Today we’re joined by Saurabh Nagpal, a new contributor from Swansea University who’s dived into the statistics and discovered a key to England’s recent World T20 triumph…
Generally in life, running away from your problems is ill-advised but in the recently-concluded men’s T20 World Cup in Australia, running hard between the wickets proved to be a primary recipe for success.
Teams that compiled more runs by running twos and threes emerged victorious in ‘close matches’* 60% of the time. Along a similar thread, New Zealand, Pakistan, and England – three of the four semi-finalists – gathered the most (37.6), the second-most (29.14), and the fourth-most (27) runs per innings respectively by scurrying for twos and threes out of all the teams that featured in the Super 12 stage. To dissect the meaning of these seemingly nerdy findings, let’s dive into how this world cup materialised.
This tournament was a refreshing anomaly, a much-sought-for glitch in the matrix of T20 world cups. Unlike the previous edition in UAE and Oman, which functioned on the mantra of ‘win the toss, win the match’ with 29 out of 45 games being won by teams batting second, the playing field Down Under was evened out.
As a testament to this phenomenon, there were an unprecedented number of upsets in the 2022 edition. On four occasions an Associate Member of the ICC defeated a Full Member, the most ever in a men’s T20 world cup. On top of that, while Ireland and Zimbabwe are Full Members, in cricketing reality, their incredible victories over England and Pakistan respectively cannot be classified as anything other than an upset.
Beyond upsets and results, and in raw terms of the brawl between the bat and the ball, T20 cricket is a format where the former overwhelms the latter. But this norm was challenged in this tournament, where the ball, especially fast bowling, embraced the role of the protagonist with arms wide open.
For instance, out of all eight editions, pace bowling this time around had the best overall economy rate (7.53) and second-best strike rate (18). Dealing with genuine, quality swing and seam bowling upfront; sheer pace and steep bounce from hard, awkward lengths in the middle stages; and playing in gigantic fields, made life tough for batters. Not surprisingly, we witnessed the second-worst overall batting strike rate (117.07) and average (20.16) in the history of T20 world cup cricket.
The prime reason for such an upturn of fortune for fast bowling – normatively in T20Is, spinners bear the grim burden of bandaging the run flow – was the playing conditions in Australia. According to CricViz, the nation produces the fastest and second-bounciest pitches in the world. Wintry weather and early cricket season freshness made the surfaces even livelier, certainly in the first half of the competition.
These factors were collectively responsible for taming batters, in a genre of the game where boundaries are the currency and batters are consistently and fearlessly looking for ways to score at the speed of light. However, this world cup was struck by a boundary drought as the ball reached or crossed the rope merely a miserly 1.77 times per innings (per batter), which is the worst-ever rate in T20 world cups.
Under such circumstances, batters acclimated and the role of the anchor, one which in the recent past has increasingly come under the scanner, gained new-found importance in glueing the innings together.
Jarrod Kimber recently explained this phenomenon in his podcast, Uncovered: “In Australia… the grounds are big. You can actually score at a strike rate of 130-135 without hitting boundaries, which in the rest of T20 cricket is really hard to do. And so you do get a lot of these guys who chip the ball around, who run very cleverly, who use the angles of the dimensions because the ground is so much bigger. [They] only need to beat this person by this amount, because once it gets into that gap, it’s two, three, or four. It’s a slightly different kind of T20 cricket than we see in the rest of the world.”
Many say that cricket is witnessing its Moneyball moment, and undoubtedly T20s have played a major hand in stirring this revolution of sorts. In this world, which now collects and scrutinises data to the finest of details, every ball becomes an event where there’s an advantage to be gained or lost.
When viewed from this perspective, while accounting for the challenging batting conditions and realities such as Australia being a venue where batters, on average, run the most number of twos and threes per ball and the second-lowest amount of runs are scored through boundaries (54.1), it makes sense that teams scampering more runs through twos and threes, or conversely those which efficiently stopped these runs while fielding, found a competitive edge in crunch situations and enjoyed more success generally.
An excellent example of how painstaking the outcome-defining details were is the India vs Pakistan game at Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), where out of all venues in Australia, the least percentage of runs are scored in boundaries (49.3%). In this thrilling encounter that was dramatically clinched by India on the very last ball, Pakistan gathered 36 runs through twos and threes while the number for India was 37… and that made all the difference.
