It’s often said that limited overs cricket is a batsman’s game. Pitches are generally batting-friendly, designed to produce a plethora of sixes, fours, and hurricane knocks to entertain crowds. Bowlers are often reduced to defensive props to limit the damage.
Even the rules are skewed in favour of batsmen. The 2019 ODI World Cup final result was decided on the basis of the number of boundaries hit, when the teams were tied after a super over. Had the deciding factor been the number of wickets taken, New Zealand would have won the World Cup, not England. The tables have turned, however, in the Indian Premier League (IPL) this year. Tall scores are still being posted, but we’re seeing a better balance between bat and ball. More than a third of the totals are below 160—that is, less than 8 an over.
With covid in the air, the league phase of the tournament was limited to four venues in Mumbai and Pune. Curators responded by leaving more grass on the wickets to make them last through the 70 league games. These venues also have good bounce to encourage pacers and wrist-spinners. And as we go deeper into a hot summer, finger-spinners are extracting sharper turn from drier and more abrasive surfaces.
Squads with strong bowling units are better placed in these conditions. There’s more of a premium on taking wickets in the powerplay and middle overs, than just bowling economically. The top four teams in the table are also the ones that have taken more wickets.
An analysis of the first nine games of each of the ten franchises shows that Rajasthan Royals (RR) took the most wickets-69; followed by Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) with 62, Lucknow SuperGiants (LSG) with 61, and Gujarat Titans (GT) with 60. These are also the four teams that are leading the pack in the race for the playoffs, albeit in a different order in the league table. The other six franchises will have to rejig or improve their bowling to alter this trend in the remainder of the league stage.
This is primarily the reason why the IPL’s most successful franchise, Mumbai Indians (MI), who won five titles in the last nine seasons, are the bottom-dwellers this time, with eight losses in their first nine games, in which they took only 50 wickets despite the bowling-friendly conditions.
MI’s retentions before the mega-auction were three batsmen—Rohit Sharma, Suryakumar Yadav, and Kieron Pollard—and only one bowler, Jasprit Bumrah. MI then compounded this mistake by splurging ₹15.25 crore on wicketkeeper-batsman Ishan Kishan and ₹8.25 crore on an unproven hard-hitter from Singapore, Tim David. Their only high-priced bowler, apart from Bumrah, is Jofra Archer of England, whose elbow injury had already ruled him out this season.
The result is that even Bumrah has been rendered toothless as batsmen negotiate his overs in a risk-free manner while scoring runs off lesser bowlers from the other end. Nor does MI have a single wicket-taking spinner of note. The sole bright spark is their new acquisition, Madhya Pradesh left-arm mystery spinner Kumar Karthikeya, who made an inspiring debut in the only game that MI won, with young off-spinner Hrithik Shokeen chipping in as well. Karthikeya came in as a replacement for an injured left-arm pacer, Mohd Arshad Khan.
Bowling woes are also behind the poor standing of the IPL’s second most successful franchise, Chennai Super Kings, who took 51 wickets in their first nine games. CSK were unlucky that their main wicket-taker with the new ball, Deepak Chahar, on whom they spent ₹14 crore, was injured during India’s series against the West Indies just before the IPL began. Then New Zealand pacer Adam Milne got injured and had to return home.
CSK’s bench strength lacks international quality, which is partly their own doing. Perhaps they should have tried harder to retain Josh Hazlewood who went to Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) for ₹7.75 crore—a bargain price for the Aussie pacer who had helped CSK win the 2021 title.
Conversely, RR are reaping the benefits of RCB letting leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal go for a mere ₹6.5 crore. Chahal is currently the highest wicket-taker this season, outshining Sri Lankan leg-spinner Wanindu Hasaranga whom RCB bought for a whopping ₹10.75 crore. RR's pace duo of Trent Boult and Prasidh Krishna is also humming. The bowling unit has ensured Jos Buttler’s exploits with the bat don’t go in vain, as they did in earlier seasons.
The two new franchises, GT and LSG, are also thriving by virtue of their potent, well-rounded bowling units. LSG lost out on England fast bowler Mark Wood due to injury, but his backup, Dushmantha Chameera from Sri Lanka, has filled the breach by bowling at close to 150kmph. LSG’s two tall Indian pacers, Avesh Khan and Mohsin Khan, have used the conditions well, with the latter becoming one of the finds of the season. The googlies of Ravi Bishnoi and street-smart left-arm spin of Krunal Pandya have kept up the pressure.
GT too is able to maintain unrelenting pressure on rival batting sides with two bowlers touching 150kmph—Lockie Ferguson and Alzarri Joseph. The seam bowling of Mohammed Shami with the new ball and Rashid Khan’s leg-spin in the middle overs have given GT captain Hardik Pandya enough options to maintain control over most games. That Rashid Khan and Rahul Tewatia have pulled off coups with late order batting blitzkriegs is a bonus.
The biggest sensation of IPL 2022, however, is SRH’s Kashmiri speedster Umran Malik, who has bowled the two fastest balls of the season at 154kmph. He arrived at SRH in 2020 after his friend Abdul Samad, SRH’s earlier acquisition from Kashmir, sent a video of Malik’s bowling to the coaches. Drafted in as a net bowler, the rookie got a chance to play two games last season when T Natarajan got injured. This year he has evolved into a more intelligent bowler with greater accuracy and variation, under the tutelage of SRH bowling coach Dale Steyn, who used to lead South Africa’s pace attack. Malik is among the top wicket-takers with 15 wickets from nine games, making even top order batsmen flinch and back away with his searing pace.
SRH’s rise from the bottom of the table in 2021 to the top four this season stands in stark contrast to the decline of last year’s table-topper DC. SRH not only retained Malik but persisted with him despite a couple of expensive spells early in the season. On the other hand, DC have relied on a string of medium-pacers. Their 150kmph bowler, Anrich Nortje from South Africa, is reported to have recovered from injury but still doesn’t find a place in the playing eleven, as the more economical Mustafizur Rahman from Bangladesh is preferred. Even DC’s decision to acquire Shardul Thakur at the auction for ₹10.75 crore after letting go of the taller and pacier Avesh Khan has backfired; Thakur has been expensive without being penetrative.
KKR similarly faltered by benching Pat Cummins after a couple of expensive spells. The current Australia captain is the No.1 bowler in the ICC Test rankings and should be a shoo-in even if an overseas batsman has to be benched to accommodate him. Cummins, Umesh Yadav, and Tim Southee could have been a lethal combination early in the season on green wickets, but the three never played together.
Teams that went for the jugular by backing bowlers with wicket-taking potential have fared better than those opting to try and control the rate of scoring or pack the side with batsmen. Taking wickets early has provided the best speed bumps to scoring rates on the sporting pitches in this IPL. It has also made for more wholesome cricket than the sight of mediocre batsmen tonking world class bowlers for sixes on docile wickets.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.