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Match Analysis

Why aren't chasing teams maximising the powerplay?

Chasing teams have scored quicker than ever in the last five overs, but not particularly quickly in the powerplay



When you think of Marcus Stoinis' bowling on Saturday night in Sharjah, the first thing you'll probably think of is Rahul Tripathi taking him apart in the 17th over of the Kolkata Knight Riders' chase. Or you'll think of the dipping yorker he bowled in the 20th to seal victory for the Delhi Capitals.
You probably won't think of the first over he bowled, the fifth of the Knight Riders innings. But it was just as much a defining over, not just of the match but of IPL 2020 in general.
Stoinis is one of those allrounders that every T20 team wants in order to add depth to their batting and bowling. But he's the sort of bowler teams don't usually use in the pressure overs. He isn't quick, and his pace variations are run-of-the-mill: they're not too hard to pick out of the hand, and they don't dip wickedly or deviate massively off the pitch. A good hitter can, like Tripathi did in that 17th over, line him up and slog him all over the place.
That the Capitals entrusted him with the fifth over of a big chase was, therefore, interesting. The Powerplay restrictions were still in play, which - if you need a reminder - means only two fielders outside the 30-yard circle.
You probably didn't need that reminder, but teams in the IPL seemingly do. Even teams that are chasing big targets.
Let's go back to the fifth over of the chase. Stoinis looks to bowl back of a length to both Nitish Rana and Shubman Gill, from over the wicket. He looks to slant the ball across the left-handed Rana and make him play towards deep point, one of his two boundary fielders, and to angle the ball into the right-handed Gill and cramp him for room, with a deep square leg in place. It's hard to tell on TV who the other boundary fielder is for either batsman, but panning shots show mid-on and mid-off inside the circle for the entire over.
Stoinis' second ball is a long-hop, and Gill duly pulls it beyond deep square leg's reach, but the rest of the over passes by without any real aggressive intent. Rana takes two singles to the deep point fielder and is beaten by one ball that bounces a touch more than he expects. Gill steps out to one ball, perhaps eyeing a hit over mid-on or mid-off, but Stoinis sees him coming and cramps him, forcing him to clip a single to the leg side. Gill doesn't try stepping out after that. Neither batsman, at any point, tries to shuffle to leg or off to try and alter the bowler's line and manufacture a boundary.
This over, remember, began with the Knight Riders needing 190 from 96 balls. The opposition's notional weak link has bowled the entire over with only two fielders on the boundary, but the batsmen don't make a concerted effort to put him off his plans and put him under pressure. He concedes eight runs, and both teams - it would appear - are happy with that outcome.
This is just one over, but it's illustrative of a larger trend. Chasing teams know they have hitters down the order who can clear the ropes with great frequency, and believe that, with wickets in hand, no required rate is too steep over the last five overs.
This is pretty much what Jos Buttler, the Rajasthan Royals keeper-batsman, said a few days ago, taking the examples of Rahul Tewatia's late onslaught against Kings XI Punjab and Kieron Pollard's against Royal Challengers Bangalore.
"What the six-hitting shows is that if you have that capability, you can make your run quite late to try and win the game," Buttler said. "Rahul Tewatia hit five sixes in an over that took us from being out of the game to right back in the game. RCB v MI, Mumbai looked a long way away and excellent six-hitting from Pollard gets you back in it.
"In past tournaments, you think of Andre Russell, and KKR needing 70 or four overs and managing to get there. So I think if you have that six hitting capability, you never feel quite safe as the team defending. You realise you can get more at the end than you probably thought you could."
All around the IPL, teams seem to have come to this conclusion. Chasing teams have achieved a run rate of 11.39 over the last five overs of matches this season, more than a run an over quicker than the previous-best IPL season by this measure, 2016, during which chasing teams went at 10.25 in the slog overs.
But scoring that quickly later on comes with a compromise. Chasing teams in IPL 2020 are scoring significantly slower through the powerplay than in any recent season. The run rate over the first six overs for chasing teams in 2020 is 7.23 - it's only been lower twice, in 2009 (7.10) and 2013 (7.02).
Is the trade-off worth it? The fact that chasing teams have only won four of this season's 16 matches outright would suggest it isn't, but there's another way to look at it: four of the five teams that have had to chase 200-plus targets this season have scored 200 or more themselves, winning once, tying once, and losing twice. That can be read as an argument that keeping wickets in hand, even at the cost of letting the required rate balloon, keeps the chasing team in the match for longer.
Dinesh Karthik, the Knight Riders captain, put it quite simply after the loss on Saturday night. "To be honest, a couple more sixes, and we would have crossed the line."
But couldn't teams try and hit those extra sixes earlier? It feels wrong, somehow, for batting teams to give up the biggest advantage built into the T20 format: six overs with only two fielders on the boundary. If it's so easy to hit sixes with five on the rope, shouldn't you be trying even harder to hit over the infield when there are just two on the rope?
Whatever happened to the concept of using hitters at the top of the order to maximise the powerplay restrictions? Team owners and analysts even coined a word for it a few years ago: front-loading. Whatever happened to it?
What's happened, perhaps, is that some of the kings of front-loading from seasons past are either not getting picked this season - Chris Lynn, Chris Gayle - or are not in form - Sunil Narine - or are starting more conservatively than before - KL Rahul's powerplay strike rate has gone from 157.57 in 2018 to 120.83 in 2019 to 121.73 this year - in order to play longer innings.
Most players in the IPL, moreover, are coming back from the longest and weirdest break of their careers, and are probably still feeling their way back into rhythm. Each line-up probably includes fewer in-form players than they would at this point of a typical IPL season, and this has possibly also contributed to teams batting more watchfully at the start to ensure there are wickets left for later.
This has always been a popular approach while batting first, and it has often led to teams ending up with below-par totals on good pitches. T20 is expected to evolve towards teams batting first throwing those shackles away, and it probably will happen too. This IPL season, however, has been something of an anomaly, and chasing teams are batting like they're batting first.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo