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Saturday, January 22, 2022

IPL 7: Rise of the specialists

The 7th edition of the IPL has hardened the mould of format-specific players around whom teams are built.

Written by Chinmay Brahme |
Updated: June 1, 2014 6:22:46 pm

Fresh from his 44-ball 95-run decimation of the Rajasthan Royals in Mumbai Indians’ dramatic surge to the play-offs, Corey Anderson’s face wore a rare half-smile. Anderson, who was Mumbai’s big-money purchase in this year’s auction but had largely flopped over the course of the season, said that it was only when his side was pushed to the brink, having to chase 190 in 14.3 overs to qualify, did he free himself to go berserk at the Wankhede.

“I wish I could bottle that feeling and use it in all of my knocks,” he said. The 23-year-old New Zealander, who burst on to the scene on the first day of this year, smashing a blistering the fastest ODI century in 36 balls against the West Indies, had finally given his IPL side a glimpse of the stuff that catapulted him to the top of Twenty20 franchises’ wish-list.

While Anderson was a late bloomer, Glenn Maxwell, another former high-profile pick for the Mumbai Indians, rolled out the heavy artillery right from the first ball. Playing for his new franchise, Kings XI Punjab, Maxwell began Season 7 with an audacious switch-hit against off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin. In the next 42 balls that the 25-year-old Aussie faced, he smashed 14 more boundaries and two huge sixes by utilizing a myriad of switch-hits, reverse sweeps, lap scoops and the good old full-blooded slog.

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Since then, Maxwell has marauded his way through a majority of bowling attacks in the IPL. Giving him able company has been KXIP’s David Miller. Kieron Pollard, another T20 behemoth, has sent the ball soaring into the stands with brute power while Dwayne Smith and AB De Villiers have used muscle and nous to find new scoring areas, taking apart feared international bowlers with ridiculous ease.

Earlier, there was a feeling that whenever a quality bowler would come on, the batsmen would be circumspect, often willing to knock the ball around. However, over the past couple of seasons, the seventh in particular, there has been no such rationing. Suresh Raina’s decimation of Mitchell Johnson at the Wankhede on Friday was one such example. Raina flew off the blocks right from the beginning, taking his front leg away, and tonking the ball square of the wicket. Manan Vohra, all of 20, playing his first match of the season against Dale Steyn and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, teed off from the first ball, swinging clean through the line and slashing at anything short. This tactic of employing a no-holds barred assault right from the start has ensured that bowlers dig into their bag of tricks from the first ball. Cutters and slower bouncers, earlier death-over guests, are on the table from the get-go.

All these things have bred a different species of players. Format-specific players, the type that know the pulse of the T20 game intimately, seem to be in vogue. A lot of these players might not have glowing Test and ODI records, but their quality of exploding just at the right time in the shortest format makes them worth their weight in gold.

Centre of the universe

Also, with such format-specific players doing well for their sides, it is no surprise that a number of franchises look to splash the cash on these players, often opting to build their teams around them. With the emergence of players like James Faulkner, Maxwell and Miller — all three who have had rather nondescript international careers so far — as fulcrums in their T20 teams, the age of the marquee T20 player is truly on.

Interestingly, it is the shortest format of the game which has seen all the above, excluding De Villiers, flourish. Maxwell has a T20 strike-rate of 163.73 but in the 24 ODIs that he has played for Australia, he hasn’t really set the stage on fire. His Test record too is underwhelming, though he has played just two matches. Pollard strikes at 155.37 and averages 30.40 in T20s but when it comes to the 50-over format, his average is a piffling 24.92 at a rather pedestrian strike-rate of 93.54. Miller has a similar story. Nowhere is the contrast more stark than with Smith.

While the burly Bajan has regularly mauled pacers and spinners at will, one look at his ODI figures and it is not too difficult to think whether they belong to the same person. An ODI average of 17.07 along with a Test average of 24.61 tell a different tale.

These batsmen, with their twirling blades and frenzied shuffles across the breadth of the crease, have lit up the IPL this year. Their apparent struggles in other formats throw up an interesting debate.

With shorter boundaries and monster bats commonplace, T20 has also spawned trick-a-minute bowlers. This season’s second highest wicket-taker, Sunil Narine, bowls the leg-break, the doosra, the slider, a seam-up darter and an occasional flipper. His official classification is right-arm off-break. James Faulkner and Mohit Sharma are preferred death-bowling options for their captains because of their ability to execute the back-of-the-hand slower delivery, a ball batsmen have found increasingly difficult to hit.

Akshar Patel, a relatively new entrant into the IPL, has made his way into the Indian team going to Bangladesh by giving left-arm spin a twist. Patel who has 16 wickets at 22.81 this season has relied more on sending down flat and fast deliveries, often forsaking loop and revs on the ball. Similarly, RCB’s leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal has profited from bowling at a lower trajectory, relying more on pushing the ball through the air. Conversely, spinners like Amit Mishra, Pragyan Ojha and even Murali Kartik have been easy to milk because of their persistence in tossing the ball up.

Another aspect to this debate is bowlers who are titanic forces in Test cricket being taken apart by batsmen who have often not even had a look-in at that level.

Legends turn mortals

Dale Steyn, one of the top fast bowlers in the world, is a terror with the red ball in hand. But in a T20 setting, the tables seem to have turned on the South African. In 56 overs this season, Steyn has conceded 456 runs at an average of 39.18 and economy rate of 7.69.

The 30-year-old South African, who has 362 Test scalps, was often left glaring into space as batsmen planted their legs across, scampered around the crease and brazenly jumped out of their crease to hit him into the stands.

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A majority of Steyn’s deliveries were pitched up as he looked for swing, he varied his pace and often tried to use the bouncer to cow down batsmen, all three tactics which have worked swimmingly for him in other formats. However, in the absence of outlandish variations, batsmen often picked him off with relative ease. Bowlers like Rajat Bhatia and Kevon Cooper, among a couple of others, may not possess even half the craft of a Steyn, but their dibbly-dobblies,  slower bouncers and ripping off-breaks seem to garner more success.

Robin Uthappa, the leading run-scorer this year has exhibited exhilarating stroke-play but has also seemed to incorporate the now-staple T20 diet of scoops, regular walks down the wicket and across his stumps. The success of Maxwell, Miller, Smith, Pollard and Anderson along with the all-rounders seems to suggest that a number of players all over the world seem to be not afraid to throw in their lot as pure T20 exponents. This particular decision, considering the proliferation of franchise-based leagues all over the world, seems a profitable one.

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