How do you qualify Keiron Pollard’s match-winning knock against the King’s XI Punjab (KXIP) at the Wankhede? How do you understand numbers like 83, with a next best score of 24, trumping a century and a Chris Gayle blitz? How do you explain to someone watching a strike rate of 267.74, which amounts to a run rate of 16.6 runs per over, scored partly at a stage where there was no help from the other end?
Pollard didn’t just win Mumbai Indians (MI) their fourth game in six matches. Along with what Andre Russell has been doing all season, Pollard redefined what could be done, recalibrating the number of runs that can be scored in the back end of a chase. We are not just watching players win games of T20 cricket. We are watching them change it.
Cricket is traditionally about the balance between bat and ball. What can the bowler gain from the pitch, that will assist him in dismissing the batter? How can a batsman score runs, while negotiating the threat of the bowler? In Tests and ODIs, even in conditions loaded in favour of the batsmen, the formats are long enough for the bowler to be in the game just by bowling good balls and waiting for a mistake.
But on good batting wickets, T20 cricket changes. When the pitch gives the average bowler nothing, and there are 10 wickets spread out over just 20 overs rather than 50 or 90, it fundamentally shifts the kind of risks that batsmen can take. On a good batting pitch, most bowlers are like gamblers in the casino, playing low odds against the house. And the house always wins.
T20 cricket then becomes a competition between casinos, and right now, the West Indies may be the Caesar's Palace of international cricket. They don’t mix risk with reward, they maximise it. The dot ball is considered bowling gold in T20, but dot balls don’t matter if you can hit sixes at will. That’s why Chris Gayle can go from starting slow, scoring three off seven balls, at the start of the fifth over, to 25 off 12 at the end of it.
If you think this is simply about brute, senseless hitting, it’s not. This is an approach that is as calculated as it is cavalier. There are parallels between the rise of three-pointers in the NBA; they are riskier, and fail more often than traditional twos, but are a better bet in the long run, especially with teams training specifically for them. Pollard, Russell, Gayle, and their ilk train very deliberately to hit sixes. This isn’t just calculated risk-taking; it’s rehearsed.
As captain, Pollard promoted himself to No 4 to give himself more time to impact the game, and specifically his opposite number Ravichandran Ashwin. The first of his 10 sixes (yes, 10) came off Ashwin, with Pollard aware that spinners are the easiest pickings on the Wankhede surface. Perhaps the best shot of the evening was his backfoot drive off the same bowler, which sailed straight over his head for six. At the end, with Mohammed Shami on song, Pollard targeted Sam Curran, who finished with figures of 1 for 54 in his four overs. 47 of those runs were scored by Pollard, off just 15 balls. It helped MI score more than 100 runs in the last eight overs. Pollard scored 58 of those. Off the last 10 overs, MI scored 133, an IPL record for a successful chase.
It was like watching the batting equivalent of the movie ‘Speed’; if Pollard had played an innings any less breakneck, the chase would have gone up in flames. Rarely is the term ‘a captain’s innings’ used to describe something so frenzied and fraught with risk, but from Pollard, that was exactly what it was.
“Anything is possible when you have power hitters,” Pollard said after the game. Even as cricket moves decidedly into the data-driven era, no statistical model would have favoured MI at the halfway mark. No algorithm would have predicted the kind of innings we saw from the West Indian, who might suddenly dream of wearing maroon in June. Because analytics derives from, and depends on, data and performances that have come before to establish benchmarks. But what some players are doing this IPL is putting the data — and indeed, the past — aside, and redefining normal.