How to build the ideal T20 side

To start with, stop thinking of players as batsmen, bowlers and allrounders; it's far more nuanced than that

Jarrod Kimber
Jarrod Kimber
Aaron Finch hits a six, Australia v Sri Lanka, 1st T20I, Melbourne, February 17, 2017

Let's start with some biffing at one end  •  Getty Images

This is my T20 dream team.
Caveats abound. Firstly, it's not a dream team; it's a squad to reflect best how T20 matches can be won, using modern trends and cashing in on inefficiencies within the system. The pretend league it will compete in will be played on different wickets in different conditions from around the world, and, luckily for me, this is a league in which all players count as local ones.
Instead of picking one player per position, I'll name types of players for each role in my squad of 16. It won't be six batsmen, two allrounders, two wicketkeepers and six bowlers. Positions in modern T20 are far more specialist than this.
Let's start with batsmen, because, you know, it's T20, and that's most of the conversation.
The crusher
Let's call opener number one the crusher. His job is not to find himself 50 off 35 balls; his job is to get 25 runs as quickly as possible. According to Cricket Ratings, even the world's best players struggle to score quicker than a 120 strike rate in the first over. On average, over the last five years, the first over goes for 5.9 runs. It's understandable but it is low: think of it as six Powerplay balls going for less than a run a ball.
We can't be having that. So I am sending out one batsman with the job of putting the power back in Powerplay. I don't want him to try to hit 20 off the first over every time. But if there are just three boundaries in the first two overs, I'm looking at a minimum of 12 runs, with nine other balls still to pick up some extra runs. If the crusher wants to be hitting in a batting cage until the moment he goes out, I'll try to make that happen.
Jason Roy, Johnson Charles, Aaron Finch, Alex Hales or Evin Lewis - these are the players I would look for in the crushing role. Counterintuitively, Chris Gayle isn't one. For the first seven balls of his innings he goes at a strike rate of 100. He can catch up, so when he stays in, it doesn't matter, but when he doesn't, he wastes a good percentage of balls.
The delacquerer
My other opener is the delacquerer. He is a new-ball specialist because the pitch may swing or seam early, and if it does, I need someone to take the lacquer off the ball. That doesn't mean defend. T20 currently is far too dependent on the top three; over the last five years, they have made 50% of all T20 runs. Well, that's obviously not efficient: 27% of your batsmen making 50% of your runs. No, something has gone a bit wrong here. We will push hard, my crusher taking risks and my delacquerer punishing poor balls and taking sensible risks. Martin Guptill, Virat Kohli and Usman Khawaja are perfect for this, and Michael Klinger and Reeza Hendricks are good lower-profile options.
Contribution of top-three batsmen to T20 team totals since 2011-12 season
League Runs by top three Team runs % of runs by top three
England T20 83409 165592 50.37
IPL 57248 108094 52.96
Caribbean T20 22420 44823 50.02
BBL 32034 61943 51.72
New Zealand T20 25881 54076 47.86
South Africa T20 27979 54651 51.20
Overall 248971 489179 50.90
Chances are, both my openers won't be expert players of pace and spin. So I need to ensure I have at least one who can score against spin at a healthy rate, and the other likewise against pace. Both will need to be shown their strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of their partners. If you are batting against a kind of bowler (or even a specific bowler who regularly stops you scoring or gets you out), it is the role of both to know this and look out for each other. This is the only batting partnership where you can adequately prepare knowing who you will bat with. That advantage should be exploited.
Ultimately I don't want the delacquer guy to bat as deep as he can either, which seems to be common now. Once the ball has stopped misbehaving, it's his time to push on. If he is still in (and the crusher isn't) for the seventh over, when the Powerplay hangover starts, it's his job to attack that over. There will be no knocking it around.
The hitters
Numbers three to seven are the batting backbone. In a perfect world I'd have five batsmen, all averaging 30 at a strike rate of 200. In reality they are virtually non-existent, in part because players like this haven't been encouraged enough to free themselves from other forms of cricket. There is far too much wastage in the first 12 overs of a T20. And 200 is a tremendous strike rate for someone who makes 30 runs per innings. But that is what I want them to think of themselves as: someone who scores two runs per ball when it is needed. And since sometimes conditions don't favour batsmen, sometimes bowlers will bowl well, and sometimes shit just happens, we are going to need three at the moment. These are my hitters.
They don't need to be Test- or even first-class quality batsmen. In fact, I don't care if they don't bat top six in one-dayers either. I am looking for T20 smarts, not someone who knows how to construct a traditional innings. They need to be able to score a boundary about every six balls, and hopefully better than that. They won't be able to do that against all kinds of bowlers, but if they are just good against right-arm seam bowlers and slow down against everyone else, they aren't much use to me.
This can't be done on reputation but on cold hard data. James Faulkner is known as a big hitter, but he hits a boundary only every nine balls. My three hitters would be players like AB de Villiers (boundary every 5.4 balls), then Corey Anderson (5.6) and Andre Russell (4.3). That would get me the world's best T20 batsman, best allrounder, and one of the best hitters (who also bowls left-arm seam for variety). There are other picks out there, such as Chris Lynn (5.3), Krunal Pandya (4.7), Ross Whiteley (5.6) and Sam Northeast (6). One hitter will need to bat in the first six overs, another will be held back until the 12th over, and the last one will go in wherever needed.
The slow-starting quick-scorer
So now that I have a massively aggressive and occasionally combustible, middle order, I need to be smart. I need to find a batsman who probably takes longer to start, but once in, can score at a high rate. Adelaide Strikers last year had three slow starters in their middle order: Brad Hodge, Travis Head and Kieron Pollard. Unlike them, I don't have a problem, as I have prioritised quick starters elsewhere in the line-up. I know once the slower starter is in, it will be huge. Yuvraj Singh is perfect for this - he reads the game, can score quickly on pitches where sluggers struggle, and when he gets going, the run rate flies. But this is probably the place in the innings where I could use a closer like MS Dhoni, Eoin Morgan or Pollard.
Top ten not-out batsmen since the 2014-15 season
Player Inns Not-outs Runs Ave Strike rate
Kieron Pollard 40 13 863 31.96 149.05
Chris Gayle 42 10 1795 56.09 170.46
Craig Cachopa 18 8 504 50.4 144.82
Brad Hodge 27 8 682 35.89 136.67
Michael Klinger 29 8 1200 57.14 132.74
Ryan ten Doeschate 25 8 582 34.23 131.67
Ian Cockbain 18 7 543 49.36 128.97
Virat Kohli 17 7 658 65.8 141.5
Chris Lynn 26 7 1079 56.78 152.83
David Miller 25 7 529 29.38 123.88
Overall 267 83 8435 45.84 144.34
The finisher
Using data to find someone who can finish an innings is not so simple. In the last three years only two players have been not out in a chase more than ten times. One is Pollard, the other is Gayle. There aren't many players on the top-ten list who aren't old or massive stars: Lynn, David Miller, Hodge, Ryan ten Doeschate, Klinger and Kohli. But there are others not as sought after after or well known, like Craig Cachopa and Ian Cockbain. The problem is, there is no pattern. Lynn ends chases by breaking teams in half, Klinger bats to the end in smallish totals, Miller is known as a big hitter, but he bats far slower in his successful chases, and Kohli is Kohli.
So while I might want a closer, the statistics tell me they don't exist in reality as much as they do in my mind. Perhaps trying to crush chases, as data suggests, is the best way. But I don't want another hitter; I want a batsman who gets set and then explodes, because I have bought extra time by batting faster earlier in the innings, and because my team is light on batting smarts, I might need him as a late-innings insurance policy.
But I also need an early-innings insurance policy. What if the pitch is mad-crazy, or Kagiso Rabada or Ravi Ashwin are running wild? I will need a particular kind of player to combat that and then attack when I need them to. They will be the team's best batsman, probably a top Test player like Steve Smith, Kane Williamson or Joe Root, who can play spin and quicks, runs hard, and is very smart. They will also need to understand that, as they don't hit a boundary every over, lesser-talented batsmen will often bat ahead of them. And on magnificent batting pitches, their role will be to go out and hit a single every ball, steal twos when at the non-striker's end, and try to hit a boundary off the last ball of an over - whatever they can do to make sure the quicker scorer is facing more.
In a perfect world, one where there are plenty of hitters who can destroy attacks for 15 balls against many kinds of bowlers, this role, and the slower-starter role would probably be combined. Or only one would be picked. Right now there are more proper batsmen and slow-starting hitters around than 15-ball dynamos, so one of each for the time being may work best. On good days their batting will be the glue, and on bad days, it will be the sprinkles on the cupcake.
The entire batting order needs to be educated on the biggest sin in T20: wasting resources. The top six in T20 face 85% of the balls. No. 7s around the world only face 8.5 balls a match. Teams are not going hard enough early enough, just so they can keep resources they barely use. Over the last five years, the first over where teams average over eight an over is the 15th. If you just add half a run an over to your overall tally, it's ten runs a game. That's massive. You target the inefficient overs - the first two overs, the four overs after the Powerplay. In each, you aim for one extra run and already you're six runs up.
Other than the openers, the order will change based on conditions, match-ups, and the flow of the innings. We're beyond numbered batting positions. You have a batting role and you will be used when needed. But the batting slots will be filled by the crusher, the delacquerer, three hitters, one slow starter and one proper batsman.
