Midway through this IPL season, Delhi Capitals (DC) came close to reaching a mammoth target of 223 set by Rajasthan Royals (RR). The match got marred by an adamant umpire, Nitin Menon, refusing to refer a high full toss in the last over to the third umpire to check for a no ball. Replays showed the ball might have been above the waist, triggering furious arguments. What it also did was disrupt the rhythm of DC's new West Indies sensation, Rovman Powell, who had hit the first three balls of that over for sixes. He miscued the remaining three balls when the game resumed after the fracas.
The post-match discussion was all about the umpiring, but what got lost in the brouhaha is the DC decision to send Powell out to bat at No.8, while bowling all-rounders Axar Patel and Shardul Thakur went in to bat ahead of him. It meant the Caribbean batsman, known for his six-hitting prowess, got just 15 balls to play, scoring 36. We’ll never know if he could have won that game for DC if he had batted at No.5 instead of Lalit Yadav who consumed 24 balls in scoring 37, which wasn’t good enough at the asking rate of 12 an over.
Subsequently, Powell did get promoted to No.5. He went out to bat after the fall of captain Rishabh Pant’s wicket against Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) and smashed a match-winning 67 in 35 balls, a rate of nearly 12 an over. Powell revealed in a post-match interview that he had told Pant he wanted to bat higher up in the order, expressing confidence in his ability to handle the spinners who usually operate in the middle overs.
What this illustrates is the problem of tagging a batsman as a ‘finisher’, who gets to bat only in the final flourish, just because he has the ability to hit fours and sixes from the get-go. In the DC instance, there was no logic in letting Yadav, Thakur, and Patel have their stints before unleashing the power of Powell. Just because a batsman has the muscle to finish an innings on a high doesn’t mean he can’t be even more successful if he gets a chance to get set, assess the conditions, and then have a go.
Captains are now recognizing the merit in sending their hard-hitters in the middle overs instead of at the death, and giving them the same consideration as a regular batsman. This has made a huge difference to the performance of David Miller of South Africa, who is averaging over 60 with a strike rate of 145 for Gujarat Titans (GT) this season. It comes after several seasons of performances way below par as he got shunted up and down the order and in and out of the playing eleven at Kings XI Punjab and RR. We’re now seeing the true value of “Miller time” when he gets going at his steady slot of No.5 for GT.
It’s a moot point if Mumbai Indians (MI) got the best out of one of the biggest hitters from the Caribbean, Kieron Pollard, over the years by tagging him as a finisher. His best IPL knock came in 2019 when he was a stand-in skipper for Rohit Sharma and decided to bat at No.4 ahead of Ishan Kishan and Hardik Pandya. He started in measured fashion before smashing 83 in 31 balls to help MI reach a daunting target of 198. The next highest score in the MI batting card was 24 by opener Quinton de Kock.
Opportunities to build a match-winning innings like this have been too few for Pollard, who continued to be boxed as a ‘finisher’ after that eye-opening knock. Admittedly he has looked vulnerable against tricky leg-spinners, but so have many top order batsmen, including Rohit Sharma. A batsman of Pollard’s class should be given the chance to overcome his Achilles’ heel.
His compatriot Andre Russell at Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) too has often seen batsmen of mediocre ability go ahead of him, for the same reasons as Powell. Some of Russel’s best scores in the IPL came when he had more time in the middle, thanks to batting failures in the top and middle orders. If he appears one-dimensional in his hitting stance, it’s because his role has been stereotyped. Dre Russ looks the most dangerous, in fact, when he has a quiet start to his innings, meaning that he can bide his time before aiming for the skies.
There are hard-hitters at the top of the order as well, to take advantage of field restrictions in the powerplay, like Jos Buttler of RR. But they’re a different breed, with experience in handling the new ball. The likes of Buttler have the luxury of taking two or three overs to get set before accelerating. The problem for late order finishers like Pollard and Russell is that they usually have to hit out from ball one. They would be better off if they could also have a couple of overs to get set by batting in the middle order. Their teams would then derive the maximum benefit from such power-hitters.
The only issue arises when a hard-hitter lacks adaptability, especially to spin. We’re seeing that with Tim David of MI this season. He smashed 44 in 21 balls against GT, thanks to GT’s sole specialist spinner Rashid Khan having all but finished his quota by the time David arrived at the crease. But in the very next game, where he got promoted to No.5, David came a cropper because KKR skipper Shreyas Iyer immediately confronted him with the mystery spin of Varun Chakravarthy. It remains to be seen if MI will back David by persisting with him at No.5.
David is new to the IPL, and, as a Singaporean, his international exposure is limited as well. Most other so-called finishers have shown enough versatility to be given a longer run in the middle for amazing results. A prime example is another Caribbean power-hitter, Shimron Hetmyer, whose batting average has jumped to 72 this season for RR at No.5, compared to the 34.5 and 23 he averaged for DC in the previous two seasons, mostly batting lower down. His strike rate remains above 160, even with the higher average.
The best strike rate this season is that of a rejuvenated Dinesh Karthik of Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB). His 30 in 8 balls in RCB’s last match took his strike rate to an astounding 200. But one wonders if he might have notched up more than his tally of 274 runs so far, if he had been batting at No. 5.
The original finisher, who made the tag all his own, is former India captain and current CSK skipper MS Dhoni. But even the redoubtable Dhoni’s most famous knock of 91 not out in the 2011 World Cup final came when he batted at No.5, ahead of the in-form Yuvraj Singh. Perhaps it’s time to retire the term ‘finisher’ and just make the smartest use of batsmen who have the ability to hit sixes at will.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.