CricViz analyst Freddie Wilde identifies some of the major T20 trends and tactics to emerge since the last World Cup and explains how they may shape this tournament.
Domestic cricket is the engine room of the T20’s tactical growth but World Cups – typically held every two years – have generally represented a global window into the evolution of the format. The tournament has provided an opportunity for insight into the strategies that are shaping the game.
However, a change to the ICC’s event schedule and the onset of Covid-19 means that it has now been more than five and a half years since the last World Cup in 2016. In that time there have been more than 4000 T20 matches played. The rate of change, evolution and progress in the game has never been greater and yet the gap between World Cups—the opportunity to showcase these changes to the world—has never been larger.
To give you an idea about how long it is since the last World Cup and how much has changed since, when the last tournament was staged Rashid Khan had ten T20 wickets (he now has 392), Andre Russell had hit 22 IPL sixes (he now has hit 143); Sunil Narine had never opened the batting (he now has done so 102 times) and Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings had four IPL titles between them (they now have nine).
Here is a lowdown on the tactical trends that have emerged since the last World Cup and will shape this edition of the tournament.
A batting shield is a tactical batting move where the strength of one (or more) player(s) covers the weakness of one (or more) player(s). More often than not this is in a partnership, and most of the time an opening partnership but it can also take the form of a batting order with the strengths of some players counteracting the weaknesses of others.
The purpose of a batting shield is to complicate bowling sides playing to match-ups by creating a partnership with complimentary players. A batting shield is in simple terms an extension of the idea of pairing right and left-hand batsmen together because they can take on different types of spin—which remains the most common example of a batting shield—but they can take on more sophisticated forms as well.
The most famous example of a batting shield was provided by Kolkata Knight Riders, first identified by Alagappan Vijaykumar back in 2018 who termed it the ‘Lynnshield’. By the 2017 IPL the rise of spin in the Powerplay—from 6% in 2007 to 24% in 2017—saw KKR promote Sunil Narine to open the batting with Chris Lynn.
Narine, a left-hander who smashed spin, was deployed in this role to protect Lynn because the Australian was being targeted regularly by Powerplay spin bowlers. Opposition teams would open with spin bowling to target Lynn, who was perceived as the bigger threat, only for Narine to take on the spin. Many teams fell into the trap and after a while Narine’s spin-hitting became so good that many teams opted to start with pace—which Narine hated—and risk being taken down by Lynn in order to remove Narine before turning to spin.
In this World Cup an example can be seen at the West Indies where Lendl Simmons represents a left-to-right spin shield. Except for Simmons the West Indies top order (Evin Lewis, Chris Gayle, Nicholas Pooran and possibly Shimron Hetmyer as well) are left-hander heavy which leaves them vulnerable to the ball spinning from left-to-right, whether that is from a left-arm wrist spinner or an off spinner. Simmons complicates the usage of these types of bowlers. The length of his innings and his intent against left-to-right spin will be important.
In some shields batters not only assume responsibility for targeting their match-up but carefully manage the strike to ensure favourable match-ups are engineered and unfavourable match-ups are avoided as often as possible. This tactic—best described as ‘match-up management’—is rare but is beginning to creep into the game. In the 2020 CPL Lynn was opening the batting with the left-handed Evin Lewis and in just the third over of the game Lynn turned down the opportunity to run a single against the off spinner Mohammad Nabi because while Lynn is generally weaker against spin he knew that his partner Lewis had a significant weakness against off spin and a single would’ve exposed him to this unfavourable match-up. It remains to be seen whether this tactic becomes more widely utilised but it represents the logical extreme of batting shields. The most common example of match-up management will likely be seen in who faces the first ball of the innings based on which bowler is going. to bowl. For example Quinton de Kock may not take strike if an off spinner took the first over.
HIGH PACE WRIST SPIN
At the 2016 World Cup wrist spin was already on the rise. The ICC’s clampdown on suspect bowling actions before the 2015 ODI World Cup had massively restricted the effectiveness of finger spinners who had been liberally employing the doosra and carrom ball. These deliveries, aside from being effective in their own right, enabled off spinners to turn the ball both ways and, as a result, play to match-ups more effectively. With finger spin less effective wrist spin was the only reliably legal way to spin the ball both ways.
