Cricket

IPL 2024: Smart Strategies, Individual Match-Ups - How T20 Game Has Evolved

The 17th season of Indian Premier League has brought along with it a fresh set of plans and strategies, employed by data-minded coaches to win the battles within the war. The league has routinely unearthed unheralded talent, and more of the same can be expected in 2024

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Rishabh Pant is back in action after a 14-month layoff, following a horrific car accident in December 2022. Photo: BCCI/IPL
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Yet another edition of the Indian Premier League has taken hold of our national consciousness. For the next two months, franchise cricket in its most glitzy avatar will play out on TV screens every evening, in millions of households across the country. It is set to be thrilling and intense as always, with the drama as it unfolds, keeping us riveted to our screens. (More Cricket News)

It is an exciting time for everyone who is a part of this supercharged atmosphere, particularly so for the band of brilliant young players who made such impressive international debuts recently.

As also for someone like Rishabh Pant, coming back to the roar of packed stadiums after 14 months away in quiet hospital rooms, surgeries and rehab. What an emotional, uncertain rollercoaster of a time it must have been for him.

The entire cricketing community holds its breath, fingers crossed, for this marvellously talented young man.

And there are others waiting on the fringes, bold and confident, just looking for an opportunity to burst into the limelight. For many of them, the IPL, known for its heartwarming stories over the years, could well be the make-or-break moment of their lives.

This tournament will be especially important for the Indian selectors, and indeed, for those of other countries as well, providing them the perfect platform to pick their sides from, for the upcoming ICC T20 World Cup in the West Indies and US, commencing just six days after the IPL 2024 final in Chennai.

Over the years, the IPL has come to be known as the platform where a generation of young Indian cricketers have rubbed shoulders and shared dressing rooms with the greatest in the game. And honed their trademark brand of fearless cricket, unfazed by big names and reputations, and frenzied fan adulation.

The platform where they often outshine established international stars who are legends of the sport, even before they have played for India.

And that remains the biggest legacy of the IPL for Indian cricket, in a qualitative sense.

Yashasvi Jaiswal has emerged as one of the most dangerous top-order batters in world cricket in recent times. Photo: BCCI/IPL
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Internationally, it has broken down barriers of nation, race and background, and brought cricketers much closer together. With more and more players from different countries playing as teammates in franchise cricket around the world, international cricket as a whole has witnessed excellent camaraderie amongst teams, with players often paying friendly visits to each other’s dressing rooms at the end of matches, in the true spirit of cricket.

We will witness again, the fascinating cricketing strategies behind these intense short-format games, where the focus is not so much on individual brilliance, but on a seamless combination that complements each other in the execution of team strategy, with everyone chipping in to make up the big picture. The most successful teams of the IPL have all done this brilliantly in the past and would be looking to replicate it again, this time around.

The head coach’s role is of paramount importance here, and an entire game can be scripted in advance, so to say. Modern T20 coaching methods are all about preparing a team for every conceivable situation that it may encounter in a match. This planning is absolutely vital in this format because everything happens at such an accelerated pace in these games, and there is little or no time to think and come up with a solution within a game.

If a team, however, has rehearsed that situation before, it has a much better chance of handling it effectively in a match. And this is what most T20 coaches try and simulate in their training sessions and preparatory camps.

So teams train on different kinds of pitches, against different kinds of bowlers. Apart from the more common right-armers, batters play against left-arm medium pacers, orthodox left-arm spinners and wrist spinners bowling chinaman. And against the Lasith Malinga-style, side-arm slingshot bowlers.

When they come up against any of these in a match, they already have a plan in place and can handle them without conscious thought.

Or wasting precious deliveries.

Ricky Ponting, head coach for Delhi Capitals, had once said that in T20 cricket, “you could map it to the over if you wanted to,” by planning the all-important match-ups between bat and ball. Which basically means plotting and deciding in advance which bowler bowls to which batter, at what stage of the innings and vice versa, to optimise their chances of success in that particular match-up.

Batters tend to prefer bowlers who shape the ball back into them, with the deliveries finishing within the natural arc of their downswing, which in T20 cricket, is usually aimed towards the onside between mid-on and midwicket.

