Column | Strong middle order key to winning IPL title

Column | Strong middle order key to winning IPL title
The presence of Kieron Pollard, left, and Hardik Pandya give Mumbai Indians a distinct advantage over their rivals. Photo: BCCI/IPL
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One interesting piece of statistical information that caught the eye of this writer while following the matches in Indian Premier League (IPL) during the week that went by pertained to the “Orange Cap” awarded to the batsman who scores maximum number of runs in the championship. At the close of the first four weeks, the top two contenders for this honour are K L Rahul, who opens the innings for Kings XI Punjab (KXIP) and Mayank Agarwal is Rahul's opening partner. Despite this KXIP are presently languishing at the bottom half of the points table.

This prompted one to study the impact of winners of “Orange Caps” during the previous editions of the IPL in deciding the winners of this championship. It was surprising to note that only once (in 2014) could the winner of “Orange Cap” be a member of the winning side. During that year Robin Uthappa, who opened the batting, scored 660 runs to bag this award while his side Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) emerged as the champions. David Warner won the Orange Cap thrice - in 2015, 2017 and 2019 - while his side - Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH)- lifted the title in 2016! Chris Gayle won this award twice (2011 and 2012 for Royal Challengers Bangalore) and Virat Kohli once (2016) but the franchisee has not won the trophy even once. Thus, teams which are in the running for winning the title would be well advised to ensure that none of their batsmen are in the reckoning for the coveted “Orange Cap”!

Another piece of statistical nugget that emerged, which was not really surprising, was that all those who have won the “Orange Cap” award batted in the first three positions of the batting order. In fact all of them, with the notable exception of Kane Williamson of SRH, opened the batting for their respective sides. Even batsmen like Michael Hussey and Kohli, who are not regular openers, came out to bat at the top of the order during the years when they scored maximum runs. This could have been on account of the strategy of the respective teams to give these batsmen an opportunity to face the maximum number of balls, given the terrific form they were in.

Huge advantage

It goes without saying that batsmen who are placed in the first three positions in the batting order get a special advantage in limited overs cricket. In the first place, they get the opportunity for facing the maximum number of balls, which helps them to plan and pace their innings’ better. Further, the field restrictions in place during the early part of the innings provide them more scoring opportunities as well. This is more so in the case of T20 cricket where a recent study has shown that opening batsmen occupy the crease, on an average, for about one third of the total duration of the side’s innings. This should mean that they are almost always at the wicket during the initial powerplay overs when only two fielders are allowed outside the circle. Hence, it is not surprising that they cash in on these advantages and emerge as top scorers in the IPL, year after year, without a break.

On the other hand, if one studies the story of winning sides in IPL, it would be seen that they always possessed an explosive batsman in the middle order who would come in when less than 10 overs are remaining and get into full stride without any delay. An example in this regard is Yousuf Pathan, who was the star when Rajasthan Royals (RR) shocked everyone to win the inaugural IPL in 2008. Batting in the middle order as a floater who could come out at any position from No. 4 to 7, Yousuf served the cause of his side admirably by scoring runs at a very fast pace in all the matches. His tally of 435 runs that year at a strike rate of 179.07 was the crucial factor that helped his side to emerge on top. Yousuf himself repeated this act in 2014 when he helped KKR wrest the title, scoring 268 runs at a strike rate of 168.42.

A similar role was played by Hardik Pandya for Mumbai Indians (MI) in IPL 2019. In 15 innings in 16 matches, he scored 402 runs, which came off a mere 210 balls, thus showing a strike rate of 191.42. This came on the back of good starts provided by the opening batsmen Rohit Sharma and Quinton de Kock and ensured that the side made the most of the end overs and was invariably able to post total scores beyond the reach of their opponents. In 2018, Mahendra Singh Dhoni anchored the innings of Chennai Super Kings (CSK) through the middle and end overs to score 455 runs in 16 games, with a strike rate of 150.66. In doing so, he built on the foundation laid by the top 3 batsmen Shane Watson, Ambati Rayudu and Suresh Raina. Rohit, then batting at No. 4, and Kieron Pollard held together the middle order of Mumbai Indians in 2017 and built on the initial momentum given by Parthiv Patel, Jos Butler and Nitish Rana at the beginning of the innings. In 2016, veteran Yuvraj Singh was the key factor in the middle order of SRH, who guided the side through the end overs with aplomb, after the starts given by David Warner and Shikar Dhawan.

Truly special
AB de Villiers has been in sensational form for RCB this season. Photo: Twitter/IPL

Thus, it can be seen that successful sides were ones that possessed firepower and depth in the middle order that could be used to build on the initial start provided by the openers. The corollary to this is that sides that have relied too much on one or two batsmen at the top, who in turn cosumed most of the overs, fell short of winning the title, despite splendid individual performances by the players concerned. In other words, players who walk in to bat when five overs or less are remaining and still manage to score a quick-fire 30 or 40 in 20-odd balls are equally, if not more, valuable than an opening batsman who scored 80 off 60 deliveries.

In the present edition of IPL, we have seen Ishan Kishan, Pollard, and Hardik Pandya of MI, Rishabh Pant and Marcus Stoinis of Delhi Capitals, Eoin Morgan and Dinesh Karthik of KKR and AB de Villiers of RCB lending depth and solidity to their sides while batting in the middle order. Williamson moving to No. 4 slot in the SRH batting order this year, is with the intention to stabilise the innings and sustain the initial momentum provided by Warner and Jonny Bairstow. Of late we have also seen de Villiers and Steve Smith (of RR) move down the order with the same intention of building and improving on the start given by the openers and ensuring that the the pace of run getting reaches a crescendo during the end overs. The failure of sides like KXIP and CSK so far can be attributed to the failure of the batsmen after the top three in the order to come good on a consistent basis.

Pale shadow
M S Dhoni has struggled to get going this IPL. Photo: BCCI/IPL

In the final analysis, the performances and contributions of the batsmen in the middle order appear to be far more critical in determining the fortunes of their respective sides, than the tall scores from the big guns at the top of the batting order. As IPL 2020 moves into the more crucial second half, it would be interesting to observe the interplay between the fortunes of the sides and the performances of individual players. In the final analysis, cricket remains a team game and success of the side far outweighs the brilliance of solitary accomplishments, despite the accolades, records and “caps” of various colours that the specific performer may get for his efforts.

(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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