Since the 2016 World Cup the rise of wrist spin has been accelerated by the progress of the art itself, which has made it more effective and in turn more popular. The enormous success of Rashid Khan, who – inspired by Shahid Afridi – has bowled flatter, faster, straighter, shorter & a higher proportion of googlies has revolutionised leg spin. Imran Tahir and Samuel Badree have also played a role in this process and now wrist spinners can often be divided into old-school (those who bowl slower, fuller, wider and spin the ball more) and new-age (those who bowl more like Rashid). In the last two years in particular the influence of the new-age method is beginning to be felt with aggregate leg spin stats seeing speeds rise and lengths get shorter.
Indeed, the Rashid effect is being so keenly felt that teams are now selecting leg spinners with strong consideration for their speed. For example, India have left Yuzvendra Chahal (a slower, loopier wrist spinner) out of their squad and selected Rahul Chahar (a faster, flatter leg spinner), with Virat Kohli himself admitting that Chahar’s speed was a key reason for the selection.
MIDDLE ORDER LEFT-HANDERS
The rise of leg spin more generally has meant bowling teams are able to spin the ball away from the right-handers with increasing regularity.
In the last two years however a response is beginning to be felt from batting teams who are more regularly using left-handers in the middle order to counter the abundance of leg spinners because although leg spinners can turn the ball both ways the influence of Rashid is still taking effect. Essentially, left-handers remain the best way of countering leg spin.
Perhaps the most famous and telling example of the rise of middle order left-handers is provided by Gayle’s move from opener to number three. Gayle’s legendary career has been predicated on his success as opener but he has now moved to three for Punjab Kings and the West Indies, in both instances forming a leg spin shield with Nicholas Pooran at number four.
If both the two trends identified above—the Rashid Khan effect & rise of left-handers—continue then we can expect to see the proportion of googlies bowled to the left-handers rise. We are also likely to see off spin bowlers used as match-up options—the way Mumbai Indians have used Jayant Yadav against left-hander heavy Delhi Capitals for example—and in the longer-term may see left-arm wrist spinners picked more often; Tabraiz Shamsi’s success against the left-hander heavy West Indies is illustrative of this.
SPIN HITTERS AND THE FOURTH PHASE
This is a relatively rare but very modern and aggressive tactic. Overs 7-11 are when the field drops back and the spinners start to operate and they are generally the quietest period in a T20 innings. Across the last decade run rates have been rising in the phase but not to a greater degree than they are across the innings. However, in recent years some teams have begun to aggressively exploit this phase by employing specialist spin hitters and emboldening them to bat with high intent.
T20 innings are typically split into three clear phases but this tactic threatens the establishment of a ‘fourth phase’. Islamabad United in the 2020 PSL adopted an aggressive approach in this period by promoting Shadab Khan, while Birmingham Phoenix and Chennai Super Kings—both using Moeen Ali—did something similar. Southern Punjab in the 2020 National T20 Cup scored at a record 11.15 runs per over across 11 matches in the period. In this World Cup the likes of Moeen, Gayle, Pooran, Maxwell and Fakhar Zaman could be employed in this pseudo pinch-hitting role.
THE RISE OF ENFORCERS
The rise of spin hitters through the middle order to counter the prevalence of spin in the phase has seen bowling teams turn to ‘enforcers’. These are essentially fast bowlers who are tasked with bowling very fast, and often short lengths, through the middle overs of the innings in an attempt to counter the spin hitters. Lockie Ferguson, Anrich Nortje, Haris Rauf and Mark Wood are four such bowlers. This trend is most clearly apparent in the IPL but it is beginning to creep into the game more generally and is likely to be a feature in this World Cup.
The reason for this is that techniques that are well set-up to play spin bowling well: low hands, low centre of gravity and front foot triggers, are exactly the kind of techniques that can be exposed by faster and shorter bowling. Pooran, Moeen, Maxwell and Shreyas Iyer provide some nice examples.
The deployment of enforcers elevates the importance of high pace batting shields through the middle overs. Whereas previously teams could comfortably deploy two spin hitters together, ideally a right and a left-hander to act as shields for one another, now this risks these players being attacked with enforcers.
HARD LENGTHS AT THE DEATH
This trend is in-part related to the rise of enforcers because just as spin-hitting techniques are able to be countered with shorter lengths, so too are many modern death hitting techniques.
