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Feature

Go hard or go home: Is Punjab Kings' batting approach futuristic or unsustainable?

The team have adopted an aggression-first, high-risk-high-reward approach this season. Is it paying dividends?

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
28-Apr-2022
Liam Livingstone's useful cameo helped bump up Punjab's score, Chennai Super Kings vs Punjab Kings, IPL 2022, Wankhede Stadium, April 25, 2022

For the 2022 season, Punjab Kings sacrificed bowling depth for batting power, investing in the likes of Liam Livingstone and Jonny Bairstow  •  BCCI

Punjab Kings are the IPL's mavericks. Their matches this season have been appointment-to-view TV, ranging from convincing wins to blow-out defeats with nail-biting final-over drama in between.
Kings have the IPL's third-best balls-per-six ratio, third-highest dot-ball percentage, and second-lowest batting average. It was obvious from their auction strategy that they would be a boom-or-bust batting team, and their totals this season have borne that out: they have made five totals of 180 or more, and three of 151 or less.
Only Kolkata Knight Riders have a batting style that is high-risk, high-reward to the same extent but that has been their identity for a number of years; Punjab, by contrast, are the franchise whose captain described strike rate, perhaps T20 cricket's most fundamental metric, as "very, very overrated" 18 months ago.
But after seven consecutive seasons without reaching the playoffs, it was clear something needed to change. Their research and development consultant, Sankar Rajgopal, put together an auction team focused on exploiting market inefficiencies and recruiting six-hitters. Of their six most expensive auction purchases, five were bought primarily for their attacking ability with the bat: Liam Livingstone, Shahrukh Khan, Shikhar Dhawan, Jonny Bairstow and Odean Smith.
The result was a squad filled with power, as Kings sacrificed bowling strength for batting depth and backed their hitters to succeed. The first two matches showed the trade-off involved in their approach: in their opening game, they chased 206 with an over to spare against Royal Challengers Bangalore; in their second, they were bowled out for 137 by KKR.
Among their auction team was Dan Weston, a former professional gambler who has worked with Leicestershire, Birmingham Phoenix and Bangla Tigers as an analyst and spent six weeks with Punjab Kings, discussing auction strategy (he is not part of their in-season analysis team).
Weston's trademark in short-form cricket is his desire for his teams to win the boundary count rather than the dot-ball count; hitting more fours and sixes, rather than fewer dots, in the style of the West Indies teams that won T20 World Cups in 2012 and 2016.
"It varies from league to league, but around 87% of teams that hit a higher boundary percentage in a match win the match," he says. "There's two ways of going about that: you can do it by hitting boundaries or preventing them. In an ideal world you'll do both, but sometimes market dynamics mean you might need to focus more on one area than the other.
"Personally, going down the hitting route is something I really believe in: it's not only a winning formula, but it's also attractive from a marketing and branding perspective. There are IPL teams who I wouldn't pay to watch. Teams nurdling the ball around for 140 and trying to defend it? That's of no interest to the casual supporters. I'd pay to watch Punjab Kings."
The franchise's choice of batting coach underlines their commitment to their focus on power-hitting. Julian Wood, a former Hampshire and Berkshire batter, was Bradfield College's cricket professional until earlier this year when, after a stint with Sylhet Sunrisers in the Bangladesh Premier League, he was brought in by Punjab for the duration of the IPL.
Wood, the self-styled "bat-power guru", developed an obsession with power-hitting after he met Scotty Coolbaugh, the Texas Rangers' hitting coach in Major League Baseball, while holidaying in the US a decade ago. He has since become a freelance short-form batting consultant, focusing on hand speed and looking to other sports - he has studied the golfer Bryson DeChambeau's technique, for example - for inspiration.
"The standard is phenomenal," Wood says. "These guys are the best in the world at what they do and it's just a natural fit for me. The hardest thing to do is for me to get the players' mindset right, to get someone to be aggressive, but these guys are naturally aggressive players so it's easier.
"Anil Kumble [Punjab Kings' head coach] isn't wired this way but he's picked this team to play a certain way. Mayank [Agarwal, captain] is the same. It must be really hard for them but it's the way they've set out and it's the right way to play. If you had this team together for two or three years, eventually you'd win, but owners aren't always like that: they don't worry about the process, they just worry about the outcome. That's where the pressure comes."
During Punjab's innings against Sunrisers Hyderabad, Nicholas Pooran could be heard over the stump mic saying "180 or 120, boys!" The implication was that the team's style means they are guaranteed either to make a very high or very low total, with nothing in between (ironically, a slow finish saw them bowled out for 151).
"You have to risk getting 120 to get 180," Weston says. "You have to stick to the plan you've recruited for and planned for. If variance bites you in the arse, so be it. The problem is that style questions everything that a cricketer has been brought up to understand: all of the supposedly conventional wisdom like 'bat your overs', 'hit a single after you've hit a boundary', even if that isn't particularly suited to short-form cricket."
But Punjab have shown signs of adapting their style with the bat already, after a series of fast starts were followed by comparatively limp finishes. Across their first five games, they scored at 10.17 runs per over in the powerplay, reaching 60 or more four times; in their last three, they have scored at 7.33 in the powerplay, never reaching 50.
In two of those games, early wickets have left them with little choice but to consolidate, while in their win against Chennai Super Kings on Monday, Dhawan, Agarwal and Bhanuka Rajapaksa looked to build a platform for their hitters at the death on a slower pitch, eventually posting 187.
That caution came despite a change back towards their initial balance, with six specialist batters and an allrounder at No. 7 in Rishi Dhawan, rather than the side with five frontline bowlers which they picked against Delhi Capitals, leaving them desperately short on depth after they had lost early wickets.
"We have the two guys up the top, Mayank and Shikhar D," Wood says. "I call them contact players: they just play strong cricket shots. In the first ten overs, you mainly hit fours; in the second ten overs you hit sixes. When we haven't lost a wicket in the powerplay, we've basically dominated but when we have, we haven't managed the middle bit - that's been the trouble. You don't just keep swinging and swinging, you have to be aggressively smart."
Punjab's approach is not foolproof, as evidenced by their mixed bag of results to date: after eight games, they have four wins and four defeats, sitting two points off the playoffs. Their critics feel that their focus on high-intent batting has masked the vulnerability of their bowling attack (they have the second-highest economy rate and highest bowling average in the league) and their collective weakness against left-arm spin.
Meanwhile, two of their high-salary buys at the auction, Shahrukh and Smith, find themselves out of the team while Rajapaksa and Jitesh Sharma, who cost a combined Rs 70 lakh (US$91,000 approx.) have become important players.
"You can never cover all bases and we knew that, especially with the expansion to ten teams, but we were really happy with the squad that we assembled," Weston says. "The criticism is quite results-oriented. When you consider that Livi [Livingstone], Bairstow, even Mayank, they're all absolutely fine as right-handers playing the ball turning away from them.
"It's easy to pick holes in a squad after the event but we were pretty confident that it wouldn't be an issue. We picked the best players rather than buying a left-hander who we didn't think was as good just because we wanted another left-hander."
Wood points to another factor: the toss. Punjab have lost seven tosses in a row, forcing them to bat first. While teams have won almost as many games this season defending as they have chasing (there have been 20 chasing wins and 19 bat-first wins after 39 games), Punjab's ultra-attacking batting style appears much more suited to batting second since their relative batting strength and bowling weakness demands they shoot for an above-par score when batting first, without knowing how the pitch will play.
"When we bat first, we can get lost a little bit because we don't know what a good score is," Wood says. "We know that we've got some serious power in the middle order but we don't need those guys in over No. 10. We need them in over No. 15 and onwards. It's about managing the innings a little better than we have done.
"Losing all those tosses have been unbelievable. But that's the game, isn't it? The way we've played the game has made coaches look up and think ,'We need to be more aggressive'. You have to counter aggression with aggression. They've bowled at us differently: teams are now trying to bowl us out so we have to counter that.
"And you're never out of a game here. If a bowler bowls a bad over, instead of 18-20, it's going for 28-30 now. They just go mad. In six weeks, I've seen the game progress. I think this is how teams will be picked in the future, but with that come inconsistencies. That's why it's all about the process - but what people care about is the outcome."

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98