Chaos. Physics describes it as “the property of a complex system whose behaviour is so unpredictable as to appear random, owing to great sensitivity to small changes in conditions.” Anything that disturbs the set or expected pattern can cause chaos.
MS Dhoni, forever the Alfred Hitchcock of captains, took Chennai Super Kings (CSK) to their third title. But there was science and a strategy that went beyond current Twenty20 (T20) standards in Chennai's mesmeric title-clinching campaign.
The decision that sparked conundrum
In their last league game of IPL 2018, MS Dhoni’s clever jugglery of batting order proved to be a masterstroke against Kings XI Punjab (KXIP). CSK were 27/3 in a chase of 154, thanks largely to Ankit Rajpoot, who had dismissed Faf du Plessis and Sam Billings off consecutive deliveries. Dhoni promoted Harbhajan Singh and Deepak Chahar to numbers 5 and 6 respectively, and it turned the course of the match.
KXIP bowlers, who had until then stuck to classic Test-match lengths on a lively Pune track, suddenly felt the need to york and bounce the pinch-hitters. However, Harbhajan stepped out to meet the quicks while Chahar slogged Ravichandran Ashwin to the stands off consecutive balls.
By the time Harbhajan departed — in the eleventh over — the swing had died and the platform had been set for Dhoni and Dwayne Bravo to finish the game. While the move hints of the age-old ‘pinch-hitting’ theory blended with a steal from Ashwin’s ‘unpredictability’, Dhoni likes to call it “chaos”, and it makes perfect sense.
"The ball was definitely swinging a bit, especially more for Ankit (Rajpoot) and the other two fast bowlers. In a game like this, you want to take as many wickets as possible when it is swinging. With Bhajji (Harbhajan) or Chahar going in, it creates a bit of chaos. The bowlers all of a sudden starts to bowl yorkers, short of length or bouncers. When batsmen are batting, the bowlers somehow stick to a very good line and length,” Dhoni had said, describing his move.
The others who did it
This is not to say the ‘chaos’ theory would always be successful. Ravichandran Ashwin, who had vowed to be “unpredictable” before the IPL season, promoted himself to No 3 in a game against Rajasthan Royals but departed for a two-ball duck. In the same game, Ajinkya Rahane used Krishnappa Gowtham at No 3, and the move didn’t work for him either as Gowtham was dismissed for eight runs.
Dhoni’s move is definitely not a first, neither is Ashwin’s, but the CSK skipper seems to have put more thought in his gamble. He was not only trying to disturb the momentum of the opposition, but importantly, he was doing it with the right personnel. To quote other examples, we have the Sunil Narine promotion, but that no longer goes into chaos category given that it is an expected move nowadays.
Mumbai Indians’ (MI) use of Mitchell McCleneghan in a match against Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) two seasons ago was also a strategic shock-treatment that disturbed the rhythm of their opposition.
With Mumbai boasting of some terrific strikers, Ricky Ponting and Rohit Sharma decided to push Mitchell McCleneghan to the top to create a ripple. Chasing 187, MI needed 101 from less than 10 overs when their second wicket fell. Jos Buttler and Kieron Pollard sat in the dugout as McCleneghan walked out, much to KKR’s surprise.
The Kiwi smashed three sixes in his first three balls and scored a quickfire 20 to disrupt Kolkata's momentum. Describing the move then, Rohit had stated, "It was Ricky's idea. We just wanted to upset their rhythm and he did it perfectly.”
There are more examples but the point is clear. When you introduce a factor that disturbs the flow of current events, chaos occur. It may or may not turn out to be a masterstroke, but are there ways to make it successful? Apparently there are statistics and data that support Dhoni’s and Rohit’s moves and debunks the myth that Ashwin was ‘unlucky’ not to pull off his stunt.
Numbers and wider implications
When McCleneghan was promoted, Mumbai not only needed to challenge Kolkata's momentum but also wanted to get some quick runs without running the risk of losing someone like Buttler or Pollard. The Kiwi southpaw was a logical move in many ways, statistically.
McClenaghan's overall balls per six record is among the best in IPL. He hits a six every 7.71 balls and although the sample size is less here, the numbers do matter. In Harbhajan's case, yet again numbers play a role. The veteran off-spinner was time and again used as a pinch-hitter by MI and Dhoni resorted to something similar, only that he did it in a game when Chennai were on the back foot.
Harbhajan scores a boundary every 4.93 balls in IPL and strikes at a rate of 138.69. Deepak Chahar is a pretty good batsman as former Rajasthan skipper Hrishikesh Kanitkar says, and the chances of his success were high, given his ability to hit big.
This is where Ashwin’s theory comes apart a bit. While he used himself, a decent batsman, at No 3, all he did was promote a mediocre hitter at a time when KXIP needed someone who could clear the in-field in the powerplays.
Ashwin scores a boundary every 8.64 balls and a six every 44.43 balls, both of which are shoddy considering the standards of modern T20 cricket. Of course, he made a 22-ball 45 from No 7 a few days later, but he is typically a player who gets going after spending some time on the crease. In the powerplays, against Rajasthan, Ashwin was perhaps not the right personnel when the team was looking to up the ante immediately, and hence the move to promote himself makes little sense even in hindsight.
Ajinkya Rahane tried to pull off a similar move with Jofra Archer opening the innings against Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) and yet again it came apart with the West Indian big-hitter falling for a duck. While he scores more than 50% of his runs in boundaries, Archer had never batted in the powerplays before and against a rampant Umesh Yadav, the move was fraught with loopholes. That said, it wasn't as horrible a ploy as Ashwin’s, given Archer’s ability to get going early.
What these statistics prove is that while causing chaos in the opposition is desirable, teams need to choose the right personnel to do it. T20 dynamics are different, and merely considering the average or strike-rate of a batsman cannot bring to light his ability to get going from the first ball. The dot ball or boundary percentages carry more weightage than age-old parameters.
Batsmen who tend to play out less dots are preferred in T20 cricket, but during the powerplays or death overs, one needs players who can clear the ropes at a good rate, which is where the boundary percentage or balls per boundary and six percentage or balls per six come handy.
A look at the best lower-order batsmen/bowlers in T20 cricket (only players who were part of this IPL) in terms of boundary percentage reveals telling numbers.
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We see several players who made an impact this IPL who were potential candidates to be pushed up the order. The presence of Sunil Narine, the best powerplay batsman of the IPL season, isn't a surprise give the form he has been in.
But there are some names which evoke awe in that list. Players like Rashid Khan, Harshal Patel, Carlos Brathwaite and Krishnappa Gowtham proved their worth at lower-order batting positions. While Gowtham's promotion was unsuccessful, there is enough reason statistically to stick to that move.
David Willey has had success as an opener in the NatWest T20 Blast and Chris Morris, Ben Cutting and Tim Southee are known for their hitting abilities.
The wider implications of the chaos theory are pretty clear. It is not just about getting in the pinch-hitter but also ensuring you have the right pinch-hitter. In a game spanning 120 balls, even a ball lost can be decisive. Of course, there is an option to disregard pinch-hitters altogether, but as Harbhajan and Chahar proved, when used right, the theory could be a game-changer.
While CSK’s title win and Shane Watson's blitzkrieg hog limelight, it is important not to forget Dhoni’s punt, and the bigger impact it could have in the shortest format of the game.