The debate around the role of anchors in T20 was going strong before the beginning of the 2020 IPL, and this edition in the UAE has provided more grist for the mill.
To answer the question about whether we need an anchor in T20 cricket, we must start by defining the anchor objectively, for strike rates will change on the basis of what is par for the course on any given pitch. In my opinion, an anchor is mostly a top-order batsman who plays 30-40% of the total deliveries and scores at a strike rate about 20-30 runs per hundred balls fewer than the overall strike rate of the innings. So if the team has managed a cumulative strike rate of 160 runs per hundred balls, the anchor will go at about 130-140. It could either be a part of the plan or a problem.
This IPL we have seen quite a few openers go radically slower than their team-mates. Shubman Gill, Aaron Finch, Shikhar Dhawan, Devdutt Padikkal, David Warner, and of late, KL Rahul, might qualify under our definition of anchor. It must be noted that most of these "anchor" innings come under the scanner in first innings of matches; second innings take their own course depending on the score the team batting first has posted.
Let's look at the potential reasons why a lot of these players, some of whom could be extremely destructive on their day, are playing this role now.
All said and done, the pitches in this IPL have produced high scores most times. Sharjah has been like the Wankhede or Chinnaswamy stadiums, Dubai started slowly but soon started hosting high-scoring games, and though the pitch in Abu Dhabi has proved to be the toughest for batsmen, it hasn't dished out 130-140 scores either.
In fact, after 28 league games, the average first-innings score of 181 this year is the highest for all seasons of the IPL. Teams batting first are averaging as high as 36.59 runs per wicket; in none of the previous 12 seasons have teams batting first averaged over 30. While this indicates the surfaces are batting-friendly, it also tells you batsmen are being more cautious in their approach. That is borne out by the fact that the number of wickets lost in the first 16 overs of first innings is the fewest ever this season, and the batting average for the first 16 overs (in first innings) is 39.5 this year, the highest of all IPLs.
This indicates clearly that teams have decided to hold on to their wickets till the beginning of the death overs. Now, this strategy might have come about because in the first few games we saw wickets fall in heaps in the powerplay overs, which is never a good thing in T20 cricket. There's a rule of thumb in T20 cricket that if you lose more than two wickets in the powerplay, your chances of victory are diminished significantly. In this IPL, the average number of balls faced by openers is the highest ever, and while the dot-ball percentage is the lowest, the balls-per-boundary figure is the second poorest among all seasons. The trend is to occupy the crease, rotate strike, and not take unnecessary risks to hit boundaries.
While the role of anchors has been getting established in this IPL, another trend has begun to develop in parallel: the last four overs have yielded more runs than the last four overs in any other year in the tournament's history, with an average of 11.53 runs per over (going up to 12.3 if only first innings are considered).
This could be because teams have more wickets in the shed, or because of the general quality of bowling on display, or maybe a bit of both. Barring the Mumbai Indians and the Delhi Capitals, no team can boast an attack that forces the opposition to take risks earlier in the innings. Against these two teams, being conservative in the first 16 overs could be counter-productive, in that you would run into the likes of Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje, and Jasprit Bumrah, Trent Boult and James Pattinson at the death. The lack of top quality in the bowling department for the remaining teams encourages opposition batsmen to bide their time and take chances at the end.
The extra bounce in the UAE, as compared to the pitches in India, makes it difficult for batsmen to go really hard when the ball is new but the same extra bounce comes to their aid during the last four overs, when bowlers are attempting is to find the blockhole. On a lot of Indian pitches, the margin of error for attempted yorkers is a bit higher than we have seen in the UAE.