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The Punjab Press

Ben Jones looks at the extreme style of play shown by Mayank Agarwal’s team so far in IPL 2022.

Punjab Kings are a remarkable batting unit. Stacked with strong, powerful hitters, they are built on boundaries almost to a fault. Liam Livingstone, Jonny Bairstow, Odean Smith, Mayank Agarwal, Shikhar Dhawan, Shahrukh Khan – this is a group of ultra aggressive batters intent on intent. It’s a batting order founded on the notion that solidity is an overrated virtue in this form of the game, that wickets are overvalued, and that sixes are king. They don’t care about dismissals, and they want you to know that, fizzing with belief in their new approach, powered by the zeal of the recently converted. They can’t stop clearing the ropes, they can’t stop getting out.

Care-free and careless, Punjab Kings are an outlier. In IPL history, only one team has ever recorded a higher scoring rate across a season, and only a handful of teams have lost wickets more regularly. Quite literally, they stand apart from the crowd.

This isn’t a coincidence – Punjab’s high scores are a direct result of intent, and power. Their Attack Rating (a measure of intent based on shots played) this season is 174, among the highest ever for any batting order in the IPL, as is their Power Rating (a measure of a player’s ability to clear the ropes when making clean connections). Indeed, from the small sample we’ve seen, no IPL team has ever managed to match both Punjab’s aggression and their power. Often these extreme batting records come as a function of home venues, grounds with notably small dimensions or hybrid pitches. For Punjab, that’s not the case – they’re playing on the same venues as everyone else given the nature of IPL 2022, and any distinction from the pack is of their own doing. This is about style, not surfaces.

However, for all the distinctiveness and outward belief, that style is far from perfect. Punjab’s all-out-attack method does inherently means their batters frequently make mistakes, and often get out cheaply. We can see that plainly in their extremely low batting average, but also in their Timing Rating (a measure of how regularly batters make clean connections with their strokes); Punjab’s 86 is among the lowest Timing Ratings for any side in IPL history. Everything points to this being batting order being extreme, in the extreme.

Similarly, there are questions over how sustainable the approach is for this particular group of players, and we have ways of trying to gauge that. Contact Average, and Contact Strike Rate, are two CricViz measures which, put simply, assess whether a team is getting lucky with edges, or more specifically with the quality of contact a batter is making when playing their strokes. If your Contact Average is 30, and your Contact Strike Rate is 137, that’s the record we’d expect you to have given the connection you’re making with your shots. So, if your scorecard numbers are an average of 15 and a strike rate of 110, you’ve been unlucky. 

So far this season, the difference between Punjab’s actual batting numbers, and their ‘Contact Numbers’, is illuminating. While most teams outperform their Contact Strike Rate in IPL (a function of the small venues, largely), Punjab are outperforming it to a huge degree. To an extent, we’d expect this – you need a bit of luck to make 200 regularly, and they are set up to cash in when that luck arrives. What’s more interesting is that they’re also outperforming their Contact Average. That historically low batting average they’ve recorded so far this season? Well, they’re slightly fortunate it’s not even lower.

Another curious element of Punjab’s team is that they don’t actually bat that deep. Odean Smith came in at No.8 against KKR, but only because they threw Harpreet Brar up the order to keep Smith for the death. In every other game, Smith’s come in at No.7 or higher. Similarly, Rabada’s knock in that very match was just the second time he’s ever reached 25 in a T20 – an outlier, albeit from a player with obvious technical capability with the bat. Normally, teams who bat with this level of ultra-aggression, it’s because they bat all the way down, not because they have a normal batting depth with exclusively high intent, boundary-focused players. Punjab are taking an unusual route to a fairly well established batting approach.

Perhaps a more significant concern, rather than the performance of this batting order, is the effect that assembling that group has had on the rest of the squad. That overwhelming strength has come at a price – the quality of bowlers at Agarwal’s disposal is low. 

The table above shows that all of the main bowling options in the Punjab squad have a negative bowling impact in recent IPL seasons. For some, there are good explanations – youth, small sample sizes, bad usage by previous captains and teams – and you’d certainly expect those younger bowlers to improve with experience. Indeed, the improvement in Rabada’s Powerplay wicket taking (four in 14 matches last year; four in 2022) is already encouraging, but the overall weakness of the group remains. The biggest indicator of sustained success in T20 cricket is bowling strength, and Punjab’s attack will need to overperform if they’re to reach the play offs. 

