Talk

Never mind the bullocks…

Amit Varma | Updated on January 23, 2018
Capital waste: Kieron Pollard, the V12 engine in Mumbai Indians spends most of its time in the garage.

Capital waste: Kieron Pollard, the V12 engine in Mumbai Indians spends most of its time in the garage.   -  The Hindu

Amit Varma

Amit Varma

Front loading the batting order is the key to survival, and success in T20 cricket

I saw the strangest thing the other day. Out on the road, there was a sleek Lamborghini with a man in a dhoti-kurta at the driver’s seat. His hands weren’t on the wheel. Instead, he held a whip in his right hand, which extended out of his window, and he was whipping a couple of bullocks tied to the front of the car. The engine was off; the bullocks were pulling the car.

Now, okay, this is perhaps a bit too weird even for India, and I confess that I didn’t see exactly this. But I did witness something very close. I was watching the IPL.

Twenty20 cricket is a relatively new form of the game which makes new demands on the teams that play it. Like a bullock-cart driver who has just been given a Lamborghini, the men who run the teams and play for them haven’t quite come to terms with this. So they continue to whip the bullocks. When one-day cricket was born, teams played it much like they would a Test match — consider Sunil Gavaskar’s 36 not out in 1975 through 60 overs, and while that is an extreme example, consider the low par scores of those times. Eventually, players adapted. Even Gavaskar made a thrilling World Cup century before retiring, and par scores crept up until, as I wrote in my last instalment of Lighthouse, they crossed 300 in the subcontinent, which was once an outlier score and not the norm.

Similarly, in T20 cricket, teams have basically adapted their ODI approach to this shorter format. So maybe they tonk in the powerplay at the start, then they consolidate and set a platform, then they tonk again towards the end. They often have freeflowing openers, but leave their hard-hitting maniacs, like Kieron Pollard of Mumbai Indians, to bat at the end. This is a flawed approach, because T20 is not just a modified version of ODIs, it’s a whole new format with its own imperatives.

First of all, consider that T20 cricket is played with the same number of players in each side as ODI cricket is: 11. This is not a banal point, but crucial to understanding how to approach the game. If T20 games were played eight-a-side, you would be justified in structuring the innings as you structure an ODI one. But with 11 players, you have extra resources for the time given to you. Your task is to ensure these resources are not wasted, and are optimally used. If the hardest-hitting strokeplayer in the team routinely gets only four or five overs to bat, you are screwing up somewhere. So what should you do?

I’d written a piece after last year’s IPL for Cricinfo where I’d laid out what I felt was the biggest tactical advance of the tournament: Frontloading. Basically, King’s XI Punjab decided to snort at the concept of building a platform, and just sent their hardest hitters upfront and treated every over as sides would usually treat overs 16-20. They attacked from the outset, with Glenn Maxwell, David Miller and George Bailey coming in at three, four and five, and sometimes, if an early wicket fell, Wriddhiman Saha coming at three, but also to tonk. Their frontloading ensured that batting resources were not wasted, and this approach got them off to an excellent start. In contrast, Mumbai Indians consistently sent out their best hitter, Pollard, with just a handful of overs to go, and he had nowhere near the impact he could have had. Kolkata Knight Riders started poorly, but then adapted, dropped Jacques Kallis the accumulator, frontloaded the hitting, and things worked out. They also had a better bowling attack than Kings XI, and deservedly won the IPL.

This year has been bizarre. King’s XI, far from continuing to frontload, has reverted to traditional structures of building an innings, sending in Maxwell later than they did last year and, even at the time of writing this piece, dropping him from the side. Mumbai Indians haven’t learnt from their past mistakes, and continue to save Pollard for a dash at the end. They would be better served if Pollard and Corey Anderson batted three and four, in whatever order, with Rohit Sharma opening.

The idea is not just to frontload resources but also to frontload intent. Every side doesn’t have a Maxwell or a Pollard. But whoever goes out there should attack, attack, attack. Sure, if a Starc or Malinga is on fire, play that one guy out. But otherwise go for it. Not only does it ensure you don’t waste batting resources, it also ensures that soft overs in between by lesser bowlers are not wasted. Batting strategies are so predictable that fielding captains can plan how to use their resources well, keeping their best restrictive bowlers, like Malinga, for the end of the innings. But what can they do if you’re going at them all the time?

The one team that has gotten frontloading right in this IPL is the Chennai Super Kings. Brendon McCullum and Dwayne Smith play every over like it’s the 18th of the innings, and Suresh Raina and MS Dhoni, two outstanding strokeplayers, follow at three and four. This is good captaincy. Of course, Chennai also has an excellent bowling attack, which is why they’re among the favourites year after year. All things being equal between teams, though, frontloading makes the difference. So when you have a Lamborghini, drive the damn thing.

Amit Varma is a novelist. He blogs at indiauncut.com

@amitvarma

Published on May 01, 2015

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