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Feature

Wide of off: where the IPL bowlers are going to shelter from the sixes

Data shows the growing popularity of this line, though the nitty gritty - think angle-of-delivery, or field sets - still needs refining to make it truly influential

Khaleel Ahmed picked up two wickets in the penultimate over, Punjab Kings vs Delhi Capitals, IPL 2024, Mullanpur, March 23, 2024

Khaleel Ahmed has been one among a bunch of bowlers who have shown this IPL how bowling wide of off can be useful  •  BCCI

May 7, Delhi. Khaleel Ahmed was bowling a crucial over for Delhi Capitals against Rajasthan Royals. Sanju Samson was on song, batting on 79 off 38 balls, with RR needing 74 off 36 balls to chase down 222. Khaleel ended up bowling four wides in that over, and none of his legal deliveries were bowled at the stumps. Despite the extras, and despite conceding a boundary, the over only went for 11 though.
A user comment on ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball commentary said at the time, "That's cricket for you... Bowler completely loses the plot, and the over still goes for fewer runs than most in this match."
But did Khaleel actually lose the plot? In all likelihood, he was strategically bowling a wide line to keep Samson from going for the big shots. He missed his lines by fine margins and conceded extras. For someone who's sixth on the list of bowlers to have bowled the most balls wide outside off stump since IPL 2021, he probably very well knew what he was doing. And, in the end, he went largely unscathed and ended up bowling a match-turning over.
In the same game, with the equation down to 37 off 12, Rasikh Salam bowled an eight-run over to RR's Rovman Powell. The right-arm quick came around the wicket to the right-hand Powell, trying to bowl wide yorkers, which he nailed twice in five attempts. One of the failed attempts resulted in a six, but otherwise he managed to keep the batter quiet.

