The evening of August 6th, 2021, would prove to be the beginning of a crazy fortnight for Nathan Ellis. That night, having warmed the bench for the first two T20Is of the series against Bangladesh, and having been an unused reserve in the Caribbean, the 26-year-old shot to fame out of nowhere by becoming the first ever bowler in T20I history to claim a hat-trick on debut.
Three days later, Ellis proved that he was no flash in the pan by finishing with outstanding figures of 2/16 off 4 overs. Ten days after his dream start in Aussie colours, Ellis was included in the Australian squad for the T20 World Cup as a standby, and a day after the World Cup news he landed his maiden IPL contract after being snapped up by the Punjab Kings.
It was a 14-day period that was, quite literally, way too good to be true.
But they say good things come to those who hustle so years after working various jobs - including removing furniture, landscaping, installing air-conditioners - to make ends meet, the journeyman, in a few days’ time, will find himself playing in the best league in the world, rubbing shoulders with some of the greatest to have ever graced this sport. A fairytale if there ever was one.
But it’s not Ellis’ story that forced Punjab’s hand in recruiting him. Nor was it the hat-trick on debut or the 2/16 in his second game. The 26-year-old finds himself in the IPL for good reason: for two years, he has been in the top echelon of death bowlers not just in the BBL, but in the entire world.
A brief summary of Ellis’ BBL career
A cricketer who moved states - New South Wales to Tasmania - in search of opportunities, Ellis debuted in the BBL in the 2019/20 season. He was originally not in Hobart Hurricanes’ plans, but the absence of Jofra Archer, coupled with injuries to Riley Meredith and James Faulkner, meant that the right-armer got an extended run in the team.
That break was all the ‘ultimate opportunist’ Ellis needed as he not just ended the season as the Hurricanes’ second-highest wicket-taker (12 wickets) but also with an ER better than anyone in the side who’d sent in more than 25 overs. In his debut season he turned into the Cane Train’s death specialist, carved a niche for himself as being the ‘yorker king’ and instantly became a cult hero.
The breakthrough 2019/20 BBL campaign helped Ellis become a Shield regular for Tasmania, and with experience under his belt, the journeyman knocked his second BBL campaign out of the park - he picked 20 wickets in just 14 games, bettering his 2019/20 tally by 8, and also proved to be the most effective death bowler in the competition. His legend grew, and with it eventually arrived an inevitable national call-up.
Ellis: The Death-overs king
Bowling at the death in T20s can be a nightmare, particularly in a competition like the BBL where the wickets and conditions are often skewed completely in favour of the batsmen. But despite having only started to play at the highest level in Australian domestic cricket two years ago, Ellis has put together numbers that have simply made him the best death bowler in the country.
Since his debut, no bowler in the BBL has taken more wickets in overs 16-20 than Ellis (23). What’s even more remarkable is that he has bowled 87 more balls at the death in BBL than any other bowler, underlining the amount of trust Hurricanes’ skippers - they’ve had many during this period - have shown in him.
Death bowling is not about the wickets and the number of balls, however. Often bowlers - seamers, in particular- take wickets aplenty at the death but also leak an unacceptable amount of runs. A good example is Mohammed Shami, who since 2019, in the IPL, has taken 29 wickets at the death while conceding runs at an ER of 10.42. Being so expensive almost neutralizes the effect of taking wickets.
Ellis is different. He not only takes wickets, but also chokes the batters. Since his BBL debut, Ellis’ ER of 8.5 is the best for any bowler in the competition who has bowled 20 or more overs at the death (16-20). These are numbers which are better than that of Chris Morris (8.7) and Jhye Richardson (8.9), who cost a combined INR 30.25 crore in the IPL 2021 auction.
The numbers above might not look remarkable, but comparing Ellis’ record at the death across leagues gives a better projection of just how good he has been. Since the start of 2019, among bowlers who have bowled at least 50 overs at the death in T20 cricket, only Dwayne Bravo, Jasprit Bumrah, Mustafizur Rahman and Rashid Khan have bettered Ellis’ ER of 8.4. The Hurricanes seamer is in truly elite company.
Why Ellis is effective at the death
He is not tall. Nor is he pacy. He does not have a weird action like Bumrah or wrists like Mustafizur, either. How, then, has Ellis been successful at the death? Simple: he never overcomplicates. He sticks to his strengths - which is bowling full - and keeps repeating the drill over and over again.
Yorkers and wide-yorkers are Ellis’ go-to deliveries at the death and the numbers reflect the same. Since his BBL debut, no bowler has bowled as many yorkers / wide-yorkers in overs 16-20 as Ellis (34), who has a scarcely believable ER of 4.4 when he bowls these deliveries.
Even when he does not nail the yorker, Ellis aims to go full - and it is a method that has proven to be very effective for the 26-year-old. Across the last two BBL seasons, no bowler bowled as many ‘full’ deliveries (98) as Ellis. His ER of 8.6 for those deliveries was also the second best in the competition during this time period, only behind Peter Siddle (8.3).
He also targets the stumps. As is evident from the graphic below, Ellis prefers bowling stump-to-stump at the death, and it is a ploy that has yielded him great success.
Since his BBL debut, among bowlers who have bowled 25 or more overs at the death, only Siddle (33%) has targeted the stumps more often than Ellis. As a result, 47.8% of his wickets at the death in his BBL career have been either bowled or LBW.
Why Punjab Kings roped in Ellis
Death bowling has been Punjab Kings’ Achilles Heel in the IPL for a long, long while now. Despite being one of the better batting sides in the competition, appalling showings with the ball has cost the side many a game, particularly since the start of last season.
Since IPL 2020, PBKS’ ER of 10.9 at the death is the second worst in the competition. This figure ‘improved’ to 10.3 in the first leg of IPL 2021, but neither of their new signings inspired hope, with both Richardson (13.5) and Meredith (16.3) failing to deliver towards the fag end of games. Their premier seamer Shami also leaking runs at an ER of 11.1 at the death made the entire seam-attack susceptible to onslaughts towards the back end with the ball.
Therefore, considering their woes at the death, it is understandable why the Kings have brought in Ellis, who has made a name for himself through being proficient at the back end with the ball.
Whether Ellis can successfully make the step up remains to be seen, but if the numbers are to be believed, then the BBL superstar will indeed positively impact the bowling attack of the Kings, a franchise that has been longing for a reliable entity at the death.