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The lesson from this IPL: Front-load your innings

One of the key trends in this IPL, that teams like Kings XI Punjab and Chennai Super Kings reinforced, was the importance of sending in the big hitters early in an innings

Amit Varma
Kieron Pollard tees off, Mumbai Indians v Sunrisers Hyderabad, IPL 2014, Dubai, April 30, 2014

Kieron Pollard should have batted up the order for Mumbai Indians  •  BCCI

Ed Smith, in his excellent post yesterday, outlined some of the tactical innovations that have taken place in cricket through its history. He didn't mention the latest one, though, perhaps because we are still in its early days, and it hasn't yet found full articulation: Front-loading in a T20 innings.
It is my case that until recently, most T20 captains and coaches have made a structural error in thinking about the game. They have imposed on a T20 innings the same structure that an ODI innings has. There is a period of pinch-hitting (optional), there is consolidation in the middle overs (always) and there are fireworks at the end. This is a perfect structure for ODIs, given the numbers of overs one has to play and the resources in hand, but is sub-optimal in T20s. With just 20 overs to play, if you can bat decently up to No. 7 or 8, you can eschew the consolidation/innings-building phase entirely. You should straight away launch into attack, from over one, and attack all the way through. You should front-load.
The traditional structure wastes resources. Too often, batting resources around No. 6 to 8 sometimes get left unused, which is a waste. Or the team doesn't score as many runs as it should because it played too conservatively in the innings-building phase. Broadly, my thesis is this: teams should send their big hitters to bat as early as possible, and not late in an innings. Their instructions when batting at No. 3 in the fourth over should be the same as when batting in the 18th: hit every ball. Their chances of getting out early in their innings will be the same, and every cameo at the end will instead be a cameo at the start. But some of those will go on to be bigger innings, thus benefiting the team. The consolidators, if any, should come in as insurance at No. 6 or 7. In a 20-over game, your four best hitters should bat 1 to 4.
As one example of a team that gets it wrong, I present Mumbai Indians. Their most destructive batsman is Kieron Pollard, and it is ludicrous that Mumbai often hold him back until the last quarter of their innings. It is a waste, and has arguably cost them at least one IPL final. Contrast that with Royal Challengers Bangalore, whose saving grace over the last few years has been the big-hitting of Chris Gayle at the top. Other weaknesses in the side have affected their results, but at least they got the front-loading right.
Kings XI Punjab's excellent run this year came because of front-loading. Mumbai would probably have saved Maxwell-Miller for Nos. 6-7 in the order, but Kings XI unleashed them early, having Maxwell-Miller-Bailey bat at Nos. 3-4-5 or 4-5-6 (when an early wicket fell and they sent Saha, also with instructions to attack). All their batsmen are destroyers, with the one consolidator they played, Cheteshwar Pujara, quietly withdrawn into the benches as the tournament progressed. They sent Maxwell too late just once, in the final, and paid the price: the first half of their innings was tardy, and despite Saha's subsequent heroics, I will go against conventional wisdom and say they made 20 runs too few.
How did other teams do this year? Rajasthan Royals slipped from a good position because they sent a brilliant hitting duo (Smith-Faulkner and Hodge-Faulkner in different games) too late in the order in key late games. Kolkata Knight Riders started badly, dropped innings-builder Jacques Kallis, sent strokeplayer Robin Uthappa to open, and revived their challenge for the trophy. Chennai Super Kings were strong throughout, especially in the tournament's first half, when they had their four best hitters, Smith-McCullum-Raina-Dhoni, batting 1-2-3-4. In general, teams are evolving towards front-loading, not just in terms of the players they send in early, but in terms of intent - you need to front-load the hitting, not just the hitters.
The best illustration of the benefits of front-loading came in the three memorable 14-over chases in recent months. Needing to chase down a big target in about 14 overs, Netherlands, Knight Riders and Mumbai all front-loaded, and it worked for them, as they reached their targets perhaps more easily than even they expected. Making 190 in 14 overs is not as insane as it seems, especially in the subcontinent, and that realisation should spur teams to aim higher than they currently do in the full 20 overs. In the next IPL, I predict that 230 will be the new 200. Par scores will rise, and while a batsmen who scores 20 off 15 will be forgiven for his early dismissal, one who scores 80 off 60 will be considered to have let his side down and wasted balls.
This will have a knock-on effect on ODIs as well. If a team can make 200+ easily in just 20 overs, how much can they stretch it in 50? Scores of 300+ have become common in the subcontinent; expect even higher scores in coming years. Teams will no doubt experiment with front-loading in 50-over games, and who knows where that will take us?
It's ironic that despite all this, a team's success will depend on its bowling. This year's IPL final was won by the side that had by far the better bowling attack. Nevertheless, too many T20 games have become a contest between bat and bat, not bat and ball. This is especially true on the flat paata pitches in the subcontinent, with bats these days being so jaw-droppingly powerful that mishits and top-edges routinely go for six, and mediocre batsmen look like Viv Richards. This is bad for the game, but given that spectators these days want easy spectacle and not nuanced sport, I don't expect the ICC to try and correct this imbalance with regulations. The pitches will continue to be paata, the bats will continue to be weapons of mass destruction. And teams will learn to front-load.

Amit Varma, a former managing editor of Cricinfo, is a novelist and poker player. He blogs at India Uncut.