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An unprecedented number of wides have been bowled in IPL 2024. In 2023, one in every 88.86 balls was a wide, while in 2024, a wide has been bowled every 50.90 balls.
The data also shows bowlers have been bowling wider lines, in general, more than ever*. Given run-scoring this season has been at an all-time high, bowlers have had to bowl defensively - think wide yorkers, slow wide bouncers, around-the-wicket wide yorkers, etc - to stay away from the batters' hitting arc. While this reduces the chances of taking a wicket, it prevents batters from scoring and sometimes even forces an error resulting in a wicket.
KKR assistant coach Ryan ten Doeschate described it as "anti-skill" bowling, an option to counter aggressive batting in the IPL. He cited the example of how Punjab Kings' Sam Curran set Phil Salt up, first by bowling short and wide with an off-side field to drag the batter across only to then fire one onto the stumps.
Among fast bowlers who have bowled the most wide-outside-off-stump deliveries in the middle and death overs across the last two IPLs is Arshdeep Singh. In the match against CSK in Chennai, Arshdeep stuck to wider lines against MS Dhoni - who feeds on anything straight and full - and denied him access to mid-off and the leg side. He used the wide line to great effect against the high-scoring Sunrisers Hyderabad as well, in Mullanpur, where he finished with figures of 4 for 29. Khaleel has bowled the most wide-outside-off-stump deliveries in IPL 2024 among pacers overall, while Arshdeep, who is second on this list, has the most wickets bowling this line among the tournament's top-five wicket-takers.
But bowlers have frequently gone too far, literally. The percentage of balls bowled wide outside off has gone from 8.5% in 2023 to 9.2% in 2024. The numbers suggest pacers have bowled a lot more wider lines since the start of the 2023 season but this year, they have also bowled a wide every 40.41 balls - it was 67.03 last season. But that's a gamble bowlers seem willing to take, which was clearly the case for Khaleel while bowling to Samson. Giving away wides in an attempt to bowl defensively is something captains and coaches aren't too worried about now, according to former New Zealand left-arm seamer Mitchell McClenaghan, the bowler who has the most off-side wides in T20 history.
"Wides are generally okay because what you are trying to achieve when you are bowling wide is you are trying to play with the batter and expect them to try and hit the ball," McClenaghan told ESPNcricinfo. "Because that's the game. You know if they leave one out there and it's inside the wide line, then you win. As a bowling coach nowadays, you're not concerned too much if they bowl wide because particularly in the last over even if you do bowl one wide outside the wide line, you will often see a batter step across the next ball, which gives you more of a margin. Not many batters are patient enough to let one ball go by without hitting it."
McClenaghan himself used these tactics as much as possible. "I would always rather err on getting outside of the line [of the stumps] because if I got too straight, it ends up in that easy arc for batters to hit," he said.
CSK allrounder-turned-bowling-coach Dwayne Bravo used the around-the-wicket tactic often at the death to deny right-hand batters the big hits. Not surprisingly, Bravo has bowled the most wide-outside-off-stump deliveries in the middle overs and at the death in the IPL. His influence on CSK's bowlers is very evident: their bowlers have bowled the most wide-outside-off-stump deliveries this season. Tushar Deshpande, who finished as CSK's top wicket-taker, also has the best economy rate overall when bowling this particular line.
One of the best uses of this line from Deshpande came in the match against SRH at Chepauk. Right-armer Deshpande forced SRH's two dangerous left-handers - Travis Head and Abhishek Sharma - into slicing the ball towards the longer square boundary with wider lines from over the wicket angling away.
Former CSK bowling coach L Balaji explained that having Chepauk as a home ground had to do with CSK's bowlers employing this line more - the three teams still in IPL 2024 would be turning this around in their heads too, with Qualifier 2 and the final to be played in Chennai.
"When you play at Chepauk, the side boundaries, which are bigger than the straighter ones, are a little difficult to access for a batsman," Balaji said. "So when you have dimensions to play with as a bowler, you have to take the game 'sideways'. One option is bowling short and making horizontal shots come into play. The other defensive option is taking the ball wider or more towards the heel. You either target the heel or either you target a wide line.
"Spinners usually bowl loopy balls outside off stump or more darters towards the leg stump. Fast bowlers use the slower bouncer as an option to take the game sideways, like Bravo [used to]. These options will work at Chepauk but not at most other venues. The square dimensions are around 57-58 metres or 60 metres [at most other grounds]. In Chepauk, you have access to around nearly 72 metres. Those [extra] ten metres make a huge difference when it comes to miscuing. So you have to adjust according to the dimensions of the ground."
That said, the wide line has still been quite expensive this season. Bowlers bowling this line at the death have conceded 14.06 per over. Compared to the wide-of-off-stump line, the (just) outside-of-off-stump line has been 26.26% more economical. This is perhaps because it's a relatively new trend and bowlers are still working out how best to use and execute it. While Arshdeep's economy in overs outside the powerplay is 10.21, his economy bowling wide of off goes up to 13.05.
Spinners too have tried out this line. Among them, Yuzvendra Chahal has bowled the most wide of off stump deliveries outside the powerplay since IPL 2023, followed by Rahul Chahar and Varun Chakravarthy. "The defensive ball is the offensive ball," Varun had told Star Sports after KKR's match against DC, where he picked up 3 for 33.
In that match, he had Rishabh Pant miscue a tossed-up wide delivery and also went on to remove Axar Patel in a similar manner. "I've been bowling wide lines and that has also ended up giving me wickets," he said. "Nothing was happening when I bowl at the stumps. That's how much the batters have pushed us." However, Varun, too, has been taken for plenty while employing this line: 15.80 while bowling wide outside off stump, which is almost double his overall economy of 8.20.
So how can bowlers make the best use of this line?
"There's probably been quite a lot of runs scored on the wide line because it's a new concept to a lot of bowlers," McClenaghan said. "They are used to bowling straight yorkers or at the stumps. If you haven't bowled wide and you haven't bowled wide in an open field, or an open net, you don't know what angle you're getting hit at.
"Bowlers have got to take the time to bowl without the net and try to bowl wide yorkers and see when they miss what line they get hit on, because quite often guys have missed just by a little bit this IPL but they haven't known what line their fielder needs to be [positioned at for the mis-hit]."
"When you play at Chepauk, the side boundaries, which are bigger than the straighter ones, are a little difficult to access for a batsman. So when you have dimensions to play with as a bowler, you have to take the game 'sideways'"
Former India seamer L Balaji
McClenaghan feels the wide yorker, or a slower version of it, is one skill bowlers need to master. And for that, bowlers also need captains to back them up with the right field settings.
"If you know your angles properly, you can have two guys out on the off side, the backward point and extra cover, mid-off up and then you can have one on the leg side square, fine leg up, cow corner and long-on. And that means that you can bowl your wide yorker. But you can also bowl your heel yorker or your slower ball as well. We're not seeing as many of those split fields because quite often when guys are trying to bowl wide yorkers, they're bowling just from [over the wicket] and not coming around. That makes it a little bit easier for batters to get in line with the ball and hit them over mid-off, so it means that they have to have mid-off back as well. We've seen a few mistakes being made there so that's small tactics [to get right] as guys are learning their angles."
For McClenaghan, defensive bowling is here to stay. Balaji, meanwhile, believes it should only be the last resort when there's "nothing you can get out of the pitch". Both agree that batters will eventually figure out how to attack this line as well.
"Batters have a choice to move around the crease," Balaji said. "They can shift to their base to off stump or they can shift to the base anywhere they want. There is no restriction for the batsman. This makes a huge difference."
Either way, there's a new tactic in town, and it will be intriguing to see how it plays out at Chepauk in the two big games remaining in IPL 2024, and then at the T20 World Cup that kicks off a week later.
With stats inputs from Shiva Jayaraman. Graphics by Ashwini Adole and Girish TS
*ESPNcricinfo's logging of this data is subjective.

Sruthi Ravindranath is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo