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CricViz Analysis: The Problem with Sunrisers Hyderabad

Ben Jones and Freddie Wilde analyse the issues with SRH this season.

Introduction

Sunrisers Hyderabad are having an odd season. Last season’s losing finalists started the competition briskly with three wins from their first four matches, but since then have fallen away. They now lie in sixth position, above only the dismal Rajasthan Royals and Royal Challengers Bangalore, after a run of three consecutive defeats. Despite relatively few changes to their squad, and no change in the leadership structure, they have struggled comparatively with last year. So what’s gone wrong?

Winners and Losers

The new opening partnership has been an overwhelming success. Sunrisers traded their opener Shikhar Dhawan to Delhi Capitals, and so needed a new man at the top of the order to pair with the returning David Warner. Jonny Bairstow has been that man, him and Warner giving SRH consistently excellent starts, particularly with regard to wicket conservation – their dismissal rate in the first six overs the best ever recorded by an IPL team in a single season. On top of this, leg-spinner Rashid Khan has been as fantastic as one would expect, whilst Mohammed Nabi has been a gem with bat and ball.

However, as the chart below illustrates, there has been a chunk of players appearing in almost every game who have been weighing the team down: Manish Pandey, Vijay Shankar, Yusuf Pathan, Siddarth Kaul, and Bhuvneshwar Kumar. All five are Indian, and all five would have expected to have done better.

Domestic Batting

The three batsman in that quintet are a real issue, because Sunrisers’ domestic batting has been woeful. Vijay Shankar (brought into the SRH squad as part of the Dhawan swap deal) is an international in ODI cricket, and will go to the World Cup – both Pandey and Pathan have been in contention for Indian honours at various points of their career.

They are solid performers, who have simply not turned up. The three of them have a combined average of 20.36 this season, the lowest they have ever recorded in an IPL. They have been significantly worse than expected.

This has had significant implications for the balance of the side. In and of itself, middle and late order batting has been a problem for SRH for a number of seasons now. In fact since their inception in 2013 only two teams’ numbers three to seven have averaged fewer runs per wicket than SRH’s 23.11.

However, since 2016 when SRH have enjoyed a period of success, reaching the Play Offs for three consecutive seasons and winning the title in 2016, they have generally covered for their weak middle and lower order by building an exceptional bowling attack – meaning even if they only posted a par total batting first they were capable of defending it. In 2018 this attack reached an apex – defending four scores of less than 155 including a historic defence of 118 against Mumbai Indians at the Wankhede Stadium.

In this period of dominance their bowling attack has typically comprised one and sometimes two overseas players, with Rashid Khan a regular feature since 2017 – sometimes joined by Chris Jordan or Billy Stanlake, with Shakib Al Hasan and Mohammad Nabi providing all round options.

Yet this season, Sunrisers have been backed into a corner. Because none of Shankar, Pandey or Pathan are contributing, the need to include all three of Warner, Bairstow and Williamson increases. Rashid Khan is an absolute lock – and suddenly, there’s no room for maneuver. That overseas bowling strength that has underpinned their recent dominance has been weakened.

Fundamentally, the underperformance of the Indian batting insists that, if Sunrisers are to succeed, the Indian bowling needs to perform well.

Indian bowling is failing to make up for batting shortcomings

Crucially, the foundation of Sunrisers’ attack in the last few years has been Indian, with Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Siddarth Kaul and Sandeep Sharma playing in the large majority of matches. The strength of this Indian attack has allowed SRH to bolster their batting with overseas batsmen and also cover for the shortage of runs from the middle and lower order.

This season though two of those bowlers have struggled massively. While Sandeep – adopting a new role in the middle overs – has returned decent figures, Bhuvneshwar and Kaul have suffered terribly in the death overs, undoing some fairly consistent work in the first 15 overs.

Historically the death over phase of the game has been the Sunrisers greatest strength but this year it has let them down massively,  leaving them fighting losing battles in both departments, not scoring enough with the bat and finding themselves unable to make up for it with the ball. For the first time since 2016 their overall Economy Rate is greater than we would expect in that phase of the innings, as illustrated by the True Economy Rate graph below.

