The Twenty20 Risk/Reward Ratio

(and why Sunil Narine can hit boundaries at will)

The game of cricket has evolved considerably over the hundred and fifty years it has been in existence. To list the changes with the most significant impact on the game, underarm bowling gave way to roundarm, which in turn gave way to overarm, pitches started to get covered, helmets arrived giving batsmen a critical layer of protection, ODIs and World Cups happened, bringing with them coloured clothing, all finally leading up to the rise of T20 and franchise cricket.

One could argue that each of these major occurrences was the most significant. Surely no one will disagree that had the transition from underarm to overarm not happened, the game would have remained more a backyard pastime and never have evolved into a professional sport. Scorecards from the uncovered pitches era need to be read with sepia-tinted glasses for context, while limited overs ushered in a whole new era of the sport.

Having said that, all of these innovations were spread out evenly over the better part of a century, with decades of cricket played before the next one came along. The same cannot be said about the advent of T20. Although it is frequently referred to as the T20 revolution, I would rather call it an evolution. Incremental innovation has followed incremental innovation at a breakneck pace over the last 10 years, such that the sport of today is barely recognizable to the one played a decade ago, and as such has made it easy to mistake the rapid evolution for a revolution.

What have been the major innovations that make T20 a sport so different from the one we used to know? Let us look at each of cricket’s three primary skills in isolation. Batting has probably changed the most. Today, batsmen have opened up all areas of the field with an assortment of ramps and scoops so much so that AB De Villiers no longer remains the only Mr. 360 going around. Shots that conventional wisdom would deem ‘low percentage’ are no longer so as batsmen are increasingly perfecting them and executing them a lot more frequently. The evolution that started when Ranji flicked his wrists to open up the hitherto unexplored legside seems to be coming to fruition.

Bowlers have expanded their portfolio by mastering variations in the five variables in their control — line, length, pace, angle & manner of delivery. A yorker could be speared into leg stump, or could flirt with the wide line, depending on the strengths of the batsman, his trigger movement and the field set. Ravi Jadeja can flight the ball over the eyeline or fire it in roundarm. A slower ball can just as likely be a bouncer as pitched up. And it could be a conventional offcutter, legcutter, bowled from the back of the hand, or this newfangled knuckeball that AJ Tye seems to have mastered.

Fielding, meanwhile, has grown more spectacular and more erratic at the same time. Relay catches and balls destined to land outside the boundary rope being caught and thrown back into the field of play have rapidly grown in frequency even as simple catches keep getting dropped at the same pace.

While these innovations have certainly changed the face of the game and will continue to do so, a different sort of evolution, a mental one, is only just beginning to take place. In the past, we have seen how a rule change can impact mindsets and catalyze change; for instance, if they hadn’t grown up playing with helmets on their heads, it would be hard to imagine Ricky Ponting playing a front-foot pull shot or Tillekaratne Dilshan coming up with the scoop (unless he is of a masochistic persuasion and has immense disregard for his visage).

Today we are on the verge of a mindset shift as batsmen begin to realize that in the shortest format, wickets are being overvalued as a resource and deliveries are being undervalued. Kartikeya Date does a great job in this eloquent, data-driven piece explaining exactly why conventional knowledge has got the relative importance of these two resources in T20s wrong. Teams have tended to overvalue the importance of wickets in hand, particularly in chases, but evidence has started to emerge that this may be about to change.

Case in point #1, the emergence of Sunil Narine as a credible Twenty20 opener. Nothing summarizes the recognition of the declining value of wickets quite like these words from AR Shrikanth, KKR performance analyst, “If he gets a 10-ball 20 it’s a bonus. We have nothing to lose even if he gets out first ball.”

Now there is nothing novel about the concept of a dispensable batsman sent up the order to accelerate scoring. Pinch-hitters arrived on the scene as far back as the early 90s; in fact, there is nothing original about the concept of pinch-hitting in cricket either, both the role and the term being borrowed from baseball.

