner was wicketless in the match which went down to the wire. When GT were five down for 156, with Rahul Tewatia and Rashid Khan at the crease and 23 to get in the last two overs, it was anybody’s game. Another wicket there might have tipped the scales in favour of CSK. Magala might well have turned out to be the impact player of the tournament so far, if CSK had thought out of the box to play him instead of Santner, after seeing how the pitch behaved when they batted first.
Think out of the box
In fact, the only team to have started with three overseas players in the starting 11 to keep options open in using an overseas impact player is Mumbai Indians. Their modus operandi is simple - Behrendorff sits out if they bat first. It remains to be seen if an overseas batsman will similarly sit out when they bowl first.
Mumbai Indians’ injury woes mean they don’t have great bench strength to exploit the impact player role fully. But they have kept open the option of fielding an extra spinner, like Kumar Kartikeya, instead of Behrendorff on grounds like the Chepauk in Chennai.
It’s surprising that no other team has given itself the overseas impact player option. All nine of the other teams have started with four overseas players, which means the impact player can only be an Indian. Delhi Capitals (DC), for example, had four overseas batsmen in their starting 11 when they bowled first against the Lucknow Super Giants (LSG). With Mitchell Marsh playing as a specialist batsman, because of injury worries, it meant they had to rely on five bowlers to complete their full quota. Could a sixth bowling option, like leg-spinner Pravin Dubey in place of one of the four overseas batsmen, have made a difference?
LSG’s tall score of 193 came from the exploits of two left-handed batsmen from the West Indies who are not known for their prowess against spin – Kyle Mayers and Nicholas Pooran. Mayers might not have found a leg-spinner as easy to tonk as left-arm spinner Axar Patel. And the DC overseas batsman left out at the start could have replaced leg-spinner Dubey in the second half. Instead, DC chose a straight swap between bowler Khaleel Ahmed with batsman Aman Khan. That did give them an extra batting option, but perhaps the extra bowling option could have made a bigger impact.
There are still a lot of ifs and buts on the most novel ways of using the impact player, and coaches have to be on their toes to be alert to the possibilities. So far the coaches have been too conservative in using the overseas option.
The only time an impact player has caught the eye in the first stage of the tournament is bowling all-rounder Krishnappa Gowtham who came out to face the last ball of the LSG innings against DC and hit it out of the park for a six. Instead of replacing batsman Ayush Badoni in the second half, he came out immediately at the fall of Badoni’s wicket even though only one ball was left in the innings. In the end, DC’s batting collapse meant Gowtham’s last ball six was inconsequential, but it could have been the difference between a win and a loss in a close contest.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also read: Why the IPL does not need a ‘supersub’