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IPL 2024: How impact subs are changing batting

Impact subs and power hitting are making the IPL more risk-taking. We analyse why strike rates are now more important than centuries

Batsmen like Heinrich Klaasen of Sunrisers Hyderabad are thriving.
Batsmen like Heinrich Klaasen of Sunrisers Hyderabad are thriving. (AFP)

Virat Kohli has the orange cap for being the top run-scorer in IPL 2024 so far. But the metric that matters much more for team results is the strike rate. And Kohli does not figure in the top 15 of that list, even if you limit it to those who have scored 100 runs or more.

His strike rate is below 150, which translates to less than 9 runs an over. If you extrapolate that to the team score, it works out to a total below 180, which is likely to fall short on most T20 batting surfaces today. 

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And that’s exactly what Royal Challengers Bengaluru (RCB) have been experiencing. Two scores of 182 and 183, in which Kohli made 83 not out and 113 not out, were easily chased down by opponents. RCB have only one win from five matches. So, while Kohli tops the list of run-scorers, his team languishes near the bottom of the table, above only Delhi Capitals (DC).

Kohli is not the only one having to come to terms with sky-rocketing strike rates leaving them behind. His batting partner for 18 soporific overs in India’s 2023 World Cup final defeat, K.L. Rahul, is getting trolled for his strike rate of 129 (less than 8 an over) in IPL 2024. But he’s not alone: DC opener David Warner, a pedigreed IPL batsman, is struggling to keep up; and Gujarat Titans (GT) skipper Shubman Gill saw his 89 not out in a total of 199 prove insufficient against Punjab Kings (PBKS), even though he scored at a brisk strike rate of 185.

Strike rates have been shooting up in all formats of the game as coaches and captains are reaping the fruits of backing their batsmen to take more risks. It’s obviously more pronounced in the shortest T20 format, but the IPL has taken it sky high with its impact sub booster rocket.

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Introduced last year, the impact sub essentially gives teams an extra batsman, who can be a specialist or a hitter. Coaches no longer have to rely on mediocre all-rounders for batting depth. And they’re learning to make the most of it. So far, IPL 2024 has already notched up three scores of 240+ (over 12 runs an over). The entire 2023 season had one such mega score and there were none in 2022.  

The classic white ball template of top order batsmen to accumulate runs in ones and twos after the powerplay, waiting for the right ball to hit for a four or six, is outmoded in this scenario. Batsmen are encouraged to take down a bowler for 20+ runs in an over, instead of the safer old way of taking a single after a big hit at the start. They also keep going hard regardless of the fall of wickets at the other end, because to do any less would almost guarantee a loss for the team.

Risk-taking is the name of the game. This requires stepping out to spinners to smash them—thus disrupting their length—instead of playing from the crease. It involves reverse scoops and clearing the front leg to aim for the cow corner. Batsmen anticipate a wide ball either by shifting their position laterally or holding back their stroke to give the slower ball a whack out of the park.

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As a result of these changes, how much a batsman scores is of less consequence than how fast he scores it. This is not to say there’s only one way to bat, because success also comes from playing according to conditions and situations. But the core principle is to maximise the batting resources instead of having any regrets about how much more could have been achieved.

Take, for example, Kohli’s unbeaten 113 in Jaipur on Saturday. His strike rate was 157, well above his season average. But his top order counterparts in Rajasthan Royals (RR), Jos Buttler and Sanju Samson, had strike rates of 172 and 164. RR easily won. 

Admittedly, batting conditions eased with a smattering of dew for the chasing team. But wasn’t that to be expected? RR skipper Samson even mentioned dew as the reason for opting to chase. And yet, in an interview between the two innings, Kohli said he had used his maturity and experience to assess the pitch, and decided a target of 180-185 would be good.

Skipper Faf du Plessis’ slow 44 in 33 balls contributed to the defeat, as did the failures of RCB’s other two overseas batsmen, Glenn Maxwell and Cameron Green. But du Plessis didn’t bat all 20 overs, and Maxwell and Green had to hit out from the word go after a 126-run opening partnership in 14 overs. 

So the real question is whether the well-set Kohli could have raised his risk-taking level to push RCB past 200. That RCB lost only three wickets in scoring 183 suggests that Kohli put too high a price tag on his own wicket. He could have let himself go all out, knowing there were enough batsmen to follow. A designated finisher like Dinesh Karthik did not get a chance at all to use his innovative death overs hitting. This was a case of not maximising batting resources to aim for 200.

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It must be said though that Kohli has made a conscious attempt to take more risks. His wristy six over cow corner elicited a smile from RR leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal. His strike rate has nudged up to 146 this season from 140 last year. A batsman moulded on classic strokeplay cannot change his spots overnight, but Kohli fans will be hoping he can catch up with the strike rate front-runners.

It’s not just the muscular power-hitting of Andre Russell and Heinrich Klaasen that has taken IPL 2024 by storm with their 200+ strike rates. The slender-built Abhishek Sharma of Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) and pinch-hitter Sunil Narine of KKR also have 200+ strike rates at more-than-acceptable averages of 40+. They just put a lower price on their wickets with their risk-taking.

Then there are the likes of Shivam Dube and Tristan Stubbs in the middle order who have maintained a good average along with strike rates between 160 and 200. On batting-friendly pitches, a strike rate of 166 (10 runs per over) gets a team to 200, and that should be the expectation going forward in the IPL. 

Targets would, of course, have to be calibrated for venues like Lucknow and Chennai where tackier pitches have produced lower scores. And it can be challenging for the team batting first to assess what’s a good score on that wicket. But, whatever the conditions, most coaches today would rather have their batsmen trying for a score above par and failing, than to remain not out with a below par score. Whether the likes of Kohli and Rahul will step up to that requirement remains to be seen.

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Rahul has been more fortunate than Kohli because his team-mates at Lucknow Super Giants (LSG) have been pulling off victories, unlike RCB. But that hasn’t stopped a growing chorus of commentators and fans questioning his self-preservative approach.

Kohli’s only match-winning knock came while chasing a target of 177 against Punjab Kings (PBKS). He remains the master-chaser, especially when the target is moderate. It’s in setting a target that his classic template falls short.

Perhaps the IPL should retire the orange cap for most runs and bring out a fiery red cap to recognize the top strikers who are making a bigger impact on team results. After all, that was the point of introducing the impact sub: more fours and sixes.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.

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