What is novel about Narine’s success is that nothing-to-lose mindset is being taken to an extreme due to the accompanying set of circumstances. Let us examine what those circumstances are. First, bats have evolved from the slim, elegant instruments of artistry they used to be to the broad, monstrous tools of butchery that allow batsmen to play lofted shots with impunity, knowing edges will easily sail over the infield. Second, shorter boundaries. And third, the low price on wickets in T20. This is further compounded by the fact that Narine’s wicket is seen as far less costly than, say, Gautam Gambhir’s.

The end result of all these factors coming into play all at once is the fearless strokeplay that we are witnessing from Narine. Such is the effect of this fearlessness that he can afford to throw his bat at every single delivery, concepts like ‘getting your eye in’ and ‘merit of the delivery’ be damned. Because of the fielding restrictions in the powerplay, this means that he is scoring very heavily in boundaries, at a rate of 2.7 balls per boundary, the best in the current IPL (Maxwell a distant second at 3.6 balls per boundary).

He doesn’t even have to bat very well to score at this rate. While there is no denying his batting has come along in leaps and bounds, the fact remains that a not insignificant percentage of his boundaries have come with mistimed shots and edges. A lot of his lofted shots, had they been perfectly executed the way he pictured them in his head, would have cleared the ropes, but were mistimed instead, landed 20–30 yards inside and trickled away to the boundary.

A breakdown of the balls he’s faced in this year’s IPL is revealing. Of the 79 balls faced, a staggering 22, or 28% have been swung at & missed. 21 balls have been lofted boundaries or sixes, so (assuming all the swings & misses were intended to be lofted shots) it is fair to say he connects to a lofted shot on every second attempt. Just 6 boundaries have been scored along the ground, and a couple have been edged down to third man. Just 3 deliveries have been left alone or defended, adding further credence to the theory that ‘getting set’ is an overrated concept, and frankly unnecessary when you can swing at everything and connect half the time.

The manner of his dismissals is also telling. Apart from being run out once, on three occasions, he has been nailed by yorkers or cleaned up by pace, and three times he has found the man in the deep or failed to get enough distance on a lofted shot. Living by the sword and dying by it. Never has he been dismissed taking half measures or defending, like getting caught in the infield, or caught behind or chipping back to the bowler, for instance.

The implications of this are clear. The Risk/Reward ratio is a term used by investors which is defined as the expected returns of an investment to the amount of risk undertaken to capture these returns. The Kolkata Knight Riders have just realized that the expected returns from pursuing this sort of devil-may-care strategy are a lot higher than have been traditionally assumed, while the risk undertaken (at least in the case when the batsman implementing said strategy is Narine) is far lower when you start to realize balls available are a more valuable resource and wickets in hand less so, than previously thought.

Another incidence that comes to mind is this innings from Nitish Rana where he hit 7 sixes and not a single boundary. Furthermore, a scroll through the commentary of the game will tell you that just 3 times he attempted to score a boundary along the ground that was cut off. The rest of his attacking shots were all aerial. It would have been inconceivable ten years ago when the IPL started that a young uncapped Indian player would back himself to hit sixes almost at will. Playing in the air would have been perceived as an undue risk at the time, and rightly that risk perception is coming down and will continue to do so.

Let us end with a though experiment. Let’s assume Narine continues to play this way. He succeeds 2 out of 5 times and fails the other 3 times. Let’s give his ‘successful’ innings a modest 35 runs and every failure 10 runs. Given his run of scores in this IPL when opening the batting have been 37, 6, 42, 34, 16, 4, this seems like a very reasonable assumption. This would add up to 100 runs per 5 innings, or an average of 20, at a strike rate of 180, which almost exactly mirrors his stats this IPL. Healthy.

Let’s now assume the entire cricketing community has cottoned on to the new T20 risk/reward ratio and plays like Narine. Virat Kohli is a far better batsman than Sunil Narine, so it is not unreasonable to assume that his success rate batting with Narine’s mindset will be more, as will his score in every successful innings, while his strike rate will be the same as Narine’s 180. So, a string of 70, 60, 40, 10, 10 seems reasonable. It adds up to an average of 38 at an SR of 180. Kohli currently averages 41 at 132. What am I missing?