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Are middle overs the new death overs?

Mohammad Nabi celebrates a wicket BCCI

Middle-overs madness

New year, new trends. The most expressive one has seen batsmen starting to mete out the death-overs treatment to bowlers in the middle overs, too. In the last two seasons, the run rate in the Powerplays was the highest ever, but this year teams have started more sedately. In the first week (March 23-31) of IPL 2019, the Powerplay run rate was 7.47, compared to 8.17 and 8.03 in 2018 and 2017 respectively.

The idea, it appears, is to accelerate in the middle overs and create a platform to set the team up for a big score. Already, there have been three high-scoring chases which followed such a pattern: Sunrisers Hyderabad's five-wicket win over Rajasthan Royals, Kings XI Punjab's successful chase of 177 against Mumbai Indians, and Delhi Capitals' pursuit of 186 against Kolkata Knight Riders, which ended in a Super Over that Delhi clinched.

With the field spread out, traditionally the middle overs have been seen as a consolidating phase. But in this IPL, teams have chosen to go big in this period. The run rate between overs 7 and 16 is at 8.50 and the average runs per wicket is also the highest for any edition at 35.77. In fact, this year, a six has been hit every 16 balls so far. In comparison the 2018 edition had a run rate of 7.90 and a six every 19 balls while the average was 28.57.

A more detailed breakdown shows that the actual scoring happens between overs 12 and 16, where the average run rate is a whopping 9.05 and average runs per wicket is 33.44. In comparison, the run rate in 2018 was 8.29 and average was 25.70. One possible explanation for this could be that teams are looking to target specific bowlers and not situations. With most teams having a couple of really good bowlers who bowl in the Powerplay and at the death, the batsmen are preserving their wickets and then attacking the weaker bowlers, knowing their teams still have plenty of wickets in hand. Most batsmen are realising they can catch up on the strike rate later. We saw this with David Warner, Chris Gayle, Prithvi Shaw and Sanju Samson. These are still early days in this edition but it will be interesting to see if bowlers can come with plans to counter this middle-over madness.

Is old still gold?

Last year, MS Dhoni's "Dad's Army" embarrassed several pundits who had given Chennai Super Kings no chance of winning the IPL. Taking a cue, the other teams have dared to include in their squad veterans and players who had been struggling or been benched in the past few seasons.

And these seniors, aged 37 and above, have come up with match-winning performances in the first week. Despite having barely played competitive cricket since the last IPL, Harbhajan Singh announced his arrival in spin-friendly conditions in the IPL opener, playing on a sluggish and slow Chennai pitch and winning the Man-of-the-Match award for his 3 for 20. His unbroken spell at the start of the innings knocked off Royal Challengers Bangalore's top order, comprising Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers.

Harbhajan's peer, friend and Punjab team-mate Yuvraj Singh, did something similar with the bat, scoring a fifty against Delhi, and followed it up with another impactful innings, against Royal Challengers, which included three consecutive sixes against Yuzvendra Chahal.

The overseas pair of Shane Watson and Chris Gayle both showcased their prowess in two important knocks against Delhi and Royals respectively. And on Sunday, Dhoni delivered a classic finishing job against Royals with a 46-ball 75, which included consecutive sixes off the final three deliveries. Incredibly, all these seniors were key performers in the first edition of the IPL in 2008. All these years later, they are still giving it their best.

Truly an 'Indian' Premier league

It is rare for IPL teams to not fill up all their overseas slots in the XIs. This season, however, Super Kings, Knight Riders and Delhi have used only three overseas players in a few games. Before the match against Royals, Super Kings coach Stephen Fleming explained his rationale: "Looking at the squad and skills is not based on overseas versus Indian [players]. Harbhajan Singh was a great option for the left-handed combinations that we faced in the first two games. And that can change if you face a lot of right-handers, you've got Mitchell Santner there. But you don't have to play four overseas [players]".

This kind of flexible approach has not been popular over the preceding decade, where teams invested heavily in overseas players and fielded four in most games. In the 11 previous editions of the IPL, there were only 14 matches with fewer than eight overseas players on the field. This season has seen three already.

Super Kings have a strong enough bench of Indian players to field only three overseas players. However, the decisions of Delhi and Knight Riders were curious. Sandeep Lamichhane was benched on a dry spinning wicket in Delhi against Super Kings, while Knight Riders did not look for an overseas replacement for the injured Sunil Narine when they took on Delhi. Joe Denly, Harry Gurney and Carlos Brathwaite were all sitting in the sidelines and Knight Riders played Nikhil Naik, who had a terrible outing as an opener. In a World Cup year where a lot of teams may lose their key overseas players after April 25 and May 1, it will be interesting to see if this is a planned strategy that could work long-term or if it is a feature specific to certain teams.

Catching - Super Kings top the charts

Fielding is an important metric in limited-overs cricket. At the end of 12 matches, Super Kings topped the charts with a 95.2% conversion rate in the field, having dropped just one of 21 attempts, while Kings XI were a close second. While both these sides may be poor ground-fielding sides, they are catching well to compensate. Knight Riders and Sunrisers are at the bottom of the table, converting just around 60 and 57% respectively. While their batting unit has helped them stay in the top four, it is important that these teams improve their catching as the tournament progresses.

DRS Leaderboard

The DRS was used pretty conservatively in the first 12 matches of IPL 2019, with 15 reviews taken. At the same stage last season, 24 reviews had been used. Like every other edition, the umpiring has already become one of the major talking points. Mankading incidents, missed no-balls, debatable calls over off-stump wide balls and some poor lbw calls have sparked much discussion and criticism. However, when it comes to teams using the DRS well, Super Kings are again at the top. They are the only team to have more successful reviews than unsuccessful ones at this stage. Sunrisers and Kings XI have also used their reviews well.