Ben Jones considers a key balance issue for David Warner’s side.
Ahead of this IPL season, a lot of the discussion surrounding Sunrisers Hyderabad has been around the balance of their overseas players. With captain David Warner leading the batting order, and Rashid Khan arguably the tournament’s best bowler leading the attack, two overseas places are absolutely nailed on, and not up for debate. However, the remaining two spots are wide open, competed for by Jonny Bairstow, Kane Williamson, Jason Holder, Mohammed Nabi, Jason Roy and Mujeeb ur Rahman.
Now, for years Sunrisers’ main problem has been their middle order, their domestic batting invariably lacking in both quality and depth. Since their first season in 2013, only two (of 11) IPL sides have averaged less with their middle order (PWI and RR), and only one has scored more slowly (PWI). As such, they have generally opted for at least two overseas batsmen in the top order to balance that out and bring some much needed quality. In the last three seasons, that has been a choice between Bairstow, and Williamson.
This year, Bairstow has started in the XI. He played excellently in the opening defeat to Kolkata Knight Riders to make 55 (40), and while Manish Pandey batted very well for his 61 (44), Bairstow looked the more dangerous threat to Eoin Morgan’s bowling attack; Sunrisers may not have won the game, but they were vindicated in the choice of Bairstow over Williamson. However, coach Trevor Bayliss then confirmed in the post-match press conference that “we just felt that Kane needed a little bit of extra time to get match fit and a little bit more time in the nets…he would have played in place of Jonny Bairstow obviously if that had occurred.”
It’s understandable, in a way. Last season the four game winning streak which threatened to take them to the final coincided with pairing Williamson and Warner as the overseas batsmen, and using Jason Holder as the final overseas pick to round out the lower order. That formula brought them success, relatively speaking, and to move away from it too easily would be wrong.
However, in terms of a direct comparison between Bairstow and Williamson, looking at a reasonably large sample of matches, the Englishman stands out as the better performer. In the last two IPL seasons, Bairstow has averaged more than Williamson, scored his runs at a faster rate, and influenced matches – in a measurable sense – to a greater degree.
What’s more, that pattern extends beyond IPL. Looking at all the T20 batting these two have done in last two years, Bairstow scores significantly quicker than Williamson and has recorded a much higher average Batting Impact, albeit while recording almost identical standard batting averages. His performances across the last 24 months have been better, both in IPL and in T20 more generally.
This is not to say Williamson’s place in the side is without value – that would be absurd. His leadership qualities and handy off spin are two substantial gains he has on Bairstow before you even consider his status as one of the finest all-format batting talents the game has ever seen. Williamson will almost never be a bad pick, but with the current set-up of Sunrisers’ side, he may be a worse pick than Bairstow.
Equally, that status and reputation as an all-format player does lead to some slight misconceptions. In the last two seasons, Williamson’s game against spin has actually been quite middling. He’s scored at 6.9rpo (strike rate 115), and he’s averaged 34.6, a solid but unspectacular record and one which compares unfavourably to Bairstow’s 32.3 @ 8.7rpo. Williamson clearly has the ability to ‘problem solve’ on tricky wickets, and his Abu Dhabi performances last season (averaging 65 and scoring at 8.7rpo) illustrate that he can score quickly at low-scoring venues, but it doesn’t translate to an overall dominance of spin.
So, if Sunrisers are going to choose one of these guys, then the numbers suggest they would be better off selecting Bairstow. However while there is a scenario and team balance which does force them to choose between the two, there is another equally viable team balance, which doesn’t.
The alternative is that rather than having to choose between these two excellent players, Sunrisers find a way to get both of them in. There are two things they would need to do should they go with both Williamson and Bairstow: moving to a more shallow batting order, and backing Abdul Samad.
Samad, the young Indian batsman, caught the eye against KKR on Sunday night. Hitting Pat Cummins for two huge sixes, in a rapid fire 19* (8) which threatened to take Sunrisers over the line, should be the sort of cameo from a young player which shocks views. Yet for anyone who watched Samad last season, it would come as no surprise In his short IPL career to date, he’s hit sixes off the bowling of Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje, Jasprit Bumrah, and Cummins himself. Last season, his Power Rating of 143 was the is the sixth highest of any Indian batsman – in essence, his six-hitting ability is right up there with the very best. While the Ratings themselves are not predictive, and there’s no guarantee that he will maintain this, but the early signs are about as good as they can be for a player of his age.
Ideally, you’d have given Samad a season to bed in as a bonus player, a guy who changes the game should he come off, but has little pressure on him. However, the imbalance nature of the SRH squad, and the extent of Samad’s talent, may deprive him of that luxury. In context, he may be too good not to trust.
In essence, this comes down to a choice not between Bairstow and Williamson, but between Team A and Team B – or at least their comparable structures. Team A relies on the form of the overseas all-rounder to fill out both the batting and the bowling, and has substantial batting depth if not particular quality. Team B has shallow batting depth, but higher quality, and would allow for five specialist bowlers plus occasional overs from Samad or Williamson. Rather cutely, if you reduced playing styles to a very simplistic level, one feels inherently more like the side Trevor Bayliss would pick, while the other is more obviously associated with a Tom Moody style of cricket.
Given the resources available to SRH, I would argue that Team B is the more appealing option. Given you have two of the world’s best wicket-preservers in your top four, the need for batting depth is significantly lessened. An extra domestic bowler can be selected according to the unique challenges of any given match, offering flexibility; the primary flaw in the SRH attack is a lack of pace, but that is a problem which can’t be solved this season, given the squad at their disposal. As such, doubling down on bowling to ‘match-ups’, and horses for courses selections, makes sense.
With Williamson likely to be fit and available for Wednesday’s match against RCB, the trio of Bayliss, Moody, and Warner will have to make a call – whichever way they go, it could well decide the fate of their season.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.