Utilising Pinch Hitters in T20 Cricket

8th May, 2018.

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'Nothing ventured, nothing gained' could be a suitable description of Sunil Narine's batting style.  Over the last couple of years, the West Indian spinner - a world class spinner, let's not forget - has been frequently used as a pinch-hitter batsman, opening the innings for his various T20 sides.

Narine's style is pretty simple - attack the bowlers from ball one.  If it works, he's been able to hit half-centuries at 200+ strike rates, putting his team in a very dominant position.  If it doesn't, then he hasn't wasted precious resources (even a 10-ball innings represents 8.33% of a team's batting resources, for example), and someone else gets a go.  

Below is a table of Narine's strike rates for T20 innings, filtered by the stage of a team's innings where he came in to bat.  This data is from the 2016-17 Big Bash onwards - the tournament where he first came to prominence as a pinch-hitting opening batsman.  

Over Innings Started

Runs

Balls Faced

Strike Rate





Opened

815

504

161.71

First 6, Didn’t Open

21

14

150.00

Overs 7-10

33

30

110.00

Overs 11-13

49

42

116.67

Overs 14-16

82

53

154.72

Overs 17-10 (Death)

71

48

147.92





Powerplay

836

518

161.39

Last 6

153

101

151.49

Middle Overs

82

72

113.89


Here we can see a clear split in Narine's strike rate data - he's striking at over 160 runs per 100 balls when either opening or coming in during the power play, and there's a little drop-off to his numbers when coming in at the death, and in the last six overs, although a strike rate of around 150 is still decent enough.  Where he really struggles is when he comes in during the middle overs, where his batting style hasn't worked so far.  Some teams have seen fit to bat him at 4/5 and coming in during these middle overs, which looks to be a mistake.

Purely on that logic, Narine's game plan when opening and batting during the power play in general seems quite a good strategy, but this begs two questions.  

If Narine has done this to occasional great effect for his various teams, why aren't more teams and other players trying it?   
Furthermore, why are other players finding it difficult to replicate Narine's achievements?

To start with, I want to recount a conversation I had with some decision makers of an un-named T20 domestic team a few months ago.  They have a particular player who I feel could be fairly well-suited to this pinch hitting role, and asked them if they would consider this as a viable option moving forward.  To summarise, they weren't keen, for several reasons.  Firstly - and this seems a little absurd in what is a team sport - they were concerned that their traditional openers would be annoyed at being pushed down the order.  In addition, and perhaps more pertinently, they were worried about losing too many wickets in the power play.

The effects of losing wickets in the power play is well documented.  This excellent recent article from Jarrod Kimber, via Cricinfo, discusses this phenomenon, stating 'When you take three wickets in the Powerplay of a T20 match, you have a 67% chance of winning. In the PSL that's 76%.'  On this basis, it seems completely rational for teams to fear their opponents taking multiple wickets in the power play, but there are quite a few caveats to this mindset.

First of all, teams which lose three top-order batsmen in the power play will almost certainly have reduced their chances of winning the match, because teams do not tend to be stacked with top-order batsmen, and this dramatically reduces their options and batting depth in the subsequent 14 overs.

However, we don't see any analysis for the effect of losing wickets in the power play when some the players dismissed are pinch hitters - players who aren't traditional top-order batsmen, but effectively big-hitting bowlers.  It would be almost certain that if, say two of the three batsmen dismissed in the power play were pinch-hitters as opposed to top-order batsmen, their win percentage wouldn't be damaged nearly as much.  

In addition, pinch-hitting - in theory - allows teams to have more batting depth, by pushing the rest of the players in the team down the order. Picking a pinch-hitter and having a lack of batting depth is not recommended, as Narine's team in the PSL this year, Lahore Qalanders, are likely to confirm.  A lack of batting depth in a team is almost certainly a mistake generated by poor auction/draft decisions, as there are an increasing number of bowlers who are becoming at least competent with the bat.

I envisage this improvement in batting from bowlers to continue.  As teams begin to realise that wicket preservation is over-valued, bowlers will get more opportunities with the bat, and being capable of playing 8 (5) type innings will dramatically increase their value to a team, and thus by definition, a player's value.  Bowlers will get financially richer by improving their batting, and eventually, I also see a situation where good bowlers who are able to play these high-strike rate cameo innings will be correctly perceived as being much better than the 'luxury' all-rounders who are neither top order batsmen or good enough to consistently bowl four overs.  

Examples of these luxury players include Carlos Brathwaite, Marcus Stoinis, Corey Anderson, Colin de Grandhomme, Darren Sammy and Ben Cutting, and these players - often deployed in a finisher's role - are often having their skills negated by coming in to bad with few balls of an innings remaining, or frequently, not at all.  Perhaps they too, could be used in this pinch-hitter role, although I'd prefer them to be bowlers of a calibre where they will bowl four overs on a consistent basis.

What is the skill-set required for a pinch-hitter to be successful?

A pre-requisite for considering any player to be a pinch-hitter is an ability to hit boundaries, and in particular sixes, more frequently than average.  The fielding restrictions in the power play encourage attacking batting, and with only two fielders allowed outside the circle, being able to hit over the infield is a critical asset.  

In addition, the player should not be a top-order batsman or a batting all-rounder - their wickets are too valuable - and a bowler or bowling all-rounder, or even a lower-order wicket-keeper, is more appropriate for this role.  

Ideally, a pinch-hitter will also have a higher strike rate against pace bowling than spin, although with teams frequently bowling more spin in the power-play, this isn't necessarily vital.  As we get deeper into the game theory of T20, it may be that utilising pinch-hitters at the top of the order may in turn cause difficulty to the plans of the opposition, who may end up having to use more spinners in the power play, thus reducing their stranglehold over the middle overs.  

Who are the potential pinch-hitting batsmen?

Certainly not Ravichandran Ashwin, who Kings XI deployed in this role at number three yesterday, in their loss to Rajasthan Royals.  The all-rounder has not got the skill-set for batting in the power play, striking at 117.84 in the IPL and T20 internationals since 2015, and with a boundary percentage of just 12.97% in this time period, as well as a 2.16% six-hitting percentage.

At this point, prior to identifying players, it's probably worth looking at what the mean figures are.  For the major T20 leagues (BBL/BPL/CPL/IPL/PSL/T20 Blast) and T20 internationals around the world from 2016 onwards, when there started to be a reasonable upward shift in strike rates, to 2nd May, 2018, the mean figures are as follows:

Strike Rate: 129.04 runs per 100 balls
Boundary %: 15.97%
Six-Hitting %: 4.86%

On this basis, we need to find bowlers and bowling all-rounders in the major franchise leagues who are capable of achieving these numbers, and ideally, better.   I therefore filtered my database for bowlers, bowling all-rounders and non main-batsmen order wicket-keepers who, since the start of 2015, were able to hit at around these levels.  The results were as follows (sorted by descending strike-rate), and form a comprehensive list of options for potential pinch-hitters for T20 franchises in the future:-

Player

SR

Boundary %

6%





Krishnappa Gowtham

202.33

30.23

11.63

Hasan Ali

163.16

21.05

11.58

Tim Southee

162.94

19.58

10.49

John Hastings

158.64

23.15

8.95

Jamie Overton

153.33

20.00

8.33

David Willey

151.95

20.41

9.06

Steven Davies

151.30

22.68

5.95

Mohammad Nabi

150.18

18.13

8.01

Sunil Narine

150.18

23.26

9.18

Liam Plunkett

150.00

17.36

4.86

Arron Lilley

148.97

22.76

4.83

Matt Henry

148.91

20.65

9.78

Adam Rossington

147.74

24.07

4.73

Rahkeem Cornwall

143.43

21.21

11.11

Seekugge Prasanna

142.99

17.76

10.90

Tim Bresnan

142.07

16.59

7.69

Chris Green

137.96

15.74

8.33

Rashid Khan

136.91

18.12

8.72

Pat Cummins

135.37

15.24

7.32

Mashrafe Mortaza

135.14

17.42

9.01

Harbhajan Singh

132.42

18.68

6.59


Here are 21 players whose primary role in the team is not as a main batsman, whose data clearly indicates that they have the skill-set for the pinch-hitter role.

A certain Sunil Narine is in this list, just above halfway, and this in itself indicates that while his strike rate and boundary data is superb, there are a number of other candidates who arguably have as good, if not better, chances of being a successful pinch-hitter.

Some, such as Adam Rossington, David Willey and Rashid Khan (he promoted himself in his first match as Afghanistan captain) have already had experience in this role, and Krishnappa Gowtham also was given this role yesterday in the IPL.

Certainly, the players on this list have the potential to be ready-made pinch-hitters, and certainly should be pushed to work further on their batting, given the huge financial rewards on the table for those who could master this craft.

What of the players who are neither main batsmen or regular four-over bowlers? 

I made a list of these as well, using the same filters, and you'll see that they have similar dynamics to the above batsmen:-

Player

SR

Boundary %

6%





Colin de Grandhome

158.47

20.19

9.28

Carlos Brathwaite

156.69

21.65

11.09

Ben Cutting

153.99

19.82

9.11

Darren Sammy

148.59

18.96

9.52

Ross Whiteley

146.78

17.90

10.68

Steven Mullaney

144.90

18.37

6.94

Dan Christian

143.35

16.73

7.96

Ryan Higgins

140.89

17.47

5.58

Thisara Perera

138.63

16.67

7.09

Corey Anderson

132.20

16.38

7.91


These players also look to have the required abilities to be a pinch-hitter, and it could easily be argued that they are wasted in this 'finisher' type role, given the lack of team resources that this role often gives.  They have the skill-set to perform extremely well opening or batting in the power play and more teams should take chances on utilising these specific player skill-sets for players whose wickets are worth less than their main batsmen.

If this article has given you insight into the data that Sports Analytics Advantage can offer cricket teams around the world in formulating draft or auction plans, selection strategies or tactics, please feel free to chat to us at sportsanalyticsadvantage@gmail.com.
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