Bhuvneshwar’s particular struggles in the death overs in fact extend back beyond this season to the start of last season where he conceded runs at 10.15 RPO in the last five overs and this season that has risen even higher to an eye-watering 12.63 RPO.

Closer analysis of Bhuvneshwar’s bowling in the death overs shows that his struggles are largely the consequence of his fuller lengths being punished when he has missed his yorker – and his yorker more generally proving less effective. His record with non-yorker attempts has also got worse but only marginally.

Analysis of Bhuvneshwar’s attempted yorkers suggests the possible source of the problem. Between 2010 and 2017 Bhuvneshwar maintained an excellent line with his yorkers – delivering more than half of them in the channel or in line with the stumps. In the past two seasons the proportion of his yorker attempts on this line has fallen from 61% to just 34% and he has bowled a very high proportion of yorker attempts down leg.

Yorker attempts down leg were a relatively effective option for Bhuvneshwar in the previous seven seasons but it might be that this line has become too predictable with his economy rate for those deliveries nearly doubling from 7.74 to 14.28. Yorker attempts in the channel and on the stumps have remained comparatively economical despite their rarer usage.

As a result of his struggles with the yorker Bhuvneshwar has adjusted his lengths in the death overs, bowling significantly shorter – this despite landing his yorker more often when he has attempted it.

What is noticeable about Bhuvneshwar’s death overs method in the past two seasons is that his lines and lengths are now significantly more predictable. Whereas between 2010 and 2017 a yorker attempt was about as likely as a non-yorker attempt and when he was attempting a yorker the line was uncertain; Bhuvneshwar now bowls good and short lengths more than twice as often as his yorker and when he does attempt his yorker it is most likely to be pushed in towards the batsman’s pads and down leg.

Although Bhuvneshwar has been punished when he has missed his yorker there is a strong argument that he should attempt it more often but on a slightly wider line – largely simply so he can remain less predictable.

The struggles of Kaul in the phase are harder to analyse – largely because he has only bowled 36 balls in the death overs this season. Across such a small sample size it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions. Analysis of Kaul’s lines and lengths in the phase suggests he has largely adopted a similar method to last season. However, one potential shortcoming is his speed which has been marginally down on last year. Kaul’s pace was never his main weapon but his ability to rush the batsman with his short ball or beat him for pace with his fuller effort ball was a valuable skill that elevated his slower speeds as well.

SRH dropped Kaul for Khaleel Ahmed in their match against Delhi on Sunday – a decision that was justified by Khaleel’s strong performance. However, SRH should remain wary of writing off Kaul based on such a small sample size and when the evidence suggests he is adopting a similar method to last season. Khaleel’s career record at the death is not great either.

Conclusion

Sunrisers are fighting fires on both fronts – their middle order batting and their death bowling. If they extinguish neither they are going to find it exceptionally hard to qualify for the Play Offs, but getting one right could be enough. They have proven in the past that they can get by with one mis-firing area if the rest of the system works together. It’ll need to happen quickly though – with CSK home and away, followed by KKR as their next three fixtures, SRH will need to remedy these problems in the heat of battle.

CricViz’s Match Impact offers one potential way through the Sunrisers’ selection maze. According to the model’s projections Nabi’s projected batting impact of +0.95 is the second highest in the SRH squad after Warner. While it may seem as if Williamson – who won the Orange Cap last season with 735 runs at a strike rate of 142.44 – is the superior batsman to Nabi, our system projects Williamson as a very slightly negative impact batsman of -0.11. Admittedly Williamson has improved his T20 batting in recent years, most notably in last season’s IPL – and he is widely considered to be an excellent tactician. However, this season Nabi has been SRH’s standout player and contributes with both bat and ball. Opting for the Afghan all rounder and entrusting him with the responsibility to bat at number four, while also providing an off spin option, is a decision which has multiple benefits. It would be a big call but as we enter the second half of the season time is running out.

