29. The T20 Bowling Jigsaw

T20 bowlers have very specific competencies, so selecting a T20 bowling combination is like solving a jigsaw puzzle

I had sent this to Hindustan Times a few weeks back. I don’t think they published it, so the copyright of this remains with me.

Unlike Tests or One Dayers, selecting a bowling attack for a T20 game is like solving a jigsaw puzzle. This is on account of teams typically playing five or more specialist bowlers, and bowlers having specific competencies in terms of the time of innings they like to bowl in.

Royal Challengers Bangalore, for example, built their bowling lineups for the 2018 and 2019 IPLs based on the traditional classification of bowlers as fast bowlers and spinners, and they ended up with too many new ball bowlers and too few death bowlers. They were forced to use bowlers such as Umesh Yadav “out of position”, and they unsurprisingly ended both seasons close to or at the bottom of the table. 

The Indian T20 team has massively overhauled its bowling strategy following the ODI World Cup earlier this year. The wrist-spin twins Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav are out of favour, and India went into the recent drawn home series against South Africa with a trio of finger spinners - Washington Sundar, Ravindra Jadeja and Krunal Pandya. And while Jasprit Bumrah was initially rested and is now injured, there has been change in the rest of the fast bowling personnel as well. 

As India goes through this transition, we need to analyse whether the new bowling attack is built upon bowlers’ strengths and “positions” (time of innings they prefer to bowl), or if it is a case of a bunch of bowlers being picked based on their numbers, and the team hoping to create a winning combination out of them. 

We will make one fundamental assumption - that in the IPL, bowlers who are contenders for the Indian team have mostly bowled at the time of the innings where they have the most impact. Now, as we have seen with RCB, this is not a particularly accurate assumption. However, the hope is that averaging across a large number of IPL seasons can help smooth out any such inaccuracies. 

For each bowler, we define a “profile” - which is the sequence of overs in which they are most expected to bowl a four over spell in a T20 game. For this purpose, we look at what over of a bowling innings bowlers have bowled their first, second, third and fourth overs (on average). 

For example, Bumrah, on average has bowled his first over during the fourth over of his team’s bowling innings. His second over is the twelfth of the innings, and his third and fourth overs are the seventeenth and nineteenth over of the innings (again on average). So Bumrah’s “profile” is 4-12-17-19. In other words, he bowls sparingly in the powerplay, an over later on in the middle overs and two overs at death. We will assume that this is his preferred bowling “position”. 

In the recent series against South Africa, Bumrah had been rested, and India went with a six-man bowling attack consisting of Deepak Chahar, Navdeep Saini, Hardik Pandya, Krunal Pandya, Ravindra Jadeja and Washington Sundar. 

Assuming all of them bowled in their preferred positions (based on their positions in the IPL), this means the starting eleven was capable of contributing seven overs in the powerplay (3 of Chahar and 2 each of Sundar and Saini), six overs of the early middle overs (overs 7-10), nine overs of the late middle overs (overs 11-16) and only two overs of the slog (overs 17-20)! In other words, despite playing six bowlers, the team was running at only 50% capacity in terms of slog overs bowlers (while having healthy redundancy in all other positions). 

Looking down the list, we find that Sundar apart, most Indian spinners are similar in terms of their bowling position. Jadeja, Krunal Pandya, R Ashwin, Axar Patel, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal all come in to bowl either in the sixth or seventh over, and bowl through the middle overs finishing at over 16. Legspinner Rahul Chahar, who was part of the squad for the series against South Africa, finishes his quota even earlier.

In fact, as we go through the list, we find that Bumrah is the only Indian bowler who consistently bowls two overs at the death. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammad Siraj and Shardul Thakur bowl enough overs at the death that their third over, on average, is the sixteenth of the innings. They could be considered as possible replacements for the currently injured Bumrah, but they are not  specialists in bowling at the death. 

With the ICC World T20 exactly a year away, death bowling might be a problem that the Indian team seeks to address. Assuming Bumrah is fit, two of those overs will be taken care of, but it looks like the other two will fall to non-specialists. And that might be a weak link for India. 

There is a full season of the IPL to go before that. Hopefully that will help find a solution to this problem - assuming, of course, that the team thinks it’s a problem! 

It is not just the Indian team that has issues with the T20 bowling jigsaw. The player auction for the next season of the IPL have been announced, and will take place on the 19th of December in Kolkata. That’s barely two months away.

As mentioned earlier in this piece, teams such as RCB have issues with their bowling lineups - they haven’t solved the jigsaw effectively enough. The auction gives them, and a few other teams, the opportunity to straighten out their bowling rosters.

If you work for one of these teams, and think you might need some analytics and strategy help ahead of the auctions, feel free to reach out to me. Or if you know someone at an IPL team looking for auction strategy help, you can ask them to get in touch.