Is emphasis on power and speed changing the thought process and equations in the Indian Premier League? This was the underlying premise when Venky Mysore, CEO of Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) was asked why his team went almost exclusively for fast bowlers during the IPL auction on Monday.
In the earlier editions of the tournament, KKR had banked substantially on their spinners, Sunil Narine, Ajantha Mendis, Murali Kartik, Shakib Al Hasan and Piyush Chawla, among others. However, this time around, the former champions went aggressively after fast bowlers and paid big bucks to bag Trent Boult (New Zealand), Chris Woakes (England), Nathan-Coulter Nile (Australia), Rovman Powell (West Indies) and Rishi Dhawan (India).
“The Eden Gardens pitch has been re-laid and its character has changed. The same can be said for pitches all over India. They are a lot more fast bowler-friendly. Our strategy was based on this change,” the Mysore said.
While the KKR CEO pointed out that left-arm Kiwi paceman Boult was seriously quick, he revealed that KKR’s former coach Trevor Bayliss, the current England coach, had told them that Woakes was improving by leaps and bounds and was a complete fast bowler; one capable of bowling with the new ball and at the 'death'.
He added that he was aware of the potential of Jamaica’s young paceman Powell because of his franchise owners’ involvement in the Caribbean Premier League (CPL).
“Watch out for him. He is a very exciting cricketer in the Andre Russel mould. You’ll hear a lot of him,” he tipped off.
Indeed, fast bowlers were the flavour this year and all teams gleefully feasted on the menu at the auction.
Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) splurged on England T20 specialist Tymal Mills, Rajasthan left-arm speedster Aniket Choudhary, who travels with the Indian team as a nets bowler, and young Billy Stanlake, the gigantic 6’10” tall Australian paceman.
Delhi Daredevils (DD) too went in for some serious pace firepower with the purchase of South African Kagiso Rabada, Australian Pat Cummins, Sri Lankan Angelo Mathews, besides Kiwi all-rounder Corey Anderson.
This trend of seeking pace bowlers was noticed in the purchasing pattern of Gujarat Lions (GL) and Kings XI Punjab (KXIP) as well, who however preferred to bank on an Indian contingent. Gujarat snapped up Nathu Singh, Basil Thampy, Manpreet Gony and veteran Munaf Patel while Punjab spent good money on Tamil Nadu’s yorker specialist T Natarajan (Rs 3 crore) and Varun Aaron (Rs 2.8 crore), besides Kiwi paceman Matt Henry.
Rising Pune Supergiant obviously expect their Rs 14.5 crore signing Ben Stokes to do quite a bit of bowling too. Even otherwise, they have shored up their pace attack with the inclusion of Australian Dan Christian, New Zealander Lockie Ferguson and Indian left-arm pacer Jayadev Unadkat. Even Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH), who already had a variety of fast bowlers, opted to pick up some more in the form of England’s Chris Jordan, local lad Mohammed Siraj (Rs 2.6 crore) and Australian Ben Laughlin.
Mumbai Indians (MI) added the pacy Mitchell Johnson to their envious pool of pacers comprising Lasith Malinga, Jasprit Bumrah, Tim Southee, Hardik Pandya Vinay Kumar and Keiron Pollard and thus underscored the tectonic shift in thinking among IPL franchise-owners. Mumbai also made two big purchases among spinners - Karn Sharma (Rs 3.2 crore) and K Gowtham (Rs 2 crore). But the overwhelming theme of this year's auction was pace, notwithstanding SRH's surprising spend of Rs 4 crore for teenage Afghan leg-spinner Rashid Khan.
Earlier, the belief was that pitches for the IPL would be worn out by the end of a long domestic season and the attendant baking heat of the summer would further make it conducive to spin bowling.
But obviously, pitch quality and maintenance have improved by leaps and bounds, and as Amrit Thomas, CEO of RCB pointed out, the average total of the side batting first at Bengaluru's M Chinnaswamy Stadium was 190. The Bengaluru pitch afforded pace, bounce and carry and RCB needed to exploit that in their seven home games. Of course, teams also have spinners around, just in case the pitches deteriorate alarmingly.
However, all teams have realised that unless they had an exceptionaly top class spinner who was deceptive and had good variations, fearless batsmen armed with modern-day, superbly manufactured bats could clear the field even with mishits. Pacers who could mix and match their deliveries stood a better chance against these new breed of aggressive batsmen.
Additionally, almost all franchises are now coached by foreigners brought up on a diet of fast bowling and thus their instinct is to go with pace rather than spin.
It was this scramble for pace bowlers that was very evident in the purchasing pattern of the franchises. Of course, the rejection of Ishant Sharma was a surprise. But again, as a source explained, the tall, lanky fast bowler bowls the length ideal for batsmen to have a go at him. “His strength is seam movement. He won’t get that on Indian pitches in the months of April, May. Yorkers and constant change of pace are not his forte.”
In fact, it is remarkable that virtually all teams have had a similar thought process and strategy. Winning might now depend wholly on who implements the plan better.