With batting stances being a lot more square on in this format, Glenn Maxwell being a prime example, the front foot often moves more towards midwicket, rather than the pitch of the ball. The aim being to make room and free up the arms for the on-side shot. It therefore makes a lot of sense to match up a bowler who is going away from such a batter towards the off side, preventing him from unveiling those big shots over square leg and mid-wicket.

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Similarly for spinners, the orthodox right-arm leg spinner or a left-armer bowling to right handers and off-spinners to left handers, all turning away from the bat, are the safest match-ups to plan for a coach.

And although there are exceptions, T20 coaches usually work hard to either create or avoid these match-ups for their players, as the case may be - making a T20 batting order or sequence of bowling changes a fluid, ever-changing entity, dependent on the state of play and who is bowling, or coming in to bat next.

But most of it is generally planned in advance by the coach, with inputs from the video and data analysts who are key members of the support staff.

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Simultaneously, all teams tactically need a couple of explosive batters at the top of the order, capable of putting the opposition to the sword in the batting powerplay itself. And a few ‘busy players’ who can keep the scoreboard ticking over consistently in the middle overs, setting the stage for the ‘finishers,’ the power-hitters coming in at the death, who can set things alight in the last five overs, blasting a 20-ball 50 to completely change a match.

The bowling unit, on the other hand, needs to pick up early wickets in the powerplay because very few teams recover from horror starts, and a match can slip away in the first five overs itself. Facing a swinging ball at pace at the start of an innings is every batter’s nightmare and a bowler who can do that will always be a handful.

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Keeping runs down in the last five overs is another key result area, when anything below eight an over is very good, trying to restrict the opposition to 150-160 run totals that are easily chaseable.

Jasprit Bumrah is among the hardest bowlers to face in the death overs. Photo: AP/Ajit Solanki
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All teams have picked their sides keeping these roles in mind. Which is why there is so often a bidding war for a particular player at the auction, and the price goes through the roof.

Modern players often move between T20 leagues in different parts of the world, playing for different teams and coaches, and are familiar with the strategies successfully used in one league, that can be replicated in another league in a different part of the world.

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One of the most iconic innovations of T20 coaching history – opening the batting with a bowler – was first tried out with Sunil Narine for the Melbourne Renegades at the Big Bash League in Australia. Narine’s cavalier attacking approach, hitting out in a way that specialist batters would usually not attempt at that stage of the innings, was later successfully replicated in the IPL by the Kolkata Knight Riders.

As was the ploy of opening the bowling with slow bowlers, where again, Narine was the lynchpin.

The origins of many of these strategies can however, be traced back to the iconic 1992 World Cup, long before the advent of T20s. New Zealand playing under the inspirational Martin Crowe and coach Warren Lees first experimented with these revolutionary ideas, opening the bowling with the off-spin of Dipak Patel, who got through his quota of overs for next to nothing in most games, giving them a huge opening advantage.

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This was backed up by the hitherto unseen spectacle of Mark Greatbatch, promoted up the order to open the innings from his usual number 6 slot, advancing down the pitch from the first ball onwards, as the concept of pinch-hitting was unveiled for the first time.

As he came down the wicket to some of the world’s most feared fast bowlers of all time such as Malcolm Marshall and Curtly Ambrose, and hit them back over their heads time and time again, it was like nothing the world had seen until then. His fearless approach to the new ball blazed a trail for big-hitting openers like Sanath Jayasuriya and Adam Gilchrist to follow subsequently.

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And more than 30 years on, that approach still remains very much the norm in the shorter formats to unsettle the best of attacks.

Even the concept of ‘pace off the ball,’ that is so widely used today, originated in that World Cup, as New Zealand’s quartet of slow medium pacers Gavin Larsen, Chris Harris, Rod Latham and Willie Watson, affectionately called the ‘dibbly-dobblies,’ strangled big shots with their accuracy and lack of pace, effectively throttling scoring rates.

Throughout that tournament, Martin Crowe used them in short two-over spells, never allowing the batters to settle.

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Which is exactly what most T20 captains do today.

And in an uncanny portent of things to come, the badly rain-hit Zimbabwe-New Zealand game at Napier was reduced to 20 overs from the stipulated 50, and was in all probability, the first ever 20-over international game, although no one realised it then.

It was a classic case of past events casting long shadows, extending way into the future.

All the way to the birth of a new game.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author. The author is a veteran Wing Commander of the Indian Air Force, who has played Ranji Trophy for Services.

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