Within all this, there will need to be at least four overs from one bowler locked in for each game, with probably one or two more overs from the remaining batsmen, just for extra flexibility. Many people like as many bowling options as they can find, but realistically the sixth bowler goes at a higher rate than the fifth does (8.6 an over in the IPL, compared to 8.3). So while I will need a sixth bowler on those hellish days when nothing goes right, I'm better off turning to a guy who occasionally bowls in the nets than weakening my batting to fit a sixth in.
The wicketkeeper
One of the batsmen will have to be a wicketkeeper. I would prefer a specialist, but until we have data I can't justify my punt. If I were able to get two batsmen who also filled in my specialist bowling positions, I would make a play for the wicketkeeper who I believed was the best purely for glovework. In general, I worry about fielding, and if two players are very similar, I would always opt for the better fielder. But I don't have fielding metrics I trust yet, so I'm not prepared to make too many calls on that.
My back-up batsmen would need to be one delacquerer, one hitter, and one who could cover for the finisher or the slow-starting batsman. Ideally I would have back-ups who could cover more than one role: like Nicholas Pooran as a hitter, reserve keeper and spare crusher.
I'm not going to pick any actual allrounders, because all my players need to fit a more specific role than what that implies. When Dwayne Bravo's hamstring popped during the Big Bash, the original rumour was that his replacement was Carlos Brathwaite. That would have been a silly move for Renegades, because other than both being West Indian allrounders, Brathwaite and Bravo don't do the same things in T20 cricket.
Bravo is a death-bowling specialist. Over the last three years, his T20 death-bowling economy is 9.7 - just over the average of 9.5 - but he takes a wicket every 11 balls. Brathwaite's bowling is probably slightly better than it looks, although he doesn't have brilliant variety. But his career economy of 7.5 is good and better than Bravo's. Almost all of that is down to the fact that Brathwaite doesn't bowl at the death much; only 89 balls in the last three years (Bravo has delivered 941 in that time), and in his nine IPL games, he has only bowled in the last four overs twice.
Brathwaite has a great reputation as a big hitter, thanks to a few decent Test knocks and his final-over smashing of Ben Stokes. And Bravo is known to be very decent, with three Test centuries. But they are very different batsmen. On average in the IPL, Brathwaite has faced fewer than five balls a match; in his entire career it is only 6.2. Even overlooking the fact that Brathwaite has been a late bloomer, there is nothing about him now that suggests he can be a batsman, even under my definition of a hitter. His strike rate is 144, but he doesn't stay in long enough. Bravo's average is 25, he averages over 12 balls an innings, hits a boundary every seven balls, and he can comfortably bat at seven or six in all forms.
Eventually Renegades went with Thisara Perera, a genuine death bowler, and, like Bravo, a slower-ball specialist. And he can hit too. Not all allrounders are the same, so I'd rather pick players for individual skills that my team can bank on.
The opening spinner
The first bowler I would choose is an opening spin bowler. There is so much data to show not only that spinners should open the bowling in T20 but that they should bowl through the Powerplay, as they are just harder to hit then. Michael Beer is an opening spin bowling GOAT in T20, and he has never played outside Australia. Samuel Badree is one of the best T20 players there has ever been, and before this year, he had only played five IPL games. There are others out there, and far more who haven't even been given their shot yet, because coaches simply aren't getting how hard it is to hit a spinner in the Powerplay. Spinners should always bowl three overs in the first six (unless they are getting slaughtered), and in a well-balanced side, the fourth over is an option. They also take wickets, although fewer than quicks.
The swing-bowling wicket-taker
At the other end you bring on your swing-bowling wicket-taker: David Willey, Jason Behrendorff or Nuwan Kulasekara. By wicket-taker, I mean they need to be able to take a wicket at better than every 18 balls. Willey takes one every 15.7, Behrendorff 16 and Kulasekara 18.6.
You might only get a few balls that swing, but you want them to count. Lock up one end with hard-to-hit spin, and then force batsmen to hit out against the swinging ball. This bowler will also need a decent slower ball, a fairly accurate yorker, and enough pace for the odd surprise bouncer. The central part of their bowling will be done before the tenth over. They will usually have to bowl a key over at the death, and if you pick well, they might be the sort of player, like Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who can also double as a death bowler.
The quick bowler
You need a quick, a real quick, like Tymal Mills, Pat Cummins, Mitch Starc, Liam Plunkett or Kagiso Rabada. They need to, if required, bowl with the new ball, and also deliver quick yorkers at the death - against, potentially, middle-order players who can't handle their pace.
Wickets at the death are only worth a fraction of wickets in the Powerplay. Each wicket in the 17th over saves you, on average, 3.6 runs. So you want your quick on for the 17th or 18th (3.1 runs saved), as opposed to the last two overs, when wickets save you, on average, 2.6 and 1.9 runs.
