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Is bowling more valuable than batting in T20?

Gayle or Narine: who's the better buy for a franchise? AFP

The crash of bat smiting ball: the sound of the six. Go to any T20 match, and you won't be without it for long. Yet what is bad for bowlers' figures on the field bodes well for their salaries off the pitch.

The reason is one of simple economics. Never have there been more reliable six-hitters in the world. But as run rates have soared, bowlers who can prevent such bedlam unfolding have become scarcer - and so more crucial to T20 teams.

"Batsmen are important - of course they are - but I think bowlers are hugely underestimated in T20 cricket," says Tom Moody, director of cricket for the Caribbean Premier League, and Sunrisers Hyderabad coach. "Generally the most successful teams are [the ones] that have the ability to bowl their 120 balls most effectively, with the right balance of attackers and defenders within that bowling core."

The last two IPLs have been won by teams that had the league's strongest bowling unit, says AR Srikanth, the analyst for Kolkata Knight Riders: "Bowlers are equally, if not more important, than batsmen in T20s. Batsmen set up games but bowlers win you games."

Superb bowling performances have also been a common thread in Perth Scorchers winning three of the last four Big Bash Leagues. In their five victories in full 20-over knockout games since 2013-14, Perth did not concede more than 152; in the other, they successfully defended 53 from five overs. "Some of the reason we've been so successful is the importance we place on having strong bowlers," says head coach Justin Langer. "We've had some amazing success with international players and then with AJ Tye, Mitch Johnson, Ashton Agar and many others." Moody believes this has set Perth apart: "Yes, they've got good batters, but everyone's got good batsmen." The same was true for Trinbago Knight Riders in the CPL this year: in a league in which all teams spent almost an identical amount on players, TKR only conceded above 160 twice, and won ten of their 13 games.

Yet, despite these successes, which point to bowling being more significant than batting in T20, bowlers remain worth less than batsmen in the market. In the new South Africa Global T20 league, the average batsman cost US$92,000, while the average bowler cost $70,000, according to CricViz.

In six of the seven leading T20 competitions, restricting the opposition to 10% under the par score brings a team more success than scoring 10% over the average. In the IPL, the average first-innings score has been 162 since 2013; those who score 10% higher (178 or more) win 63% of games; teams who restrict the opposition to 10% less than par (146 or under) win 83%. Put another way, restricting a team to 15 runs under par is statistically worth more than scoring 15 runs over par when you are batting. This chimes with research from the analyst Joe Harris. In T20 competitions since 2007, he has found that 54% of tournament-winning teams have the No. 1-ranked bowling attack in the competition (based on a combination of economy- and strike rates) - but only 21% have the No. 1 batting line-up. Bowlers, then, are not a nice condiment to the real business of T20: being able to outhit the opposition.

These numbers mirror findings in other sports, that players who could be considered defensive, because their job is to prevent scoring, are undervalued. In football, for instance, not conceding a goal in a match brings a team an average of twice as many points as actually scoring one, as shown in the book The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football is Wrong. So not all goals are equal: preventing one is worth more than scoring one, just as saving runs in the field is more important to T20 teams than scoring the same number, as paradoxical as that sounds.

While batsmen can bat for an entire innings, being at the crease for 20 overs and facing, with even luck, 60 balls, in practice the best batsmen on average are not active for any longer in a match than the best bowlers are. The most prolific T20 batsman ever, Chris Gayle, faces 23 balls an innings - the same number that Sunil Narine, the pre-eminent T20 bowler, delivers. Top batsmen can influence much more of a match, but they are a riskier proposition - they can get out first ball, or perhaps worse, barely get any time to bat at all. In this year's IPL final, Dan Christian, Rising Pune Supergiants' most destructive death hitter, didn't even get to the crease until the final over; his side lost. A team's overs are ideally bowled by only five bowlers, but seven-eight batsmen face balls in the average innings, so the batting load is typically shared around more.

"The discrepancy in prices for those who are primarily batsmen and those who are mainly bowlers should narrow in coming years, because the supply of elite bowlers is less than that of batsmen"

A single front-line batsman failing has relatively little impact on a team - batsmen fail all the time in T20 - but a front-line bowler struggling will call for their side needing to recalibrate their entire bowling plans. In the 2016 World T20 semi-final, Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels contributed only 13 between them, but their struggles were insignificant compared to one of India's star bowlers, R Ashwin, floundering, which unsettled MS Dhoni's plans and ultimately led him to employing Virat Kohli's medium pace in the very final over, with predictable results. It encapsulated how a weak bowling link can be more damaging than a weak batting link.

Stronger bowling teams are also "more versatile" than those who are stronger in batting, believes Srinath Bhashyam, deputy general manager of Sunrisers Hyderabad. Teams who are stronger in batting rely on winning a game in one way - outhitting the opposition, preferably by chasing. "You can win games by getting 150 if you have a very good bowling unit," says Gary Wilson, who led Derbyshire to their best ever T20 season in 2017 after the club chose bowlers - Imran Tahir and Matt Henry - as both their overseas players in 2017. In the CPL, Trinbago Knight Riders showed how potent bowling enables a team to retain control of a match. They had three standout bowlers - Sunil Narine, Shadab Khan and Dwayne Bravo, at the death - and no weak ones.

Batsmen increasingly prefer chasing in T20 - 72% of teams chose to bowl in 2016. Yet teams that are stronger in bowling are better suited to defending targets, a significant tactical advantage that makes them less dependent upon winning the toss.

"If you're a batting team, you're going to want to chase, but if you're a bowling team then the other team will want to chase anyway, so you can actually almost do what you like every game," Moody reflects. "I think teams that are strong defensively with the ball won't have an issue with defending because they've got bowlers like Narine, Rashid Khan, or Imran Tahir that thrive under scoreboard pressure. So I think teams might consider, given that there is a tendency to favour to chase, maybe we do need a stronger bowling attack."

As T20 becomes ever more skewed towards batsmen, bowlers who can bring control stand to be more valuable. "Average batsmen can survive, but there is no place to hide if you're a mediocre bowler,"Bhashyam explains. "The supply of quality bowlers who possess either the necessary wicket-taking skills or the required defensive skills is limited."

This fundamental imbalance means that the discrepancy in prices between those who are primarily batsmen, and those who are mainly bowlers, should narrow - or perhaps even reverse - in coming years, because the supply of elite bowlers is less than that of batsmen. "Bowling hasn't taken precedence [in T20 auctions] so far but it will eventually," believes AR Srikanth, who envisages the price for bowlers relative to batsmen increasing. He has already influenced KKR in placing greater emphasis on bowling in team-building. In the meantime, franchises can exploit the general undervaluing of bowling in the market by prioritising those who can deliver four cheap overs as they assemble their T20 teams, and like Derbyshire and Trinbago Knight Riders this year, outperform their budgets.

When sports evolve, so can the economic value of different positions: in American football, for instance, the left tackle has gone from being among the least valued positions to the second best paid. For bowlers, then, the coming years could bring one significant compensation for the relentless batting assault. As sixes become devalued, those rare few who can mitigate the carnage stand to be more vital - and better rewarded - than ever before.