Nathan Leamon and Ben Jones, the authors of Hitting Against the Spin, a book that deconstructs cricket with the help of empirical data, make the point that in world cup cricket, because of the prize at stake, the intensity of the play shown by teams is visibly higher in all three departments of the sport than in regulation bilateral series.
It is often prophetically said that cricket is a game of fine margins, and if Leamon and Jones are to be believed, the margins thin out even more in a world cup scenario.
In this particular T20 world cup, while hitting boundaries was worth its weight in gold, running hard and running more harboured its value. Eventually, it turned out to be another of those fine margins that are not too evident on the surface, but evidently mattered a great deal.
You can read more of Saurabh’s work on his blog SportMelon.
* To assemble this data, every match that is won with 3 or fewer balls left or by 9 or fewer runs has been classified as a ‘close match’. However, the two games which were decided by the DLS method have not been considered to maintain the uniformity of overs faced/runs scored by each team.
It was refreshing to see less slog cricket than expected as sides found the conditions less than conducive to help yourself batting, with the ball often not coming onto the bat. This made for lower totals and more considered approaches.
Interesting to see in the 1st ODI Malan scoring a beautifully crafted century against a full Aussie allack minus Hazelwood with the only 4 sixes of the innings, despite a short boundary one side. Maybe sides are waking up to the fact that you can accumulate quick runs just as effectively and with less risk than getting caught on the boundary going for the champagne shot.
Wow, running hard between the wickets makes a difference, who knew? Thank goodness for enlightening technology!
The point is, sigh, that running between the wickets was more important than normal in this particular world cup.
It always was and has been, I could reel of a litany of reasons why the light bulb seems to have taken so long to shine most of which would be excuses and rationalisation.
It was not more important than normal in this world cup but larger outfields certainly accentuate its value. The average punter wants big hits so outfields and bowling restrictions are designed to accommodate that but the real measure is the paucity of dot balls.
Your starter for ten. Why is Stokes so good at winning from losing positions in all forms?
Regarding the paucity of dot balls, data suggests that boundaries are the real deal in the T20, and they easily trump the need to play fewer dot balls. For instance, imagine someone like a Chris Gayle, a T20 legend, he played a fair amount of dot balls but was far, far more effective than most because of his boundary hitting.
Which data is that, and from which era does it come? I would instinctively have thought that it was a combination of the two, not an either/or. Sure, if you struggle to hit boundaries then you’re going to have to run–and not absorb dot balls–uncommonly well to post a total that’s reasonably safe.
But the current WI team–which until recently included Gayle–is a classic example of the other extreme: hitting lots of boundaries but not having a plan B for when you can’t, and not having enough game sense to run well, look to turn over the strike, put presure on the fielders and if necessary get your boundary-hitters back on strike. The result is that they often don’t post especially imposing totals despite hitting a fair few boundaries.
Gayle is an imteresting one anyway. It’s interesting to compare his combined stats (strike-rate plus average) to someone like Joe Root, who’s usually thought of as not being in Gayle’s league as a T20 player. In internationals, they’re not as different as you might think despite Gayle hitting one-third more of the balls he faced to the boundary.
Is there actually any difference though between “more important than normal” and “accentuat[ing] its value”? Surely if the boundaries are bigger, it is more important than normal, simply because you’re more likely to get caught from shots which would sail over the boundary in other grounds, and more likely to have to run the runs from those hits even if you don’t.
I’m also surprised that that penny has taken so long to drop–as well as being completely unsurprised at how appallingly WI did, with whom it appears still not to have dropped. What is your litany of reasons, out of interest?
It’s one of the best parts of the game that conditions vary from place to place and the fact there isn’t a set outfield size. It’s also an interesting facet of playing in Australia the difference between playing in say Perth or Adelaide (admittedly less so now with the advent of drop in pitches and the redevelopment of most of their stadiums to suit the AFLs needs).
The first series I can really remember is the 89 Ashes and I can remember then being struck by how hard Australia ran regardless of whether there was a potential 2nd there or not so pressuring the field has always been a thing. It was nice to see that being important in this World Cup – although I’m sure normal service will be restored soon. enough