But the crucial thing for a quick is the time between the sixth and 12th over, when teams have slowed down and haven't relaunched for the death. This is the bit where your attack needs to attack. The second-lowest scoring over in T20s is the seventh (6.59 runs), as teams slow down when the field goes back. And they don't start to fire up again until the 13th, so you can set slightly more attacking fields and try to take a few wickets at a time when each wicket saves you between five and six runs.
Teams now coast in chases during this period, often on flat pitches, where they will let the required rate rise and keep wickets in hand. The best kind of bowler to rock that comfortable boat is fast as hell, who can make anything happen. This is also the bowler who will have the highest economy rate - you are paying a premium in runs per over, hoping that their wickets will save you further runs, and at times, entire games.
The middle-overs spinner
The other important bowler is your middle-overs spinner. The best kind is one who can spin it both ways - Adam Zampa, Imran Tahir, Adil Rashid, Sunil Narine, Mason Crane, Liam Bowe, Kuldeep Yadav, Rangana Herath.
There is a trend that favours bowlers who spin it away from batsmen. I'm not sure the data completely backs this up, but there is no doubt that spinners who go both ways are better. This bowler will be miserly and take wickets, but most importantly, will let you dictate terms through the middle. A spinner who only spins in one direction is usually easier to line up, and easier to milk. And it is far harder to slog a bowler at the death when you have no idea which way the ball is turning.
The slower-ball bowler
Cricket doesn't have a name for the slower-ball bowler, which is weird, because since Simon O'Donnell and Steve Waugh made it popular, this has been a major part of limited-overs cricket. I asked on Twitter and got amblers, dibblers, checkers, brakers, budget, anglers, snatchers, dupers, grifters, sod (after O'Donnell), fakers, hoaxers, tricksters, slothers, wobblers, deceivers, holders, slowlers, stallers and slow bros. The best was from @pierre_taco, who called them changers, which has a near equivalent in baseball in change-up pitchers.
No one gets excited about this bowler. He isn't fast. He doesn't swing it much, and his job is to be hard to hit. He's like a spinner with less sexy skills. Quite often they are late bloomers who have a bit of pace, but not enough, so they start to experiment and change their game. No one likes unsexy late bloomers. Despite cricket not thinking about this as a specialist bowling role, as T20 evolves this is the kind of player who has become more important. Like the opening spinner, there aren't that many around. It's a tricky role because when a bowler's slower balls aren't being picked, he's a superstar, yet when they are, he's Bantha fodder.
Dwayne Bravo, Perera, Clint McKay, and Rajat Bhatia bowl more slower balls than they do regular-paced balls. And the revolutions they put on the ball, along with the fundamental deception of how the ball is delivered, makes this one of the most important bowlers in the game. At the death you can't not have this kind available to you, and at any stage during the innings when batsmen are attacking, they are wicket-takers. They are kings of the soft dismissal.
You probably also want one of your quicks, and one of your spinners, to be left-armers, but now we're praying for perfection. There is no perfect T20 attack, unless you take Narine (with his old action), Lasith Malinga, pre-injury Mustafizur Rahman, 1991 Waqar Younis and 1999 Shane Warne. But for the way T20 is played now, this is close to the best kind of attack: one to take wickets when needed and slow the scoring. You will need a back-up spinner who spins it both ways, and a back-up quick who can bowl with the new ball a bit but also bowl slower balls at the death.
With this kind of side, I also need two bowlers to be able to hit. Guys like Cummins, John Hastings, Tim Southee, Narine or Ben Hilfenhaus, who can hit sixes on demand. Cummins and Hilfenhaus have started hitting big recently, completely changing their worth and, in Hilfenhaus' case, probably lengthening his career. Narine has been improving his batting for even longer, and now pinch-hits as an opener against spinners. With two bowlers who can hit boundaries down the order, that extends the batting to No. 9.
You could bat deeper, but then again, a perfect side is probably three ABs, five Andres, a Ravi, an Imran and a Sunil. Instead, what I have is a delacquerer, a crusher, three hitters, a slow-starting batsman, a proper batsman, a changer, a both-ways spinner, a quickie and a swinger. They should be able to play on all surfaces, take wickets, hit sixes, slow the opposition down, handle the odd crisis, and cash in on some of T20's inefficiencies. They are not a super team, but they should have most eventualities covered. They ought to win enough matches to make them finalists in most leagues.
And then they might be destroyed when they run into Gayle or Mitchell Johnson in one of their moods. That is because although I have a team without any real clear weakness, unlike some other sports, where the weakest player is the most important, T20 is a strong-link sport, where the best player can make the difference. My dream team could be stopped by an hour of Brendon McCullum or Malinga magic.
But you can't judge my team by imaginary wins or losses; this is all about imaginary processes, not imaginary results.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber