Rajasthan Royals have done several things right in this IPL, but one area where they've messed up so far is in utilising the services of Brad Hodge. Quite apart from the fact that Hodge is one of their key overseas players, Hodge is also one of the best batsmen in the Twenty20 format. In 146 Twenty20 innings, Hodge has scored 4355 runs at an average of 36.59 and a strike-rate of 128.15; only David Hussey has scored more runs in this format. Also, Hodge has struck 453 fours in Twenty20 cricket, which is easily the highest - Brendon McCullum, in second place, only has 355. Hodge is also one of only three players - David Hussey and Albie Morkel are the others - to play 150 or more Twenty20 matches (Saturday's game against Chennai Super Kings was his 150th).
His experience and his overall record are compelling enough reasons for Hodge to be regarded as one of the key players for Royals, but perhaps an even more compelling reason is his form in IPL 2012: he has faced 82 balls in six innings, scored 129 runs, and been dismissed just twice, for an average of 64.50 and a strike rate of 157.31. Among batsmen who've faced at least 60 deliveries in this IPL, Hodge's strike-rate is third-best, fractionally behind Kevin Pietersen (158.16) and Chris Gayle (157.69). He has already played two top-class innings in the tournament so far - 44 off 29 against Kolkata Knight Riders, and an unbeaten 48 off 21 against Deccan Chargers in a successful run-chase of 197. Both efforts won him the Man-of-the-Match awards.
And yet, Royals' think-tank, in all their immense wisdom, have decided that Hodge shouldn't generally be batting in the top four - only twice in six innings has Hodge batted at No.4. Instead, the responsibility of batting in the top four has been thrust upon Ashok Menaria, a 21-year-old with some potential, but with little of the Twenty20 batting skills or track record that Hodge possesses: in 20 Twenty20 innings so far, Menaria has scored 385 runs at an average of 20.26 and a strike-rate of 117.02. In six innings of IPL 2012, Menaria's returns have been very similar - an average of 19.83 at a strike-rate of 110.18. Despite these modest numbers, Menaria has continued to bat in the top four - he has batted at three or four in five out of six innings - and has considerably slowed down Royals' momentum in the middle overs. In the match against Chargers, for example, Menaria came in at No.3 and scored 22 off 20 when the asking-rate was around ten an over; Hodge came in at No.5 in the same match and slammed 48 off 21.
Perhaps Royals view Hodge as a finisher only, who should come in to bat when the situation gets desperate. Perhaps they want to give ample opportunity to a young Indian player, given that this is, after all, the Indian Premier League. Either way, this strategy defies logic. Of the 146 innings that Hodge has played in Twenty20 cricket, 115 have been in the top three, where he has scored 28 fifties and two hundreds, and has a strike-rate of 128.86. And in a format as condensed as 20-over cricket, there's no such thing as a batting line-up being too top heavy: the best batsmen have to get as many deliveries as possible.
The team got away with it a couple of times, but paid the price against Super Kings, when Menaria took 34 deliveries to score 36 and considerably dampened the momentum in the middle overs. When he finally got out and Hodge came in, only seven deliveries remained in the innings. Royals still managed to make Super Kings sweat despite scoring only 146, but perhaps it's a good thing they lost - the result should hopefully force them to make the key change in their batting line-up. If Hodge does move up the order, Royals will have two of the three highest run-getters in this format in their top four - Owais Shah, with 3825 runs, has the third-highest aggregate in Twenty20 cricket.