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Talking Points: Why are teams still bowling first? And, did Andre Russell's promotion work for KKR?

Also, why is Smith batting like Narine? Key questions from the Knight Riders vs Royals match answered

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
Pat Cummins looks to dismiss Steven Smith  •  BCCI

Pat Cummins looks to dismiss Steven Smith  •  BCCI

Was there was a case for batting first?
The Kolkata Knight Riders' result against the Rajasthan Royals makes it nine wins out of 12 games for teams batting first so far at IPL 2020. And yet, only once has a team won the toss and batted first.
The Royals were the latest victims of this trend after they chose to chase in Dubai, where all six matches have been won by teams batting first. Two of these were ties and won in the Super Over, but still the evidence has been overwhelming. Besides, in the case of teams such as the Royals and the Sunrisers Hyderabad - who rely almost unhealthily on their top three - it makes sense to not expose the middle order to a tense chase.
However, sides have respected the dew and long-term data much more than the early trends in this tournament. How long before teams stop trying to correct the trend and instead look at the reasons why teams batting first are winning? In the case of Abu Dhabi, it is because there has been some seam under lights. In Dubai, the pitch has slowed down. Sharjah has been freakishly good for batting, so let's not even bring it into this particular discussion.
What did Archer do differently against KKR?
In the first two games, Jofra Archer rocked up and bowled a lot of legcutters and knuckle balls even with the new ball. In four overs bowled inside the powerplay in the last two games, in Sharjah, he bowled an over worth of slower balls. That includes the first ball he bowled last game, which was duly smacked for four.
In Dubai, he had only one change of pace inside the powerplay: from fast to faster, hustling Shubman Gill and Sunil Narine, conceding just one run in the over. The TV commentators loved it because they had been clamouring for him to bowl fast and set the tone. Now his choice of pace could be batsman-specific or ground-specific, but the numbers do tell a tale.
Overall too, he has bowled 20 slower balls this IPL for 36 runs and no wicket. Otherwise, he has gone at 6.23 an over and averaged 18.
Why was Russell promoted?
Walking in at the end of the 10th over, this was the third-earliest Andre Russell had batted for KKR. In all T20 cricket, he had walked in sooner only on eight occasions. While David Hussey, the Knight Riders' mentor, has spoken about Russell potentially scoring a double-century if he comes in early, that seems more like a cute quote than genuine intent.
The one big reason for his promotion against the Royals could be Eoin Morgan's match-up against his fellow England bowler Jofra Archer: eight balls, three runs, two wickets. And Archer had three overs left at that point, so it was pretty certain Archer would be brought on right away if Morgan had walked out.
Archer bowled anyway, getting the wickets of Gill and Dinesh Karthik. Morgan eventually got to face seven balls from Archer, scoring nine off them. However, he did correct another match-up: against another bowler he usually captains, Tom Curran. Before this game, Morgan had hit only one boundary off 23 Curran deliveries in T20 cricket. In this game he took 22 off 12.
Did the Russell promotion work, though? Well, Russell scored 24 off 14, and Morgan 34 off 23. You couldn't say it was a failure, you couldn't say it was a roaring success.
Why is Smith batting like Narine?
If you have noticed, Steven Smith has been swinging for the fences in the powerplay this IPL. There are many reasons. He is obliged to do so once he chooses to open, because his usual style doesn't work at the top. Then there is a higher chance of getting away with shanks because the field is in. That happened with James Neesham in the last game: in the powerplay he managed to chip slower balls over the infield, but once the powerplay was over, he holed out to the same bowler.
There is another strategy that seems to be at work here: Smith goes hammer and tongs, and Jos Buttler, a more complete T20 batsman, looks to bat through.
Is that a successful strategy, though? Or is Smith better off playing Yashasvi Jaiswal or Manan Vohra at the top and taking on the responsibility of batting at the difficult No. 4 position? Robin Uthappa is anyway having an ordinary IPL so far. Buckle up for a debate that is only likely to get more intense as the Royals play more games on bigger grounds.
Why did Cummins bowl three overs inside the powerplay?
After being used as a death specialist, unsuccessfully, in the first game, Pat Cummins has bowled three overs in the powerplay in two straight games. In this game, he did so despite Sunil Narine enjoying a good match-up against the Royals' top three. Overall, in his career, Cummins has bowled close to 10 balls inside powerplays on an average. His phase-wise break-up over the last three years has been similar.
In the last game, the Knight Riders changed their strategy to one where they go all out in the powerplay to take wickets through Cummins. Figures of 3-0-11-1 and 3-0-13-1 would suggest the move has worked. There has been one early wicket, plus that sort of economy rate results in wickets for others too.
However, it remains to be seen if this was a strategy specific to two teams - the Sunrisers and the Royals - who have no middle order to rave about. Against them, it is, on most occasions, a case of getting early wickets and killing the game. How will the Knight Riders use Cummins against deeper batting line-ups?
Also props to Dinesh Karthik for staying aggressive and persisting with Shivam Mavi in the seventh over - an over usually used as a cheap over for a spinner - and taking that extra wicket to seal the deal.
Why did Kuldeep Yadav start bowling in the 16th over?
Because Knight Riders didn't need him. Plan A worked superbly, and they could show off the depth in their bowling attack. Three frontline spinners, three frontline quicks, with Andre Russell and Nitish Rana waiting if needed in a contingency. That gives you the luxury to not over-expose a variety of bowler who is rare to face. Thus Knight Riders used Kuldeep's left-arm wristspin only against the tail.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo