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KL Rahul, Virat Kohli, and the Question of ‘Slow-Downs’

Ben Jones analyses the question of batting acceleration and deceleration.

KL Rahul has had an interesting season. He’s smashed the highest ever IPL score by an Indian batsman, a swaggering 132* (69) against Royal Challengers Bangalore, and he sits at the top of the run scoring charts with the Orange Cap lodged firmly on his head. And yet Kings XI Punjab, under his leadership for the first time, are languishing at the bottom of the table with just one win from their five matches. For Rahul, the 2020 season so far is one of mixed emotions.

In a situation like the one in which Kings XI find themselves, people scrutinise the details. Despite his run scoring – two half centuries, on top of that ton against RCB – Rahul has been subject to criticism from some quarters, because his innings’ have been characterised by one frustrating flaw. After looking fluent and assertive in the Powerplay, Rahul has slowed down once the Powerplay has ended and his innings has gone on. From one phase to the next, despite being more ‘set’ at the crease and primed for acceleration, his scoring rate has dropped from 7.2rpo, to 6.9rpo. In most matches, his scoring rate has dropped by about 2rpo.

Of course, a drop off in scoring rate is entirely expected given the change in fielding restrictions, the open spaces of the outfield suddenly crowded with fielders. The average run rate in the first six overs, 8.2rpo, falls to 7.5rpo in the following four, a direct result of the field restrictions changing. While the frequency of sixes – broadly unaffected by field settings, though with obvious caveats – remains relatively stable, the frequency of boundary fours decrease significantly from roughly once an over, to roughly once every two overs. A certain amount of deceleration is normal, because the field restrictions simply make scoring boundaries harder. 

So in essence, a degree of deceleration is unavoidable. But does Rahul actually decelerate more, compared to other openers batting through the Powerplay and into the “lull” overs with the field back?

In raw terms – no, not really. While Rahul does slow down about 0.2rpo, that’s absolutely in line with the average for all players, and puts him very much in the middle of the pack is nowhere near the worst culprit. We know it’s been worse this season, but from a larger sample size, we can see that Rahul doesn’t have a huge issue with slowing down. 

Elsewhere on that chart, there are a few surprises. Some players rely very strongly on acceleration, the undisputed king being Shane Watson; in recent IPL seasons, his tepid Powerplay strike rate of 6.7rpo has been turbo-charged to 10.3rpo when the field has gone back. It’s a rare skill – only four other established openers (Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Chris Gayle and Jonny Bairstow) have actually managed to increase their scoring rate after the Powerplay. In terms of scale alone, Jos Buttler’s deceleration is a surprise, his scoring rate dropping by 2rpo when the field goes back; ultimately, this is largely due to his exceptional pace in the Powerplay, his initial rate of 9.9rpo unsustainable, and his eventual rate of 7.9rpo still far quicker than many of his contemporaries. The more potentially concerning cases are players like Faf du Plessis and Virat Kohli, who slow down significantly but from a far more modest initial rate.

Yet you can’t be too critical of these players, because we don’t know the situation they’re in. When players are accused of slowing down, the real accusation is that they are doing so disproportionately, in a way they don’t need to, given the match situation. Implicit or otherwise, the accusation is that they are placing too great a value on their own wicket, either through selfishness or lack of trust in the players below them. At 70-0 in the sixth, there’s less value; at 30-4, more. Scoring slowly but securely carries less value when there’s a bunch of wickets in hand and the required rate is high. What we are interested in really is the difference between how effective, how impactful, a player is in the Powerplay and then subsequently outside of it. Assessing the relationship between wicket value and run value is at the heart of white ball batting, but it’s something that traditional cricket statistics struggle to quantify. Our Batting Impact measure does take this into account, and by using it, we can better assess who’s slowing down because the situation demands it, and who’s slowing down to the detriment of their side.

When Rahul slows down, his Impact diminishes even though his run total is going up. This season Rahul has an Impact of +1.2 in the Powerplay, but -1.6 in the overs that follow it. This isn’t complicated stuff – anyone watching the game knows that a player taking 10 balls to go from 50 to 65 is probably not doing a good job. But in that time, the player’s batting average goes up, their run total goes up, and they’re rewarded by being closer to the Orange Cap. This emphasis on blunt measures, rewarding pure volume, is a natural consequence of T20 language and discourse not yet being appropriate for the sport it’s describing. The Orange Cap rewards the highest run scorer, not the Most Valuable Batsman; prominent fantasy games, so prevalent and increasingly unavoidable in cricket these days, often reward volume rather than impact. Outside of the context of matches, players are bombarded with affirmation for volume of run scoring regardless of context, ignoring the fact that in T20, it’s not just about how many runs, but how many, how quickly, and when.

From here, Rahul comes off worse, his Impact of +3.3 in the Powerplay (an excellent, elite record) falling down to about +0.5, a perfectly acceptable level of performance but one perhaps not reflective of his talent. Yet broadly we can see that over time, Rahul may slow down, but he remains – on balance – a positive influence to his side. Something which cannot be said of everyone on the list.

From a team construction perspective, the guys in red are simply negative players. They may have to play in order to achieve balance elsewhere in the squad, who because they offer more intangible skills – for Faf du Plessis, perhaps that’s experience, and for Sunil Narine perhaps it’s unpredictability. In a way, it’s easier to write off these players, wholly negative ones, than the group in pink. Those are the openers who go from a positive Impact initially, to a negative Impact when the Powerplay ends. These batsmen might not be prone to “slow-downs” (though many are), but they are the players who are actually deserving of the criticism levelled at the likes of KL Rahul. These players – Virat Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan being the most prominent – get less effective as their innings progresses into this phase. This feels particularly egregious for Dhawan, given many of his innings will have been played alongside some Delhi Capitals players who are very effective in the middle overs, such as Shreyas Iyer and Rishabh Pant, but it’s true of all the players in that group. In a well constructed side, these players are stepping on the toes of the middle order, making their job harder, and giving them more ground to recover.

Equally, those in the orange group are troublesome in their own way. Their ability to effect the game positively is hugely determined by surviving the Powerplay, the loss of their wicket early in the innings almost always having a negative effect on their side. Guys like Shane Watson and Chris Gayle are renowned for slow starts – and the issues associated with slow starters are far more widely discussed – but it’s equally true of Rohit Sharma. If the Mumbai captain doesn’t see things through into the middle overs, he likely has a negative effect on their chances. That comes with its own risks.

Yet ultimately, for all the issues at play here, when we talk about ‘slow-downs’, or “slow-starters”, we should do so acknowledge that very few players are capable of doing well in both these phases of the game. Only one player has started with a positive Impact in the Powerplay and then improved it after the Powerplay, and that player – Jonny Bairstow – has played a comparatively small number of matches. It’s very, very tough, to consistently open the batting and have a positive Impact both of these initial phases. Aside from the guys in red, all of the players we have discussed are capable of being perfect for any side, provided coaches use them correctly, and the onus should fall on the people in charge of the team off the field to arrange and organise their orders with the skills and flaws of the batsmen in mind.

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Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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