The BCCI will try out a ‘supersub’ in the upcoming Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy T20 tournament before introducing it in the Indian Premier League (IPL). This supersub will be a substitute who can bat and bowl, not just field, in place of anyone withdrawn from the playing 11 during the game.
They’re calling him the ‘Impact Player’, but the supersub concept is not new. It was tried and abandoned in ODI cricket, and now the Big Bash League (BBL), which is the Australian counterpart of the IPL, has revived it. The idea is to add a strategic element for coaches and captains to handle, which will ostensibly prevent games from dragging in the middle overs and make them more interesting for viewers.
It sounds good on paper, but it seems ill-suited for the IPL. Here, the supersub is likely to have the opposite effect of blunting a strategic edge that’s working beautifully. Before getting into that, let’s look at the scope of the ‘impact player’ which is larger than that of the supersub used in ODIs, or the X-factor rule currently running in the BBL.
A team can bring on the impact player at any time before the 15th over. He can be a batsman or a bowler depending on the requirement. In fact, the supersub can even replace a dismissed batsman, as long as the team uses no more than 11 batsmen in the innings. And an impact bowler will get his full quota of overs even if the man he’s replacing has already bowled a few.
This affects one of the most strategic elements of the IPL, which is to get the playing 11 right for a particular opposition or pitch before knowing the outcome of the toss. An additional complexity in the IPL is that only four foreign players are allowed in the 11. This means that much of the strategizing before a game is simply about finding the right balance.
Getting the 11 right or wrong has a huge bearing on the team’s ultimate standing. In this year’s IPL, for example, Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) kept Australia’s Test captain and the world’s leading fast bowler, Pat Cummins, on the bench for most of the season to accommodate an overseas batsman. KKR ended up in the bottom half of the 10-member league, calling into question the underutilization of Cummins.
The top four teams in the league had prioritized strong bowling units in the playing 11 and that paid dividends. KKR could have had a formidable pace bowling attack of Cummins, Tim Southee, and Umesh Yadav. Instead they chose to play Australia’s ODI captain Aaron Finch as an opening batsman.
Now, if the impact player option had been available, KKR could have had their cake and eaten it too. Coach Brendon McCullum and captain Shreyas Iyer could have included Cummins and replaced him with Finch later, if they were batting second. Or, if they were batting first, Finch could have been on standby and brought in only if required. Also, they would have had the option of replacing Cummins with a spinner or a death overs specialist after his opening spell, which would have made the decision to include him easier. Essentially it would have allowed the team to cover up a strategic blunder that resulted in KKR not qualifying for the playoffs. So the impact player does not add a strategic twist to the IPL, it dilutes strategy.
Rather than making games more interesting for viewers, it will likely have the opposite effect of robbing them of seeing captains, coaches, and players adapting and problem-solving in real time.
For example, it’s always a dilemma for the top order to decide how hard to attack, for fear of a batting collapse. Lucknow Super Giants (LSG) captain and opening batsman KL Rahul erred on the conservative side of preserving his wicket in the playoff against Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB). He made 79 at a below par strike rate of around 8 runs an over on a belter of a wicket, with the asking rate at 10.5 an over. LSG fell just 15 runs short of the challenging target of 208.
Had there been the option of an impact player, Rahul would have had no excuse for reining in his full array of shots from the outset, knowing there’s a failsafe mechanism. How does removing the dilemma for Rahul and his coach make the game more interesting for viewers? The BCCI has clearly forgotten an old adage: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.