Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Risk in T20 particularly in the IPL

It has been many years and many moons since I last wrote anything about well, anything. I'm glad to say that I have been brought out of retirement (does it count if you didn't write much to begin with?) by this great podcast by the team at 81 allout featuring Mr. Cricket couch and Kartikeya Date. If you haven't heard the podcast (or any of their other episodes, I strongly recommend you look for them on your favourite podcast platform, take a look at their website or reach out to @ABVan and @sidvee on Twitter).

For many years now, Couch and Kartikeya have spoken, written and tweeted at length about how T20 cricket is a vastly different game to Test or even ODI cricket, and without going into the detail of their arguments (you should listen to the podcast for that), their key point is that the skill sets required are almost vastly different. I agree with a lot of their points, but that's not why I write this. I write this because I want to make slight modifications to their view, and also assess how teams seem to approach T20 in the way they structure their teams with particular emphasis on batting line ups in IPL teams.

Before I dive into it, I want to bring up a quote from a non cricket person. If you are a cricket fan, the name Daryl Morey might mean nothing to you, but in the world of sports, particularly in the USA, Daryl Morey is representative of "Money Ball" and Sports Analytics in General. GM of the Houston Rockets and one of the key founders of the world famous MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. To set the context of this quote - the Golden State Warriors had just signed Kevin Durant and beaten the Cavaliers in 5 games in the NBA finals. Across the league teams had shelved their short term plans in the face of the Warriors juggernaut and decided to either plan for a few years ahead while treading water (like Boston) or go all in on a tank job (like Phoenix and Atlanta). Daryl Morey, traded for Chris Paul. When asked by Zach Lowe (who's podcast, the Lowe Post is one of the best around), about the move, Daryl Morey reponded "They are not unbeatable. There have been bigger upsets in sports history. We are going to keep improving our roster. We are used to long odds. If Golden State makes the odds longer, we might up our risk profile and get even more aggressive. We have something up our sleeve."

I bring this quote up because it sets up my premise perfectly. My view of how sports teams are and should be structured is based on risk, especially when it comes to sports where managing your resources is nearly as vital as having the right resources in the first place. Basketball and T20 are perfect examples of just this. What do I mean by "risk" here?  Every T20 side, by virtue of the XI put on the field, will have an expectation of what they might deliver on the field. Let's consider the examples of Virat Kohli and Andre Russell. Based on his career average, I would expect Kohli's average innings to be roughly 41 off 31 balls. By the same, measure an average Andre Russell innings is worth 25 off 15 balls. At first glance, by every traditional way we think of cricket, we instantly go "Virat Kohli's a better T20 batsman". The key point here is that the average means (*chuckle*) nothing on its own. Lets look at the distribution a little. (Note: I've used statsguru for lack of time and so have looked at T20 internationals only, but should be good enough to give you a flavour). Out of 62 innings, Virat Kohli averages 50+, with only 2 ducks and 9 single digit scores. On the face of it, once again incredible. Andre Russell averages 18, with 6 ducks out of 39 innings and and 12 other single digit scores then. That's a pretty ordinary record which should be excused by the fact that he's played a lot lower down the order than Kohli has over time. Why then did I pick Russell as a comparison? Russell is the modern prototypical big hitting free swinging batsman, while Kohli is the more traditionalist "all formats" player (and secondly, this comparison was heavily featured on the 81 allout podcast I referenced earlier). How does this show in the numbers? Virat Kohli has scored at or faster than 2 runs a ball once, in his entire 62 innings. Russell, has done this 9 times in 39 innings!

Now, Couch and Kartikeya were emphatic in their rating of Russell being a more suited T20 batsman than Kohli. My opinion, stands somewhere in the middle.

Here are 2 scorecards from 2 T20 world cup finals - 2016 and 2018. What's the common thread between these 2 T20 Final triumphs? West Indies top order failed (2-14 in 2012, 3-11 in 2016) and had to be rescued by critical innings by Marlon Samuels before a late order surge (once by Darren Sammy and once rather famously by Carlos Brathwaite) won the game for the West Indies. Here, lies the perfect illustration of my view. Samuels' innings at a strike rate of 140 in 2012 and 128 in 2016, to me were just as important as Sammy and Brathwaite's blinders to their victories. While Couch and Kartikeya may argue that Sammy and Brathwaite approached T20 the way it should be, my counter would be this - players like Sammy, Brathwaite, Russell increase the ceiling of teams by upping their risk profile. But players like Virat Kohli, Steve Smith, Du Plessis raise the floor, which is equally important toward managing your risk profile. One cannot exist without the other. A team of eleven Andre Russells would lose a lot because they would always be one mishit from starting a collapse. A team of eleven Virat Kohli's would lead to a string of 150 scores from 20 overs which would on average lose more than it won. However, this also means that they would be competitive in more games. Now lets take this principle and look at how IPL teams have and are approaching this.

The Chennai Super Kings and Mumbai Indians have followed roughly a similar formula to each other - Invest big in their top 3 batsmen and their late order hitters, and fill the gap with batman (or men) to stabilize innings that go wrong. Think Watson, Faf, Raina (or indeed McCullum, Smith, Raina) vs. Rohit, De Kock at the top for Mumbai; Dhoni (though his powers have waned with age), Jadhav, Jadeja vs. Pollard, H and K Pandya (think Morkel, Kemp in CSK teams past and Corey Anderson types for Mumbai); with Rayudu, Suryakumar Yadav types (S Badrinath, Rayudu in the past) filling in the middle. This strategy has worked well for the teams because it features a batting line up who's top and middle order, for the most part (McCullum being the only exception) are likely to take a team to a score of about 65-75/2 at the 10 over mark. Why is this important? This is where the floor of the innings is set. Collapse too early, and the game is gone before you've even finished a single innings. From this platform, now that a team has assured themselves that a 140-150 score is a near guarantee, the teams then rely on their powerful hitting down the order (or set top order batsmen) to open up on the risk front to propel them to 180+ scores. Now what does this mean? It means that neither of these teams is likely to score 240-250 scores, with the rare exception. They are also unlikely to get bundled out for 80, once again with the rare exception.

In most recent time, the Sunrisers Hyderabad have applied pretty much this exact strategy to their own time and have done well in recent years (Warner, Bairstow at the top, Vijay Shankar and Pandey to steady the ship in the middle and hitters like Nabi, Pathan, Hooda and Rashid down the end). The reason why they look vulnerable is because their middle and lower order has struggled for form, so when their top order fail, they lose. Kolkata (as pointed out to me by @Sidvee) are also beautifully structured for the T20 game, with a high risk opener in Narine, batting with Chris Lynn, stabilizers in Uthappa and Gill, and power players in Karthik, Russell, Chawla. This year, Kolkata have had the opposite problem of the Sun Risers. The one game where Narine and Lynn came off really well, they won at a canter. When they failed, Russell had to bail them out thrice. What is the lesson from these 2 sides? It's the same lesson that CSK seem to have learnt early in their cricketing journey - Mix of risk and stability is the key to success. The evidence of CSK's understanding of this stems directly from their captain MS Dhoni. Early in the IPL, he once said that CSK's goal was to ensure they won more than they lost and reach the semi finals, after which games could go any which way on the back game changing innings, and he was right. Lifting the floor of your performances, invariably means you are in close games more often, while padding that floor with the ability to bounce hard every now and then lifts the ceiling just enough to get by. If you're a team like the West Indies, spoilt with the riches of big hitters everywhere, you still need a Marlon Samuels (or even a Chris Gayle taking his time at the start) to be the floor, for the day it all collapses in a heap. This is T20 cricket's yin and yang. 

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