From Morgan-Gill, to Gayle, to Mandeep: The many gears of T20 batting
Do you come out of the gates swinging, or take your time to soak the pressure?
In the year 2048, when T20 cricket has been around long enough to no longer be regarded as a new format, every T20 team might have the equivalent of one Virat Kohli, two Andre Russells, two Kieron Pollards and two Hardik Pandyas in their top seven. A brutally efficient line-up to maximise a limited resource: the number of balls available in an innings.
That's for the future. On Monday, when Kolkata Knight Riders took on Kings XI Punjab, the game showed it still had space for a variety of batting modes.
They came together with the score reading 10 for 3 in two overs. Know why that was worse for the Knight Riders? Because the batsmen slated to come in next were Sunil Narine, Kamlesh Nagarkoti and Pat Cummins. The Knight Riders' batting stopped at No.5, and then fell off a cliff.
The thing with T20 cricket is, that cliff is not too high and has a sandy beach as a landing pad. You'd rather not fall, but the risk of grave injury is considerably lesser. It doesn't matter if you are three down in two overs; you still have seven wickets and 18 overs to play with. That's not a method that is yet popular even in the IPL, the most competitive and intense league in the cricket world with a collection of the game's best brains in various franchises. Players still feel the need to 'rebuild' if, for example, they've lost three wickets in a powerplay. Eoin Morgan and Shubman Gill didn't, though. They didn't care that there were no proper batsmen to come after them, or about the wickets lost earlier. If the bowler bowled a ball they thought they could hit, they went for it.
For 7.5 overs and 81 runs, they put on an exhilarating show that was pure T20 batting: a premium on maximising runs per balls rather than preserving wickets. Morgan's game seems more suited to that anyway, but Gill showed that he too had this gear. In fact, he outpaced Morgan during their partnership - Morgan's 40 runs came off 25 balls; Gill scored 40 too, but off 22 balls.
"The plan was to show some good intent. If we get the ball in our areas, we are going to hit it," Gill would say later at the press conference.
It didn't result in a win, but that stand gave the Knight Riders a decent total to defend. ESPNcricinfo's Forecaster tool, which is built using past matches data and adjusted for the particular 22 players involved in that game, had the Knight Riders total pegged at 103 when they had lost their third wicket. If Morgan and Gill had gone about the innings in the traditional way, playing non-attacking cricket, that could have well been the region of their final score. But by playing the way they did, the changed the equation, they forced the bowlers off set game-plans, and they dictated the pace of the game as long as they were together.
The Chris Gayle method
It's not new, it's not unknown, it's not radical - but Chris Gayle's T20 batting remains a problem that bowlers still haven't come to grips with entirely. He has employed the same method since years. He began IPL 2020 doing the same thing too. It worked then, it works now. Gayle hits sixes. He doesn't just hits sixes, he's actively looking to hit them. Every ball.
If Morgan-Gill was pure T20 batting, Gayle was pure T20 tactics. If you can clear the boundary regularly enough, it's worth trading on the risk of a few quiet balls, even seeing off a dangerous bowler. Nobody hits more sixes than Gayle in T20 cricket. Equally important, Gayle knows whom he can hit and when. Hit two in an over, pat the other four back. It's risky, but Gayle has minimised that risk by being better and smarter about big-hitting in T20 cricket than anyone else.
He waited for the ball that he could hit, knowing it would inevitably come. The first ones came early on the day, both fourth and fifth balls bowled too full by Varun Chakravarthy. Both went over long-on and long-off. The second came nearer the end of the bat than the middle, but this was Gayle and he knew he had the power for a mis-hit to also go over given the short Sharjah boundaries.
Later on, the rare sight of Gayle going for quick ones and twos caused excitement and chatter, but the chase was not settled by stealing those singles and doubles. It swung the way of Kings XI due to Gayle's six-hitting.
Mandeep's building blocks
The innings that Mandeep Singh played might be on the endangered list in a few years, but whenever the conditions don't make run-scoring as easy, it will always have a place. Particularly on pitches where it's difficult for new batsmen to come in and start biffing straightaway.
Singh would later say that he told KL Rahul before his innings that, "Let me play my game. Even if I take a few balls, I have the belief that I can win the game for my team." He had been pushed up the order because Mayank Agarwal was injured and his initial role was to take the bowling on in the powerplay. But in this game, Singh asked for a change in the script and got the backing of his captain.
Would Rahul have agreed so readily to that approach if Kings XI were chasing 180 instead of 150? Probably not, but the fact that they were chasing a lower total is what made Singh's innings not just possible, but ultimately one that had a positive impact for his team.
Singh's was not the Gayle method. He's not a six-hitter like the West Indian, not even close. So taking his time at the start is a lot less viable for Singh than it is for Gayle, because Gayle can do it in bigger chases too. A smaller chase though, allows for a transition from watchful to busy to fast-paced. Singh's first 11 balls brought him three runs. The next 27 balls brought him 32 runs. And his final 31 runs came off just 18 balls.
That he was battling a personal tragedy with the demise of his father three days back gave the knock an emotional layer off the field. In the middle, what Mandeep showed was that an innings you could grow into could be valuable, given the right circumstances.
Maybe we'll still have room for it in 2048 too, after all.
Saurabh Somani is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo