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Match Analysis

Why Sai Kishore doesn't play more often for Gujarat Titans

Sai Kishore is really good, but not yet good enough to play ahead of Rashid Khan and Noor Ahmad

Few sights please the connoisseur as much as a spinner beating the batter in the air. On Sunday night in Mullanpur, R Sai Kishore did this time after time to Punjab Kings' batters, and three of his four wickets were a direct consequence of it: Jitesh Sharma bowled, Ashutosh Sharma caught on the cover boundary, and Shashank Singh caught and bowled.
Each time, by dint of pace variations that were barely discernible to the viewer but easily detected by the speedgun - the speeds ranged from the low-to-mid 80s to the low 100s on the kph scale - Sai Kishore induced complete misjudgments of length.
In T20s, batters commit to shots far earlier than they do in other formats at the best of times; they don't have a choice, given the constant need to find the boundary. On this day, the combination of committing early and misjudging the length sometimes left the batter looking clueless.
Jitesh had stepped out and hit Sai Kishore's first ball of the match for a clean, straight six. Three balls later, he tried to do the same thing, and the ball coming out of Sai Kishore's hand probably looked similar too, but it was significantly slower, and landed significantly shorter; in the end, he was too far from the pitch of the ball to offer anything like a coherent response.
As Sai Kishore chipped away at Kings' middle and lower order, and finished with 4 for 33, you may have found yourself wondering how this wonderfully gifted bowler was playing only his eighth match in three seasons for Gujarat Titans.
There's a lot to like about Sai Kishore's bowling. He's one of India's two best red-ball spinners, alongside Saurabh Kumar, outside of their trusted Test quartet of R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav and Axar Patel. When he bowls in the Ranji Trophy, Sai Kishore varies his pace just as beautifully while bowling with greater loop and more overspin, and shows excellent command of length. He brings some of these old-school virtues to T20 too, but delivers at a T20 spinner's pace to ensure batters have minimal time to size him up.
You need to do all these things to thrive across formats, as Sai Kishore has done. He has 166 first-class wickets at an average of 24.01. He has played 60 T20 games and has an economy rate of 5.61. He has not done badly in his eight IPL appearances either: 12 wickets at 17.16, and an economy rate of 7.62.
Why then has he played so few games?
The answer, unfortunately for him, is straightforward. Titans have Rashid Khan and Noor Ahmad. On Sunday, Rashid and Noor took a combined 3 for 27 in six overs before Sai Kishore had even bowled a ball. And by the time all three had finished their four-over quotas, Rashid and Noor had economy rates of 3.75 and 5.00, respectively, while Sai Kishore had gone at 8.25.
These, of course, were the outcomes of just one game, so you can't read a great deal from them. Nonetheless, the three spinners' performances reflected larger truths too.
There was, first of all, a simple reason why Titans introduced Rashid in the fifth over of Kings' innings and Noor in the seventh, well before they brought Sai Kishore into the attack. There were left-handers at the crease.
The graphic above tells you quite clearly that Rashid and Noor have the wristspinner's natural immunity to match-ups. Both have done better when they have bowled to their preferred match-up, with their stock ball turning away from the batter, but not by much.
In his short Titans career, Sai Kishore has achieved a better economy rate against right-hand batters than both Rashid and Noor. He has, however, gone at 12.50 against left-hand batters.
This is why Titans have preferred pairing their two Afghan wristspinners whenever possible, even though it leaves only two slots in their XI for their other overseas players. Most times, they can formulate a broad bowling plan and stick to it, with each of their bowlers allocated a certain number of overs in each phase of the innings.
Rashid and Noor can bowl at their appointed times, whether there's a left-left, left-right, or right-right pair at the crease, and this means the fast bowlers can also operate in their preferred phases, by and large. The life of Titans' captain and coach wouldn't be quite as straightforward if they played Sai Kishore alongside one of the wristspinners.
This doesn't apply just to Sai Kishore but to nearly every traditional fingerspinner in T20s. Sai Kishore, however, has an unusually skewed record even when you compare him to other bowlers of his type.
The above graphic is a product of small sample sizes, so read it with a bit of caution. The ten left-arm orthodox spinners in it are the only ten to bowl at least 20 balls to left-hand batters over the last three seasons of the IPL. Sai Kishore has only bowled 36, as against 126 to right-hand batters.
But that's the extent of the data that the IPL gives us - it's a league where bowlers are kept away from unfavourable match-ups as much as possible. And that data tells us that Sai Kishore's economy rate against right-hand batters is the joint-best of this group, alongside Mitchell Santner's, and that his economy rate against left-hand batters is the worst of this group.
Sunday gave us a glimpse of this struggle against left-hand batters. Sai Kishore only bowled five balls to left-hand batters in his first three overs, a time when Punjab were losing wickets frequently. Then he came back to finish his quota in the 19th over, with two left-hand batters - both named Harpreet - at the crease.
With the longer square boundary on the off side, Sai Kishore went around the wicket and looked to use the angle across the left-hander to try and deny them leg-side hits. It's a line of attack with small margins for error: too wide, and you risk conceding wides; a touch too straight, and you allow the batter to free his arms and hit you wherever he pleases.
Having conceded just 19 in his first three overs, Sai Kishore ended up giving away 14 in his fourth, as Harpreet Brar hit him for a slog-swept four and a straight six before holing out off the last ball of the over. The wicket could have been a six on another day - Shahrukh Khan completed the catch inches inside the boundary at long-on - but equally, Sai Kishore could have dismissed Brar before he had done any real damage, with David Miller dropping him at long-off off the second ball of the over.
That, however, is the game when batters face fingerspinners who turn their stock ball into them. The mechanics of the contest allow batters to frequently attempt hitting sixes, with T20 pitches and small outfields loading the dice in their favour.
Over their careers, the best fingerspinners develop defensive tools that allow them to stay in this contest for longer. There's no reason why Sai Kishore can't do this over time.
Right now, though, he's part of a Titans squad that also includes Rashid and Noor. As gifted as Sai Kishore is, it's likely that his opportunities may remain limited for the foreseeable future.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo