Ben Jones analyses whether Andre Russell can maintain his amazing IPL form, and make it happen in the World Cup.
Andre Russell has just come off the back of an extraordinary IPL season. 510 runs, at 12.3rpo – he’s produced the kind of numbers that you normally find in computer games, not elite level sport. The speed at which he ade his runs (a strike rate of around 205 in old money) lit up the tournament; games were won and games were lost, but it was Russell’s pyrotechnics that you heard in casual conversations, in chats between people who wouldn’t normally pay attention to the T20 leagues. ‘Dre Russ’ has been a superstar for a while now, but this was a crossover moment. When you do what Russell does, people watch.
And now, the World Cup rolls around. In some ways it’s a bigger stage, in some ways a smaller one, but regardless, there is now a level of expectation on Russell, an expectation that he’s going to tear it up on the flat pitches of England and Wales, and boost the West Indies’ chances of qualification. “Well, if Russell comes off, anything could happen” – it’s a familiar caveat, and one that’s seen the Caribbean side painted as dark horses in many pre-tournament predictions. Russell is, in his arena, the form batsman in the world.
Yet outside of that arena, things aren’t so rosy. Russell’s ODI record appears not just underwhelming, but oddly mediocre for a man whose talents seem so extreme. He’s played 52 matches in his ODI career to date, making his debut back in 2011, but has passed fifty only four times, and has never made a century. Whilst his ability to influence T20 matches is almost unparalleled in the modern game, Russell has been an insubstantial player in ODIs, the sort of player you could slip past in the corridor without noticing. That doesn’t feel like Russell.
So why has a man so clearly dominant in one format been unable to dominate in another?
LACK OF ACCELERATION
Of course, there are of differences in the way Russell approaches the formats. In T20, Russell’s batting is defined by outrageous acceleration. This is largely dictated by the format, but in the shorter form Russell seems able to get his eye in very quickly, and punish bowlers exponentially the longer he stays at the crease. It is part of the reason why his batting is so mythologised in T20, because his threat grows with every ball he’s out there.
When he bats in ODIs, he shows little to none of this acceleration. He starts at just over 7rpo – not too shoddy – then raises it a little after 10 balls, before falling back. He comes out, find roughly the right gear, and stays there. This means that Russell’s greatest strength – the fact that his scoring ceiling is so much higher than everyone else’s – is never fully exploited in ODIs, and he rarely shows the full extent of his hitting ability.
STRUGGLES AGAINST SPIN
Russell has found it difficult to survive against spin bowling in ODI cricket. His overall average against spin, 29.93, isn’t that much worse than his average against pace, 35.50, but he’s also struggled to score quickly against slower bowling. As a full picture, it’s clear that he prefers facing quick bowling.
However the real issue with Russell hasn’t simply been his record against spin, but against spin early on. When facing spinners in the first 20 balls of his innings, Russell has been hugely vulnerable, averaging less than half what he does against pace. When teams have targeted him with spin at the start of the innings, he’s not been able to fight them off.
GOOD LENGTH WOES
One technical fault that does seem to be in play is a problem against good length bowling. When facing deliveries from seamers pitching 6.25-8m away from his stumps, Russell averages just under 14. Against all other lengths, he seems comfortable.
In T20, when variation is king and predictability is punished, bowlers are less likely to target that good length, and so Russell’s weakness is less of an issue. In ODIs, a format where bowlers have more license to bang away on a length, Russell’s weakness against such deliveries is exposed.
These difficulties don’t tell the whole story of Russell’s ability. His strengths remain the same in ODIs as they are in T20s – he scores at lightning pace. He is one of 436 players to score 1000 T20 runs since he made his debut, and not one of them scores faster than him. He’s yet to reach 1000 ODI runs, stranded on 998 at present, and he averages just 28.51 – but that pattern remains almost unchanged. 383 players have made 998+ ODI runs since Russell debuted, and only Shahid Afridi scores more quickly than the big Jamaican. He is outrageously gifted when it comes to scoring quickly, and that gift doesn’t disappear with the change in format.
This means his value at this particular World Cup could be huge. This will likely be a World Cup of high-scoring, of 320 pars and 350+ chases, and the value of someone making an explosive 60 (30) in that context is clear. At times during the last IPL season, it felt as if Russell was straining against the constraints of the format, wishing that there were more overs to fill with boundaries and brutality. At his best, it feels like ODI cricket is the only thing that could contain him. So how can he improve his effectiveness in ODIs?
SIMPLIFY SCORING ZONES
Russell has a phenomenal record when hitting in front of square on the legside. It’s not simply that he scores quickly, but that he does so securely; he averages over 100 runs per dismissal when hitting into that zone. It’s by far his highest averaging zone, and by far his fastest scoring.
It’s reductive to say that Russell should only look to score infront of square on the legside, but if Russell could trust his power, and back his ability to score quickly in that part of the pitch, then he could play with less risk in other aspects of the game. It could improve his returns on the offside if he feels content to defend good length balls, rather than driving them.
PLAY HIMSELF IN
As we can see in his T20 record, Russell is a man who accelerates throughout the innings – yet in ODIs he starts like the clappers, and never changes gear. No West Indian in the last decade scores more quickly off their first 20 balls than Russell, charging along at 7.68rpo. Some players need to start brightly, because they haven’t got the power to catch up, but Russell is not one of them; when he’s in, he’s going to do some damage. If he can bring a bit of that T20 mentality into his ODI batting, and wait to get set before going through the gears, then he could contribute more runs, more securely. It works for Chris Gayle – it can work for Russell.
USE HIS TEAMMATES’ STRENGTHS
Russell is blessed with being part of a very explosive batting line-up, and that can help him get settled at the crease. We can see that he has trouble with spin early on – Jason Holder can help Russell in this regard, by sending him to the crease alongside good players of spin. If Chris Gayle is still batting (who hits spin at 8.57rpo since the Champions Trophy), or if Shimron Hetmyer is teeing off (who scores at 6.3rpo against spin in ODIs), then opposition captains may be reluctant to bombard Russell with spin early on, given that the man at the other end is so ruthless at putting it away. It may only make a small difference, but it could give Russell the breathing space he needs to get set at the start of an innings.
Ultimately, Russell doesn’t need to change much. He’s one of the most talented and effective batsmen on the planet, and he’ll have an impact on this World Cup whether he plays well or not, simply through his presence in the pavilion. A swaggering 30 here, and a battered 50 there, will be enough to maintain his reputation as a brutal hitter who can do damage on his day. The hope in Caribbean minds, you’d think, is that Russell is capable of more, and that with just a few tweaks, he can go from making cameos, to defining matches. The West Indies’ tournament opener, against Pakistan at Trent Bridge, is as good an opportunity as any for Russell to show that he can do it in the longer format.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.