The reason for this is that death hitting has evolved in a way that has been focussed on hitting full length deliveries because at the death the large majority of balls are full with bowlers hunting regularly for yorkers. This has bred a generation of batsmen—Kieron Pollard, Andre Russell and Hardik Pandya are the three most prevalent examples—whose techniques are perfectly set-up for propping onto the front foot and smashing full balls powerfully back down the ground.
The rise of ramps and scoops has also played a role in this evolution. Batsmen such as Maxwell, Jos Buttler and Faf du Plessis are very effective at turning attempted yorkers into scoring opportunities by opening up areas behind square.
However, these techniques that have made players so effective at tackling full lengths have made them vulnerable against what are generally termed as ‘hard lengths’ – these are balls that are shorter than a good length but not so short as to enable batsmen to easily pull or hook them. These kind of lengths attack the top of the bat and bottom of the bat handle. The tighter the line and the faster the pace the more effective they are. Width enables batsmen to throw their hands through it while a lack of pace affords them time to get set.
Perhaps the clearest example of a bowler who has benefitted from the effectiveness of hard lengths is Tymal Mills. The England left-armer’s method at the death is predicated on bowling into the pitch at high pace rather than hunting for yorkers. Until this year’s Hundred season the CricViz database did not have a single Mills yorker in it. In an effort to stay ahead of the game Mills started turning to yorkers occasionally in The Hundred but more often than not he’ll opt for hard lengths.
Variation in lengths (and speed) is still important but in this World Cup expect to see hard lengths play a significant role in shackling the world’s most destructive and innovative hitters. Perhaps most importantly, hard lengths offer greater margin for error than yorkers with short balls and good length balls going for fewer runs per over than full tosses and half volleys.
Fluid batting orders have long been a part of limited overs cricket but modern T20 cricket is accelerating their usage and therefore our understanding and analysis of them. As the format has evolved and become increasingly defined by match-ups some teams are beginning to start structuring their batting innings using ‘entry points’ rather than pre-defined batting orders. Entry points essentially means deploying batting resources according to certain stages in the innings rather than a number in the batting order so as to best exploit that player’s strength or engineer more favourable match-ups.
A good example of this is AB de Villiers in the IPL. During the recent season of the IPL RCB received a lot of criticism when de Villiers came out to bat at number six in their match against SRH. However, the logic to the tactic was that RCB were positioning de Villiers not to a set number in the batting order but by his entry point.
After a first ball duck against KKR in the ninth over, RCB appeared to decide that they wanted de Villiers to arrive in the late middle overs – whether that meant batting him as high as three (v CSK) or as low as six (v SRH). de Villiers actually arrived earlier v SRH than v MI and RR but because he was lower in the order v SRH it received more attention.
Some teams buy into the idea of entry points more than others but heading into the World Cup it’s worth bearing them in mind – particularly around some of the star power-hitters for whom getting entry points right is particularly important so as to not expose them to unfavourable spin match-ups and get them batting against pace and with license to attack.
The West Indies provide arguably the most interesting example of entry points with Pooran, Pollard and Russell. Pooran is brilliant against spin and best utilised through the middle but at what point in the middle overs does it become better for them to shift focus towards Pollard’s more rounded pace and spin hitting and Russell’s pace power-hitting?
This is a rare batting tactic that sees teams aggressively seek to exploit the Powerplay fielding restrictions with an attacking opening partnership and sometimes using a flexible number three to continue the onslaught if a wicket falls early. During The Hundred the Oval Invincibles utilised this tactic with Will Jacks, Jason Roy and Sunil Narine as a Powerplay tag team, sending in Narine at three if the first wicket fell with a decent chunk of the Powerplay still remaining but then sliding Narine down if the openers made it through the fielding restrictions. In the last five years the Trinbago Knight Riders have also at times front-loaded their batting like this.
Front-loading has particular value in conditions where batting becomes more difficult as the innings progresses – something that can happen on tired subcontinental pitches. Indeed, it is something that might come into play in this World Cup given the volume of cricket that has been played in the UAE recently. In the UAE-leg of the IPL 31% of team runs were scored in the Powerplay – that is the highest proportion of any IPL season (split by host venue) on record. Afghanistan, with an opening trio of Mohammad Shahzad Hazratullah Zazai and Rahmanullah Gurbaz, stand out as being well set up to front-load; England also with Jason Roy and Buttler and the possibility of Moeen Ali at three could do something similar.