CHENNAI: October 4, 2022. India was playing South Africa in the third T20I in Indore. Put into bat first, South Africa ran riot with the bat, with Quinton de Kock and Rilee Rossouw taking the Indian bowling attack to the cleaners. While the former made 68 runs from 43 balls, Rossouw smashed an unbeaten 48-ball 100. South Africa made 227/3 and India lost 49 runs.
The standout point from that match was that Axar Patel — India’s second spinner in the game — bowled only one over because there were two southpaws in the middle. When asked after the match whether the Indian team is planning to approach the games based on match-ups, head coach Rahul Dravid was candid in his response.
“They (match-ups) are important to us,” he said, before adding, “whether they are more important or not, it is for you guys to dig deep and look at what the stats tell you about some match-ups, about numbers of left-hand batters against left-arm spin, maybe you might get some answers in there.”
India and Dravid had a point. In the last five years, Axar had given away 8.4 runs per over against left-handers in T20s in comparison with 6.5 against right-handers. And in a small venue like Indore, with three left-handed batters sharing 96 of the 120 deliveries between them, it seemed a logical decision.
Sports and analysis have always gone hand in hand. In cricket, historically, a lot of it has been visual, based on what a captain or coach saw off the opponents on the field. While video analysis broke ground in the late 90s and the new millennium, the statistical analysis took its time.
This is largely due to technological development and the extensive variables that are in play in the longer formats. However, with the advent of T20 cricket and franchise-based leagues, it has become an integral part of the game in the last decade, especially in white-ball cricket.
But it didn't happen overnight. Freddie Wilde, Head of Performance Analysis at CricViz, believes that the attitude changed with time.
“Coaches captains are becoming more receptive. RCB, for example, has very much bought into not only numbers but modelling and algorithms. We have a team of data scientists who build a model based on numbers that are not average, strike rate and run rate. They have bought into that in a way that is hugely encouraging Because ultimately those numbers are a better indicator of the true quality of a player,” Wilde, who’s also the team analyst of RCB in the IPL, told this daily.
“Sometimes when they don’t, you have to use the more advanced number to work out what you recommend and more traditional numbers to make your point. For example, Tim David is a particularly good power hitter. He might come really well on numbers for that. But you might need traditional numbers that show his SR in death overs or balls per boundary. So, there are different levels of buy-in and you need to provide slightly different statistics.”
Cat and mouse game
These days teams opting to use or not use a certain type of bowler against a specific batter or a batting line-up is a common sight. However, it's not the same in the batting department. While the teams have a floater or two, the flexibility in usage of a particular batter based on which bowler has how many overs left is still a work in progress.
Wilde cites England as a perfect example as to an international team that uses one of the most advanced data analyses in their bowling match-ups but not in their batting.
“Nathan Leamon, their analyst, will be using coded signals to suggest bowling changes to the captain based on data and those recommendations are heeded. However, the batting order, if you notice it, is actually inflexible. They basically subscribe to the idea that your best player should face the most number of balls. The embodiment of that was (Jos) Buttler. He has been an absolute revelation at the top of the order and it turned him into an even better player. So, there are different ways of looking at it”
He feels that the role stability of a batter might be “slightly overrated” in T20s.
“You just need them to play against the bowling they are strongest against. It’s a game of cat and mouse. Bowling teams start the play and make the move first. If you compare it with chess, they are white. But just because you are making the second move, it doesn’t mean you can’t play the match-ups. By responding by sending in a different batter, you are countering that. It’s not that much more complicated than bowling match-ups but a slight step ahead."
Negative match-ups & risk vs rewards
While Dravid and India had their logic to not use Axar against South Africa, it might not be the only way to look at things. During the second T20I against Pakistan in Karachi last month, England’s captain for the series Moeen Ali brought himself on in the 13th over against two right-handers in Mohammad Rizan and Babar Azam.
The off-spinner went for 21 runs and it changed the course of the chase. “That was a gamble on my part. I went to try and get a wicket and almost buy a wicket. Obviously, it didn't work and that's when Pakistan really won the game,” Ali had said after the 10-wicket loss.
Wilde says one cannot entirely rule out bowling negative match-ups. “Maybe it's the wrong way of framing it. It's about run-saving versus wicket-taking. Generally, a negative run-saving match-up can be a positive wicket-taking match-up. Quite often, you find left-arm spinners taking LHB wickets than RHB because they are normally taken on. There is a bit more nuanced understanding to it,” said Wilde, who co-authored the book, Cricket 2.0: Inside the T20 Revolution, with Tim Wigmore.
Like every other format, in T20Is too, playing conditions have a massive influence on the way teams operate and use match-ups. The 2022 Men’s T20 World Cup happening in Australia is no different. The toss might not be as crucial as it was during the previous edition in the United Arab Emirates, but the pitches and the ground dimensions could be critical. What's more, not many international sides have had the experience of touring Australia for the white-ball series.
“The numbers show that they have more pace and bounce than any other country in the world,” Wilde says. “That is going to bring into play fast bowlers and guys who bowl short aggressive lengths because that is going to be more difficult. And numbers again show that it has a bigger role in Australia than it does elsewhere. Teams who have tall fast bowlers who can bowl high pace and short lengths and therefore are likely to be more effective because of those deliveries’ increased effectiveness.”
“Teams who rely on finger spin are likely to struggle more. The spin match-ups may matter slightly less. But, I am very hesitant to be too confident in that opinion. I am not sure of it, but there is a theory that because the pitches are going to spin less, the finger spin is potentially the bowler that batters could try to take down or maybe if you are a negative match-up, you potentially could be taken on,” he said.