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Opening Batsmen in T20 Cricket

Delhi Daredevils have struggled thus far in the 2018 IPL with just 3 wins from their 10 matches so far. One issue has been the apparent struggles of their two overseas opening options of Colin Munro and Jason Roy, who in their eight combined innings thus far have managed just one score of over 35 and have no fewer than five scores of five runs or less. They have chopped and changed in those 10 matches, picking Colin Munro for two matches, then Jason Roy for three matches, then neither for a match, then Munro again for three matches, then neither again in their most recent match.
On his day, there are few more destructive batsmen in T20 cricket than Colin Munro
Some people might make an argument for dropping out-of-form players, which both Colin Munro and Jason Roy, with the exception of his match-winning innings in his first match, have appeared to be. However, there is also an argument that this effectively misunderstands what Jason Roy and, in particular, Colin Munro actually bring to the team in terms of what they are able to produce.

There are two types of T20 opening batsmen that I want to discuss in this article. The first category are the reliable, but non-explosive openers, while the second category are the explosive, but unreliable openers. In an ideal world, you would want a reliable, explosive opening batsman, but for obvious reasons, there are very few of those around and they are often incredibly difficult to obtain, whether it be sheer cost or due to them usually being retained by their current teams.

For the purposes of this article, I have taken all batsmen in my database that have faced at least 1000 balls in T20 cricket, then filtered out all those players with fewer than 30 innings that have started in the first two overs. This should give us players that have opened the batting on a regular basis and with a decent sample size. This left a total of 105 batsmen.

Before we start on the two categories that I want to focus on in this article, there are a couple of players that deserve a bit of recognition. Virat Kohli's numbers are quite simply incredible - he scores fewer than 10 runs in just 18.9% of his innings when opening, which is the lowest of any player in the sample, he scores 50+ in 32.9% of those innings, which is #3 in the sample and he scores 75+ in 12.2%, which is #6 in the sample. In other words, he rarely gets out early and there are few players that hit big scores more regularly. Another figure that stands out is the recently retired Kevin Pietersen, who scored 30+ runs in an incredible 62.2% of innings, which was #1 in the sample, and 75+ in 10.8%, which puts him at #12 as well.

Moving on, the first category of openers to look at are the reliable, but non-explosive openers. The table below show a couple of these:
The five batsmen listed here are all among some of the very best at avoiding low scores. For example, of the 105 players in the sample, Ian Bell is #10 for percentage of scores of at least 30. Similarly, Brad Hodge is top 15 and you can see that Bell, Uthappa, Tendulkar and Sangakkara are all top 15 in terms of avoiding scores in single figures. On the face of it, these players rarely appear to fail terribly, but we can also see that you are not going to get the big potentially match-winning innings of 75+ from these players.
Ian Bell is one of the best opening batsmen at avoiding single figure scores
On the other hand, we have the explosive, but often unreliable opening batsmen. The following table shows a couple of these:
These are some of the batsmen that can almost single-handedly win a match if they get going. Colin Munro, who we discussed briefly earlier, is 93rd of the 105 players for scores of less than 10, with almost 4 in 10 of his innings ending in single figures. However, we can see that he is also #3 in terms of the percentage of his innings that end in scores of 75+. These big scores are also scored at a rapid rate, which will give the team a very good chance of posting a huge score or chasing big targets.

These batsmen are going to have a lot of failures and will often have a number of back-to-back failures as a result. However, they have the potential to have that big innings as well.

In terms of what is desirable for a team, there are various arguments that can be made. With several of the reliable batsmen, it is unlikely that you are going to end up with too many small totals. On the flip side, you are also unlikely to post any huge totals as well. For a team like Sunrisers Hyderabad this year, Kane Williamson has been pretty effective as he has scored well and consistently, even whilst not posting any huge innings. With the bowling attack that they have, reliably setting or being able to chasing mid-range totals may be a good strategy, but it does mean that they might struggle to chase any big totals.
Kane Williamson has worked well given the strengths of the Sunrisers team this year
However, if you are going to sign the explosive, high-risk batsmen, then you really need to stick with them through the failures. For example, if Delhi Daredevils know that Colin Munro is going to score less than 10 in almost 40% of innings, but that in just over 30% of innings, he will score 50+, then dropping him after two failures arguably demonstrates a lack of understanding of the type of player that they have. You can frame the argument in that he needs to play a number of innings to find his confidence and form, but in reality, that type of batsman will simply fail a lot of times whether confident or not.

The key is to find the right parts around this type of batsman. If you have a team where other players can provide runs around him, even if not necessarily at as rapid a rate, you can afford to absorb the failures and benefit from the handful of key innings that they are likely to play during the course of a tournament.

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