Of course, Punjab will be aware of these flaws in their team construction. They went very deep in the bidding for Wanindu Hasaranga who eventually went to Royal Challengers Bangalore. As a quality, attacking bowler who would also add to the batting depth, in some respects they were extraordinarily close to solving both problems, in one move. But rather than try and cover for that with a similar player of lesser ability, Punjab have seemingly just accepted it, and moved on, rather more skewed and rather more chaotic than they would probably like, but leaning into it. Now, they are an exercise in extremes.

An imperfect comparison is the concept of the high-press in football. After losing the ball, pressing teams swarm the opposition, closing them down and attempting to get the ball back as soon as possible. If they succeed, the resulting chaos and disrupted defensive structure is often the ideal time to attack, and to score; if they fail, then huge swathes of the field are unoccupied, and the opposition are clean through. The best pressing sides coordinate these moves, with every stage planned out with a high-level of detail, orchestrated by the most intelligent players on the pitch. The worst ones may match the level of intensity and commitment, but with a lack of organisation, are less successful and often caught short.

Punjab’s batting method – and given the importance of batting to their overall plan, their entire method – is not dissimilar to a chaotic, uncoordinated press. The aggression of their batting, plus the power and ability of the players themselves, means that they can overwhelm most bowling attacks for the first 10/15 overs, with wave after wave of hitting that maximises the full length of the innings, and doesn’t overvalue wickets. 

If they don’t lose wickets, then Punjab can continue that for the entire innings, and make the scores of 180+ which give them a chance of defending and winning. If they do lose wickets, then their surprisingly shallow batting depth means that they can’t sustain their attack, and they fall short, which given their bowling limitations gives them little chance of victory. It’s high risk, high reward. It’s the Punjab Press.

Their opening game against RCB saw their most complete batting performance, executing their plan perfectly – short sharp aggressive innings from all involved, culminating in Smith battering 25 (8) to get them over the line. Against KKR, the flipside came to the fore; batted first, collapsed, before Andre Russell destroyed the attack. Liam Livingstone found form against CSK battering 60 (32), as they brutalised another of the tournament’s weaker attacks. They then smacked 190 against Gujarat Titans, but failed to defend it against perhaps the most underpowered batting order in the competition on paper. On Wednesday night, they came within a whisker of doing the same against a Mumbai Indians side with Murugan Ashwin at No.7.  

Yes, Punjab’s high-octane batting depth is implicitly better suited to chasing, when the equation is clearer, and it’s no coincidence their best performance came against RCB. Losing four out of five tosses has given them very little opportunity to express their batting strength in an ideal context. On top of that, they have found a reasonable foothold in their opening games without their most proven elite batter (Jonny Bairstow) making a score of note. There is, remarkably, more to come from this batting order.

However, the fresher pitches we are seeing in the competition so far are getting the best from a powerful but slightly one-dimensional group of hitters. As those pitches wear across the next six weeks, you’d expect their batting to struggle more. Add to that the good fortune we outlined earlier in terms of how sustainable their approach is, and the issue intensifies. They probably need to be winning now, and they are – just.

Whether Punjab succeed this season, Agarwal’s side are an elegant example of where the next stage of IPL could see the tournament progress. Plenty of woe has been expressed about how long the tournament will be in the new format, occupying yet more of the cricketing calendar, but the more significant change is the move from 8 teams to 10. The dilution of playing quality has not been enormous, but it is undeniable, with most teams now including a few younger players or guys that have been bench options in recent years in their starting XIs. 

More positively, it has forced teams into clearer strategies. T20 recruitment structures, be they auctions or drafts, inherently force teams into being skewed towards batting or bowling. In FC cricket, where recruitment is more ad-hoc and less equitable, a good batting team is likely to be a good bowling team. In T20, the reverse is true – e.g. good at bowling, probably bad at batting. The expansion of the IPL seems, on the face of it, to have exaggerated this effect. More teams are clearly defined as Bowling Heavy (Gujarat Titans, Kolkata Knight Riders) and more teams, like Punjab Kings themselves, are clearly defined as Batting Heavy. The thinner spread of proven domestic quality has made it harder to be a truly balanced side.

That may result in fewer “perfect” teams – golden age Mumbai Indians spring to mind – as the act of assembling bowling attacks and batting orders becomes more about trade offs and compromise. But that should also result in a wider range of more diverse and varied teams, playing strikingly different versions of T20 cricket. Agarwal’s side may rather confidently preach that they are the future due to their boundary-focused batting, but with their skewed tactical plan a perfect illustration of the tournament’s direction, perhaps Punjab Kings are the future after all.

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