Ben Jones and Freddie Wilde are analysts at CricViz.

CricViz Analysis: The Changing Role of KL Rahul

Ben Jones reflects on a radical shift in the batting style of the Kings XI opener.

The 2018 Indian Premier League was a wonderful time for KL Rahul. Swaggering around India in Kings XI red, slog-sweeping his way into the hearts of neutrals. He was in the form of his life. 659 runs at 9.5rpo, made in a whirlwind 40-day frenzy where he looked ready to ascend to the next level of fame and acclaim; no longer just the poster boy, but the star of the show.

Unfortunately, for a man who strikes the ball as cleanly as Rahul, he had shown a surprising lack of timing. The nature of India’s touring schedule meant that Test cricket was the highest priority in 2018, three significant away series forming a sequence that was pre-ordained as the defining period of Virat Kohli’s captaincy. This was a year when FC runs were the most valuable currency, and whilst he was dominating in the shortest format, Rahul’s red-ball form was not quite as hot. It wasn’t even close.

In the following eight months, his stock fell through the floor. His returns in Test cricket were falling every time he batted; an average of 29.90 in England, 18.50 against the West Indies, 11.40 in Australia. When he was dropped from the side after 0 and 2 in Perth, few could argue against the decision with much conviction.

The knock-on effect was considerable. Whilst Rahul has never quite mastered ODI cricket – he made more runs in 2016 than he has done in the following three years combined – it has felt peculiar that such a talented white ball batsman has been only on the fringes of the 50 over side. He has played in just four of India’s 12 ODI series since the Champions Trophy. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that his reputation has suffered hugely because of that badly timed slump in Test cricket.

So the start of this IPL represented a chance for Rahul to get back that swagger, to reclaim his reputation as the vivacious talent in Indian cricket, ready to step up to full-blown, multi-format stardom. A chance, essentially, to erase the last year and start again. What’s actually happened has been far, far more interesting.

What we can see is that there has been a significant shift in Rahul’s approach to batting in this season’s IPL. In 2016 and 2018, Rahul was a dominant dasher, scoring at 8.78rpo and 9.5rpo respectively. Last year only Rishabh Pant hit more boundaries than him. So far this season, his scoring rate has plummeted, and his dismissal rate has risen substantially.

This change in his output can be traced back to his intent; Rahul has been more cautious this year, but also more clinical. He has attacked less in 2019 than he has done in any previous IPL season, and has played considerably fewer false shots, showing greater restraint and greater control than he ever has done before.

That clinical selection has paid off. Those attacking shots that he has played have also been more secure than they have been before – just 11.9% of his attacking shots have lead to a false shot, the lowest for any IPL he’s played in. There is a sense, from all of this data, that Rahul is taking greater care when considering which deliveries to attack, when to use his abundant talent.

Of course, you could take a broader view. Some may suggest that Rahul’s switch in strategy is simply a function of how Kings XI are playing as a whole, giving him less individual credit or agency. However, what we see is that whilst Rahul has scored more slowly and securely, his opening partners for KXIP have scored more quickly and less securely than in previous years. While Rahul has zigged, the man at the other end has zagged.

The picture this paints is a little clearer. Rahul is a man adjusting his mindset, and performing a different role, occupying a more responsible position in the Kings XI set-up. Perhaps this is a function of Mike Hesson wanting to maximise the effect of Chris Gayle’s destructive pre-IPL form; perhaps it’s an acknowledgement that Kings XI’s strength is their bowling, and that their batting outside of the opening partnership is relatively weak, or at the very least unproven. Just as Hesson has shown a desire to lengthen the batting order by using Curran as a pinch-hitter in the one match where Gayle didn’t open, the difference in Rahul’s approach is a tactical switch designed to minimise Kings XI’s weakness. It has worked – after six matches, Kings XI sit third in the table, well above where the punditocracy predicted they would be.

