The carnival of fast-forward T-20 cricket announced itself as a death-sentence for bowlers. Symbolizing Darwinism, bowling in cricket’s shortest format evolved with each passing year and is now a central figure, if not the primary differentiator, in what started as a batsman’s game.
With time, the role of bowlers evolved from working in spells to bowl according to match-ups. It is a common sight to see Jasprit Bumrah bowling one-over spells spread across all phases. Different from the batsmen, the bowlers essentially have two jobs – not leak too many runs and if possible, pick a wicket or two. While a batsman, on a good day, can play out the entire innings, not risking his wickets against a tougher bowler and compensating against a lesser one, the bowlers have a fixed quota where one bad over is sufficient to turn their effort from good to mediocre.
As T-20 cricket evolved, the role of specialists too became the crux of a team’s combination. One such specialization is the ability to bowl effectively in the powerplay. Contested against the best batsmen from the opposition with only two fielders outside the 30-yard ring, bowling in powerplay is an act of courage.
Out of a total of 331 bowlers with minimum one over in powerplay, 40 are the ones with a minimum of sixty overs. Based on the bowler’s ability to take wickets (strike rate) and contain the flow of runs (economy rate), let us look at all bowlers with a minimum sixty overs in the powerplay overs 1-6).
Okay. So, a lot of names. A few like Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Sunil Narine are difficult to hit despite the field in, others like Mitchell McClenaghan and S Sreesanth are wicket-takers. There are an exceptional few like Ravichandran Ashwin who are good at both. If you are eyes are searching for Bumrah - like all his captains who wish for more than one like him in the side - his strike-rate of 42.9 in powerplay does not fit him here unless we increase the range of the chart enough to ensure he finds a place.
To further analyse how far ahead each of these bowlers are from an average value across the two parameters, let us look at where they stand from a deviation from mean economy and strike-rate point of view. This helps us differentiate music from noise, providing a clear picture to identify the bowlers whose economy and strike-rate are – 1) better than the mean values; 2) closer to the mean value; 3) further away from the mean value.
To add more context, the higher the negative value of deviation for a particular parameter, the better is the bowler’s performance in comparison with the average value which is identified as zero on the deviation axes. For e.g. Dale Steyn’s deviation of a negative 1.27 from the mean economy implies that his economy rate is better by that much from the average value but his strike-rate of a positive 5.45 suggests that his record for balls per wicket is worse than the average by the same amount. Based on this distribution a lot more bowlers start falling in the first quadrant that signifies a better economy and a better strike-rate than an average Joe.
We see that bowlers like McClenaghan move closer to the average economy rate while Steyn moves further from the average strike-rate. Bowlers like Bhuvneshwar, Narine and Steyn have exceptional economy rate but fail to provide the team with early wickets. A strike-rate of 28.8, 30.1 and 32.3 in this phase is evidence enough for the same. Controlling the flow of runs by bowling in precise areas, Bhuvneshwar is able to keep the batsmen quiet in this phase but in no season his balls per wicket is below 20 in the powerplay. Similarly for Narine, as he commands considerable respect and the batsmen oblige by playing him out, he has not been a wicket-taker in the powerplay even in his prime years till 2014.
Being a phase that involves top-order batsmen looking to consolidate in the initial phase, it is apparent that wicket-taking is difficult in the powerplay as opposed to say death overs. A general cricket understanding and mathematics help us understand that in the powerplay, the competence to take wickets contributes more to a team’s victory than the ability to keep the runs down. It is opposite when we analyse the death-overs.
Based on this, these are the bowlers that occupy the top spots-
Bowling in powerplay was the turning point in Ashwin’s career. Not only did he become the premier member of the CSK unit, but it also opened the doors for his selection in the national team. In the two title-winning seasons in 2010 and 2011, Ashwin bowled his overs with an economy of less than six in the powerplay and at a strike-rate of 18.9 and 14. Till the 2015 season, his powerplay economy was less than seven in every season with a varying strike-rate.
Munaf Patel is the most underrated IPL bowler. His record is phenomenal in all the phases and exceptional in the powerplay. Two of his best seasons were in 2009 with Rajasthan Royals where he delivered with an economy of 4.8 and a strike-rate of 12, and the 2011 season with Mumbai Indians which he finished with an economy of 5.1 and a strike-rate of 16.2 in the powerplay.
Sreenath Aravind and S Sreesanth are the dark horses in this race. Aravind enjoyed two bursts of what could have been breakthrough seasons, one in 2012 and the second in 2015-2016. In all these three seasons, his economy hovered around the seven-run mark while strike-rate never exceeded 18 balls per wicket. It was as low as 14.4 in 2015 that also earned him a call in India’s T20 side. Not someone with a high reputation, he lost favour in his IPL side (RCB) after an ordinary 2017 season.
An immaculate seam position that helped him to swing the new ball, Sreesanth enjoyed two big seasons with the new ball, the first one in 2008 with KXIP (economy 8.1 and a strike-rate 16.6 in powerplay) and the second with Kochi Tuskers in 2011 taking seven wickets in the first six overs with an economy of 5.9 and a strike-rate of 18.9.
To finish off the top five is the CSK sensation Deepak Chahar, earmarked to be the powerplay bowler by his captain and coach. Bowling his quota in the initial burst in most games, Chahar’s performance in the last two seasons is an epitome of consistency with an economy rate of 7.3 and a strike-rate of 19.3 and 20 in the powerplay respectively.
Mitchell McClenaghan, Sandeep Sharma, Dhawal Kulkarni, Zaheer Khan and Shane Watson complete the rest of the top 10. Most of these like McClenaghan and Sandeep are essentially wicket-takers for their respective franchise while misers like Zaheer Khan still find a place due to their significantly exceptional economy-rate to go with a healthy strike-rate. The role of Shane Watson the bowler is fascinating even at the international circuit. A medium-pacer with the aggression of an express-bowler, Watson never fails to impress with the ball.
It is fair to say that Mumbai Indians did a fair bit of analysis before deciding to nip Kulkarni to the surprise of many. As an option for the powerplay, this will allow Bumrah to bowl as many overs as possible at the death and not bother with one-over spells early on.