Switch hits and ramp shots, knuckle balls and mystery spin, odd field positions and deft-footed boundary line catches, the T20 format has brought batting, bowling, and fielding innovations galore to cricket. Now what we’re seeing in the current IPL season is a step-up in new tactics.
During the game between Rajasthan Royals (RR) and Lucknow Super Giants (LSG) on 10 April, Ravichandran Ashwin became the first IPL batsman to be “retired out”. The bowling all-rounder came out to bat ahead of the designated No.6, Riyan Parag, when RR were reeling at 67/4 in the 10th over. The idea was that Ashwin would be adept at handling the spinners and giving the strike to Shimron Hetmyer who was going great guns at the other end, whereas Parag’s role is that of a high-risk death overs hitter.
This worked well for RR as the Ashwin-Hetmyer 68-run partnership rebuilt the innings, until it was time to go for big hits from both ends. When Ashwin saw he wasn’t clearing the boundary, he returned to the pavilion without waiting for a bowler to get him out, thus being retired out in the 19th over. There were only 10 balls left at that stage, but Parag did hit a six in the final over, which might have ultimately won RR the game, seeing that the victory margin was just 3 runs.
While RR’s innovation paid off, LSG tried an old trick that backfired. After skipper KL Rahul fell for a first ball duck to a brilliant in-swinger from Trent Boult bowling round the wicket, all-rounders Krishnappa Gowtham and Jason Holder were sent out to take risks and hit boundaries in the powerplay; LSG didn’t want to risk another specialist batsman. The idea of using pinch-hitters at the top is nothing new, but it has fallen out of favour because their success rate is low against the new ball. Even a canny one like Sunil Narine, who tasted early success in that role for Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), went back down the order after fast bowlers started targeting his body with bouncers that he did not have the skill to handle.
LSG’s pinch-hitters fared no better. Gowtham and Holder got 8 runs for 15 balls in the powerplay— a poor return. That’s the problem with pinch-hitters—they do get a few boundaries with risky shots, but they also miss a lot of deliveries simply because their batting skills are limited. As a result, most coaches and captains have gone back to using attacking specialist batsmen at the top of the order. Marcus Stoinis almost won the game for LSG by cracking 38 runs in 17 balls in the death overs, but he got too little time in the middle, coming out to bat with just four overs left in the game. It will be interesting to see if LSG captain Rahul continues with the tactic of using a pinch-hitter in the powerplay when an early wicket falls.
For the bowling side, the converse to pinch-hitting is to keep attacking with specialist bowlers, giving them extended spells and even finishing off their quota before the final overs, all in the quest for wickets. Time was when a few overs from the senior bowlers would always be kept in reserve for the death. However, team captains are no longer fixated on this as they attach more value to maintaining pressure and removing dangerous hitters before they get set.
KKR’s new skipper Shreyas Iyer set the trend early in the season by choosing to bowl out his main bowlers before the end. Extended spells with the new ball for Umesh Yadav have put him among the top three wicket-takers this season. Other captains too haven’t hesitated to finish their main strike bowler’s quota to avoid releasing pressure on the batting side.
The best example of this was again in the close RR-LSG game. RR’s Kiwi ace Boult was done by the 17th over, leaving the relatively inexperienced Prasidh Krishna and rookie Kuldeep Sen to bowl the last two overs. This plan nearly came unstuck as Krishna gave away 19 runs in the penultimate over with Stoinis on the rampage. But Sen held his nerve to defend 14 in the final over. The fact that LSG had lost eight wickets by then, leaving Stoinis to do all the hitting, without being able to rotate the strike with another accomplished batsman at the other end, contributed to LSG falling three short of a modest target of 166.
Akash Deep of Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) and Darshan Nalkande of Gujarat Titans (GT) are a couple of other newbie pace bowlers thrust into the tough job of bowling in the last two overs to close out a game. It may not always work, but it’s good to see skippers thinking on their feet and applying relentless wicket-taking pressure, instead of letting games drift in the middle overs after taking early wickets. That curators have left a liberal covering of grass on the pitches to ensure they last through a long, hot season has also given a nudge to these tactics, because it has made the new ball more penetrative than usual.
For the batting side, the strategy of maintaining an all-out attack mode, disregarding the fall of wickets, is due for a rethink in these conditions. The Eoin Morgan-led England adopted this approach after an early exit from the 2015 ODI World Cup. Most pitches for limited overs cricket are skewed in favour of batsmen; so a team that maximises boundary-hitting gains an advantage, at least in theory. But it can turn into a disadvantage when conditions offer a better balance between bat and ball, as in this year’s IPL.
The game between Punjab Kings (PBKS) and Gujarat Titans (GT) had a thrilling finish when GT’s Rahul Tewatia hit the last two balls for sixes to win the game by a whisker. What was interesting from a tactical standpoint was the PBKS approach, which appears to be in the Morgan mould this year. This comes after a more conservative way of batting under former skipper KL Rahul failed in the last two seasons. The change in approach was evident at the auction itself, as PBKS packed the side with hard-hitters. So far the results have been mixed.
It helped PBKS chase a daunting target of 206 against RCB with an over to spare, and post a match-winning total of 180 against CSK by continuing to attack after losing two wickets in the first two overs. But PBKS also collapsed for 137 against KKR, and even though they ultimately scored 189 against GT, it was only after an unlikely last wicket stand of 27 runs in 13 balls between tailenders Rahul Chahar and Arshdeep Singh.
Most tellingly, the new PBKS skipper, Mayank Agarwal, has scored only 42 runs in four games—a far cry from his average of 40 at an above-par strike rate of 140 in the last season. Going too early for shots has contributed to his failure so far this season. The beauty of cricket is that no tactic can be written in stone or followed blindly because of the multitude of factors that come into play. Coaches and skippers who can think on their feet, to come up with the best tactics on any given day, will succeed more than others.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.