In a game where the Sunrisers Hyderabad bore the brunt of bowling on the wrong side of a thunderstorm, there was another factor that led to an eight-wicket loss: their preference for the yorker over the slower ball at the death.
The successful use of the knuckle ball has been one of the secrets behind the SRH’s extraordinary defensive skills. But SRH persisted with a strategy they have employed in the last three games now, of their fast bowlers preferring yorkers to slower balls at the death. In one of those games, it paid off magnificently, but in the last two, it has proven costly.
SRH have played on a variety of surfaces this year, starting with a fast-paced pitch at home where Billy Stanlake made his presence felt. But towards the second half of their tournament so far, they have been handed slightly drier surfaces, where the winning captain has looked to bat first on three occasions, a rarity in T20 cricket. And by executing their slower balls on these tracks, Kane Williamson’s bowling unit has earned the tag of the ‘best in the league’, having had a 100 percent win record while defending totals before Sunday. “No secret on why we're doing well. We've adapted to a variety of surfaces,” Williamson said after his team’s home game against Delhi Daredevils. He described the pitches in games against Rajasthan Royals and Mumbai Indians as “slow” and “tough” as well.
He said the same when SRH defended 146 effectively to end the campaign of Royal Challengers Bangalore (“We're playing on tough surfaces, this was another one,” reasoned Williamson.) Yet in the last two overs of that match, with just 19 to defend and two set batsmen at the crease, Siddarth Kaul and Bhuvneshwar Kumar preferred the yorker. The dry surface meant that they got a little bit of reverse, getting the ball to tail in. SRH eventually won by five runs, and the two Indian fast bowlers were the toast of the town for “bringing back the yorker”, as many on social media put it.
But the yorker is a fickle muse, and the correction appeared in the next two games. SRH stuck to the yorker against a peerless Rishabh Pant at the Kotla, and Bhuvneshwar got clobbered for 26 runs in the last over. Of those, two fours and one six came off yorkers or full length balls, although to be fair, Pant’s flip-scoops over third man were extraordinary. Kaul too went for 48 in his four overs in that game, including three full tosses (most likely attempted yorkers) in the 19th over.
It was more of the same on Sunday against CSK, where Kaul bowled five full tosses in the 18th over. Although the death overs mattered little by then, with only 37 required off the last 30 balls, it was clear that the plan was still to go full rather than take the pace off. It is an all-or-nothing strategy, like putting all your money into a single scrip in the stock market. When it lands right, the yorker is near unhittable. But batsmen are now adept at hitting low full tosses and overpitched balls, which is what you get if the yorker goes wrong by just a few inches. The slower ball, though, has a much higher margin for error; a good slower ball which is only a few inches off target is still hard to hit. And of all slower balls, the knuckle ball has been the most effective this season, and both Bhuvneshwar and Kaul are proficient at it.
So why have SRH switch-hit their own plans? Williamson explained after the match. “We try and adapt to different surfaces. We’ve played on a number of surfaces that have been slow and stopped a little bit, where if you take pace off it responds a little bit.” he said. “The last few games have been very good surfaces and haven’t responded much to the slower balls.”
It’s true that the pitch at the Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium was flat, with an even covering of grass. The CSK fast bowlers, especially Deepak Chahar, prospered on it, swinging the ball prodigiously for “eight and a half overs”, according to Williamson. The white Kookaburra ball rarely swings for more than four or five overs, even less in the afternoon heat. But as a thunderstorm built over Pune, the air, pregnant with moisture, provided the right amount of resistance to the ball, helping it swing. That same moisture was absent when Bhuvneshwar and Sandeep Sharma bowled, with the storm having deposited its cargo over the city. So counter intuitively, there was no swing despite conditions being cooler in the second innings. Similarly, at the Kotla, the wicket seemed to be gripping early on, but it became easier to bat as the game progressed because of a little dew, and Pant cashed in. There SRH went for yorkers, because even slower balls tend to skid on to the bat when the ball is wet.
It gives us a clue as to why SRH have been such a good bowling unit defending low scores: the low scores are often because of tricky pitches, which their bowlers are phenomenal at exploiting. Spinners too come into the game much more on these surfaces, but it is the fast bowlers that help SRH stand out from other sides. On truer surfaces though, it seems SRH still have to find the right formula. Have a look at the three games they lost: all three have been high scoring encounters on good batting wickets, two of them against Chennai. And opposition teams have noticed this. “Hyderabad have been playing on dry wickets, where there has been reverse swing, and it has been slow... you could see them trying to work out the various ways to attack here,” said CSK coach Stephen Fleming.
So what strategy will SRH use in their last two games, and in the playoffs?
There is the possibility that SRH will stick to the yorker option for the next two games, to help build experience among their bowlers, and develop confidence in that skill, which would be their Plan B. But come the playoffs, I would be surprised if they don’t use the knuckle balls, even on batting friendly pitches, as those give their bowlers some cushion. “It’s a smart bowling unit we have and it’s important to keep learning from our performances,” said Williamson. SRH might be hoping for good batting tracks in the next two games, so that they can work out the right formula to use with the ball. If they find that, they could completely own the ‘Best Bowling Attack in the League’ tag.
The author is a former international cricketer and now a freelance journalist and broadcaster. She hosts the YouTube Channel ‘Cricket With Snehal’, and tweets @SnehalPradhan