However, whilst this season of IPL has been fascinating, the consequences of this switch in approach could extend beyond the table. Rahul has long been criticised at international for being slightly dogmatic, unable to adapt to the particular challenges in front of him. For many, that is where is failures in Test cricket come from. They point to the fact that his notable recent successes in the Indian blue have come with the pressure off. A blistering century at Old Trafford in a T20I showed his skills, but nothing new – everyone knows Rahul can blast away an attack on a flat deck. The same could be said for his century at The Oval in the dead rubber Test; England wanted to win that Test of course, and were nervous for an hour or so while Rahul and Rishabh Pant were blasting everything to the boundary. Yet is was another flat surface, against a team understandably distracted by Alastair Cook’s farewell. He started his English summer with a century, and ended it with one, but neither proved anything we didn’t already know.

What this IPL season has shown us – so far – is that when asked to perform a different role, Rahul can adapt. The fact that he has proven this just six days before the Indian World Cup squad is announced feels careless, but not as careless as if he’d proved it six days afterwards. The Indian selectors are still not quite certain of their middle-order make-up, and when they’re casting their collective eye over Ambati Rayudu, Dinesh Karthik, Vijay Shankar and Rahul himself, the latter’s recent form could be enough to twist their arm. It is of course unlikely – Rayudu is the incumbent in possession of moderate recent success, a valuable attribute in a team that is succeeding so effortlessly elsewhere – but Rahul can feel safe in the knowledge that over the past fortnight, he has put his best case forward.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

CricViz Analysis: How do you stop Andre Russell?

Ben Jones tries to find the weakness of the West Indian who’s lighting up the IPL.

Andre Russell is a poster boy. His game, his aesthetic, everything about the man from the moment he steps into public view, is what T20 is supposed to be about. Vibrant, skillful, powerful and fun.

Specifically, Russell has always been a wonderful hitter. His phenomenal ability to find the boundary is unmatched around the world; nobody to face 1000+ balls since he debuted can match his boundary percentage of 24.27%. Nobody scores more quickly. That sort of skill doesn’t go unnoticed, and as such, Russell has always been a coveted T20 recruit, travelling the world on the short-form circuit, the star attraction rolling into a town near you, and you, and you.

Yet over the last 12 months or so, he has gone up another level. Since the start of 2018, Russell scores at 10.84rpo overall, and 11.68rpo at the death; the average for all players who’ve played in the same matches is 8.14 and 9.20. Russell scores more than two runs-per-over faster than those playing on pitches he’s playing on, facing attacks he’s facing. He may not fit cricket’s traditional imagine of one, but Russell is a genius.

So far, he’s certainly brought that genius to the 2019 Indian Premier League. Scores of 49* (19), 48 (17) and 62 (28) have lit up the competition, Russell taking his place on the bench as a looming bogeyman for bowling sides, every Kolkata Knight Riders wicket a double-edged sword that brings him one step closer to the crease. Kagiso Rabada’s yorker that dismissed Russell, in the Super Over between KKR and Delhi Capitals, was celebrated as if the South African had slain a dragon, that the immortal had become mortal. In T20, Russell is fast-moving towards the mythical status enjoyed by Virat Kohli in ODIs.

So considering all this – given the insistence from the league structure that you’ll run into him at some point or other – if you’re an IPL captain, how on earth do you go about setting plans to Andre Russell?

PRE-BAN V POST-BAN

Across his career, there is a clear pattern to the way Russell performs against spin and pace. The West Indian has found it easier to score quickly against faster bowling, but easier to survive against spin bowling.

Of course, we have glossed over a significant event here. Russell’s performance may have exploded in the last 12 months, but there’s another more controversial reason to see that as a break in his career. Banned for a “whereabouts violation” relating to doping regulations in 2017, he was removed from cricket for a year, the recipient of all the usual slurs against players in his position. The integrity of everything he had ever done on a cricket field was questioned. Inevitably, when he returned to the game 12 months ago, he returned a different player. What is surprising, as we’ve established, is that he arguably he returned a better one.  

