One of the tragedies of the T20 game, in how it is sold and presented, is how it encourages a lack of intellect around it. The world over it is seen as the least-serious format – something that’s not worth burning brain cells over. While Test or ODI teams are discussed ad nausea, T20 is still seen as little more than hits and giggles, even deep into its second decade. At least, that seems to be the case outside of its direct practitioners. The problem with the scenario is that the narrative surrounding T20 leagues becomes cliched.
In leagues across the world, there’s always the young team wanting to make a mark, then there’s the star-studded team that disappoints mostly due to a lack of motivation, and invariably there’s the old team which uses its experience to overachieve. Think of the 2016 BBL winning Sydney Thunders, which had three 40 year olds and an average age in excess of 31 – and you’ll find a template worth keeping an eye on.
But beyond all this, with a decade of sample size available, it’s perhaps time to Americanise the coverage of the sports.
The questions thus have to be asked that might only get asked in American sports – what is the value of an individual player, and how important is the identity of the team? The first of those is the central core of moneyball, the second is one asked only when a team underachieves. In both cases, as far as T20 is concerned, no team is more fascinating than the Royal Challengers Bangalore.
In four of the past five seasons of the IPL, RCB have had the best run rate across all teams in the regular season. Of course they’re helped by the fact that the Chinnaswamy is exceptionally batsmen-friendly, even in a league that is overwhelmingly titled towards batsmen. But still their batting numbers ought to make them one of the better sides, right? Well, in three of these five seasons, RCB failed to make it to the playoffs, and never won the trophy.
That is because they are ideologically skewed towards one discipline. They certainly have an identity – and it is of a team that believes it’s batsmen can blow away anyone, anywhere. And that’s not without evidence.
They boast the greatest T20 franchise player ever (Chris Gayle), the greatest all-format player of his generation (AB de Villiers), his successor for that role (Virat Kohli) and the only multiple time winner of the IPL MVP Award (Shane Watson) as part of their spine.
But three of those four are pure batsmen, and even the fourth will never be considered as good a bowler as he’s a batsman. And around these four, and usually one foreign bowler, is the team built.
The composition of the team, thus, is a gamble. With seven Indian players in each XI, and eight teams in the league, the least number of active Indians in the IPL is 56. With the size of the squads, that number ends up close to triple figures.
In a country that has always had a surfeit of quality batsmen and spinners, you would think that the highest value to be gained would be from foreign and high-quality local pacers. RCB, though, have avoided that – beyond the lone big money signing (Mitchell Starc/Chris Jordan/Tymal Mills), and believed that having all time greats in their batting order would be enough.
It has never been enough.
As RCB have solidified their dominance of the batting numbers, questions have arisen over how valuable those actually are. Not only have the teams with the best run rates in each of the past five IPL seasons never won the trophy, but none of the teams with the second best run rates have won it either.
Meanwhile, three of the past five champions had the best economy numbers across the regular season. A fourth (CSK in 2015) topped the bowling numbers and the league standings, before failing in the final against the Mumbai Indians.
All evidence, contrary to what RCB might believe, points towards the best bowling sides being the most successful. In a format that minimises the difference between the good and the great when it comes to batting, ends up being decided by the overlooked discipline.
In football, they say it’s the defense that wins you championships and the same is true of cricket. The defensive discipline, bowling, is invariably what decides these tournaments, particularly when it’s squeaky bum time.
And that is why the performance of Samuel Badree against Mumbai could be the catalyst for the change in fortunes for RCB. Badree, who despite being one of the most successful T20 international bowlers, has never found a home in the IPL. In four seasons, across three teams, he just has six matches to his name, but his performance against Mumbai has opened the doors for permutations that RCB can play with.
With him, Mills and Yuzvendra Chahal together, RCB can actually have 12 overs of quality bowling. With de Villiers a certainty, the question then becomes whether the team goes with Gayle or Watson, or even punts with somebody like Stanlake in the team.
Continuing with Gayle means that there will still be eight overs worth hitting from RCB, even on good days, and they can compensate for that as they always have – by hoping they out-bat the opposition. Going with somebody like Milne or Stanlake would mean abandoning all that has come before, and finally becoming a bowling heavy team. While Watson represents the sweet spot between these two schools of thought.
RCB already know that it’s the bowling that wins you tournaments. The question now is, are they willing to change; or do they still believe that their stubbornness will change history and our understanding of the T20 game. They’ve got a month to find that out.