Three months ago in Ahmedabad, Rahul Tripathi played what felt like a knock that warranted him sealing a place in India’s T20I XI for months to come.
For the longest time, fans had been yearning to see the Men in Blue play T20 cricket the ‘modern way’ and that night against New Zealand, the dream finally became a reality as, batting first, Team India posted 234/4.
Shubman Gill stole the show with a stunning 63-ball 126* but nothing embodied ‘new India’ as much as the 22-ball 44 from Tripathi.
The No.3 spot in the Indian T20I side had been synonymous with anchoring, but here was Tripathi completely throwing that concept out of the window.
It didn’t matter to Tripathi that he was potentially playing for his spot, having posted scores of 13, 0, 35 & 5 in his 4 previous knocks. It didn’t matter to Tripathi that the team, when he walked in, was on the backfoot at 7/1, with one more wicket potentially spelling big trouble.
All Tripathi cared about was maximizing the team’s score, his only strategy being, ‘See the ball, hit the ball’.
This was exactly the kind of fearlessness and intent that had been lacking in India’s T20I side, and as Tripathi made his way back to the pavilion having struck 44 from 22 at an SR of 200, it felt like the side had found a very important piece in the puzzle.
Having already excelled across multiple seasons, having proven his proficiency against both pace and spin, all that Tripathi needed was an ‘I’ve arrived’ knock at the international level and this felt like exactly that.
That night, as the dust settled, you couldn’t help but think India had found their long-term No.3.
Fast forward three months, and here we are. Tripathi has just had his worst-ever IPL season, his form nosediving to the extent that he had to be dropped by his franchise.
In the lead-up to IPL 2023, the 32-year-old was expected to be the lynchpin of SRH’s title charge, but instead, he serially underperformed for the worst side in the competition.
So, what went gone wrong?
Long story short: Tripathi, in IPL 2023, seemed to forget how to play pace.
Which is curious because the right-hander entered IPL 2023 with the reputation of being relatively ‘strong’ against pace. In 37 T20s that preceded IPL 2023, Tripathi had averaged 32.32 against the quicks and had struck at 152.7.
It was ironically superior to his corresponding numbers against spin (28.5 avg and 138.1 SR).
IPL 2023 began and well, Tripathi really forgot how to bat against the quicks.
Across the 13 matches he played, Tripathi faced 94 balls of pace. Shockingly enough, he was dismissed nine times in those 94 balls, his average reading an eye-watering 12.00. In the entire competition, no Top 5 batter fared as poorly as Tripathi did against the quicks.
These are not just poor returns. These are historically poor returns. In IPL’s 15-year history, only on two other instances have batters fared worse vs pace than Tripathi has done in 2023, having faced 75 or more balls against the quicks.
7 of his 9 dismissals vs pace have come inside the powerplay, indicating that it is the new ball that troubled Tripathi.
Versus pace inside the powerplay (overs 1-6), in fact, no one has fared worse than Tripathi this season.
Wriddhiman Saha (11), Rohit Sharma (8) and Prabhsimran Singh (8) have all been dismissed inside the powerplay by seamers more times than Tripathi, but not only have all these batters averaged more than Tripathi, they’ve all scored 150+ runs vs seamers inside the powerplay as compared to Tripathi’s 81.
The 32-year-old’s kryptonite this season have been short and short-ish (6m and above) deliveries bowled either at the stumps or on a fourth-stump line.
7 of 9 dismissals vs pace for Tripathi this season have been of balls that have been either 6m or shorter.
At the same time, 8 of his 9 dismissals this season have come against balls bowled on a Test match line.
Which is curious, because, across IPL 2021 and IPL 2022, against shorter lengths (6m and above) Tripathi was dismissed only once every 18.61 balls. This season, this figure has come down to 10.71.
For a batter that’s historically seldom been troubled by both pace and short balls, there can be two explanations as to why what’s happened has happened.
Tripathi has a) made a significant tweak to his technique or b) been poor but at the same time has had rotten luck
Considering there’s been little evidence of the latter, it could very well be the former. And interestingly enough, certain metrics do suggest that Tripathi was unlucky to a certain extent.
In IPL 2022, Tripathi was beaten by the pacers / edged a total of 34 times (either on the stumps or on a fourth-stump line). He was dismissed just 3 times to these balls.
This season, he’s been dismissed 6 times despite edging the ball/getting beaten a total of 15 times on the aforementioned line.
He’s had some unlucky dismissals too, whether it be an attempted slap off Mitch Marsh going straight to cover, or the paddle-scoop off Russell going to the throat of fine leg.
But luck or no luck, it is flabbergasting that an elite player has endured a campaign like this against a particular bowling type, especially in a remarkably high-scoring season.
Silver linings — numbers vs spin and continued intent
Despite enduring a nightmare against the pacers, Tripathi, curiously enough, still enjoyed an outstanding season against spin. Against the tweakers, he scored 165 runs at an SR of 138.7 and an average of 55 while being dismissed just thrice. He was especially destructive against leg-spinners, smashing 88 runs from 56 balls at an SR of 157.1.
All things considered, it won’t be inaccurate to claim IPL 2023 has been Tripathi’s best season as a batter vs spin, to date.
What’s also been encouraging, despite a poor season overall, is how there hasn’t been a drastic drop in the intent. There’s been a drop in the first 10 balls' strike rate compared to the 146.2 last season, but it still sits at a healthy 128.6.
He’s also continued to attack more than 50% of his first 10 balls.
What does Tripathi’s IPL 2023 returns mean for his India chances?
Having entered IPL 2023 as an incumbent (of sorts), Tripathi would surely have been a certainty in the T20I set-up with a good or even an above-average season.
But the reality is that he’s done his T20I chances plenty of harm through the campaign he’s had.
Not least because every other player auditioning for a Top 4 role in the T20I side (Gill, Gaikwad, Kishan, SKY, Jaiswal, Tilak Varma, Venkatesh Iyer) have enjoyed a far better season than he has.
In an ideal world, Tripathi gets named in the next T20I squad because of the credit he has built up — he’s succeeded more than he’s failed in the past three years — but you really cannot blame the management if they do end up overlooking him.
It truly would be a shame if that night in Ahmedabad three months ago proves to be a false dawn.