However, while the quality of his record may have changed, the nature of his batting record hasn’t. In fact, the pattern is amplified. Just like the Russell we had grown used to watching, the post-ban Russell was more secure against spin, and more explosive against pace, but the gap between the two had widened. He returned as the batsman he had been before, but with the contrast turned up.

GO SPIN HEAVY

So at the very least this gives a clear path for captains. If you want to contain, bring the spinners on and accept Dre Russ will be in for a while; if you want him gone, then bring on the seamers and accept the chaos that could ensue. Reassuringly, this is true throughout the whole innings. At every stage, it is more aggressive to bowl pace to Russell, and more economical to bowl spin. At every stage, it is more aggressive to bowl pace to Russell, and more economical to bowl spin.

If Russell does make it through to the death, then bowling spin pays. Dismissal rates at the death are significantly less important than scoring rates, so restricting the opportunity for the West Indian to free those muscular arms and crash the ball to the rope is paramount. In general, T20 captains rarely rely on spin in the latter stages – too rarely, given their relative success in this period – but there is a clear benefit to targeting Russell with slow bowling.

In particular, as is often the way in contemporary T20 cricket, your leg-spin bowler is your biggest weapon. Russell has struggled to get the wrist-spinners away since returning; he’s scored at 8.56rpo against leg-spin and 12.23rpo against all other bowlers. If you are lucky enough to have access to a leggie, you’d be best advised to use him against Russell. High stakes cricket, but having the confidence to save your gun leg-spinner specifically for an opposition star can reap dividends, as Kane Williamson found when Rashid Khan removed Jos Buttler last week.

SURVIVING AS A SEAMER

However, regardless how careful you are with the deployment of your bowlers, it’s almost certain that you’ll need to send down some pace to Russell at some point. When that moment comes, what do you do? Well, as with everything in T20 cricket, it comes down to a blend of planning and execution. The graphics below show Russell’s strike rate according to where the ball reaches him, or where the ball pitches. The darker the red, the higher the strike rate. For bowlers, it’s slim pickings.

What we can see is that you essentially have two choices – bowl a perfectly executed wide yorker, or drop your length right back, with a tight line, most likely attempting to set a trap by putting a man back on the midwicket fence (and distributing helmets to the crowd members in that zone). Neither option is foolproof, to any extent, but there is at the very least clear warning not to bowl anything in that good length region.

Of course, Russell is going to bat differently at different stages of the innings, and as such you want to bowl differently to him. If you break those strike rate graphics down by phase, there is good news and bad news.

On the one hand, we can see that well-planned, well-executed seam bowling plans in the middle overs can subdue Russell. Anything which forces him to reach wide outside off stump, either back of a length or yorker length, has been effective in the last 12 months. His tendency to plant his feet and hit from a solid base does rather limit his options when the ball isn’t more obviously in his arc.

On the other hand – at the death, seamers really are on a hiding to nothing. Barring the most perfectly executed yorker, pinning his toes to the crease, there is no correct option for the seamer bowling to Russell at the death. Short, good length, full, wide, straight – he has shown, over time, the ability to hit powerfully in any zone.

Of course, this doesn’t mean he’s immune from failure. He will get out to certain deliveries over time, and he won’t always succeed in every game, but there is nowhere you can confidently bowl to him. There’s nowhere to hide. He hits everything.

Which is why, not to labour the point, that bowling spin is paramount. The absolute elite fast bowlers in the world will be able to find a way to limit Russell – as Rabada did in the Super Over – but most quicks are left with nothing on their side, chasing their own tails as the ball flies over the boundary. As an IPL captain, if you don’t have an elite fast bowler in your attack – and they’re a scarce resource, that’s sort of the point – then you are significantly better off keeping spin on against Russell, even when the death overs arrive.

***

It’s an easy thing to say from here. The sort of madness that Russell can create disrupts even the most carefully laid plans, and most of the time captains shouldn’t be chastised for faltering. He is an agent of chaos. However, if you can avoid being drawn into this, the key is to keep your head, and look to overwhelm him with a simple strategy of bowling almost exclusively spinners – leg-spin if you have it – then you’re giving yourself half a chance.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.