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Picture: 123RF/RICHARD THOMAS
Picture: 123RF/RICHARD THOMAS

All sport is a combination of art and science, though the balance has inevitably shifted more towards science in recent years as video and data analytics have improved and players have become more reliant on research and statistics than instinct.    

This is especially true in cricket and never more so than in T20 cricket, which still has a long way to go to catch up with the US sports, especially baseball, but is becoming so much of a science as to be predictable for 95% of any contest between evenly matched teams, which they certainly are in the Indian Premier League (IPL).   

Just more than a decade ago, in January 2012, I asked Gary Kirsten for an interview when he was SA’s head coach and he suggested we chatted over breakfast the morning before an ODI against Sri Lanka in Kimberley.

I asked him about batting innovations and how much further they might go. AB de Villiers was in his prime. Kirsten said De Villiers was way ahead of his time and that he would always be one of the greatest batters ever, but that in the years to come almost every top-order batter would be playing the ramp and scoop, even in reverse.

Scoring runs, and finding new ways to score them, would continue unabated because the only “limit” was the 36 available in every over. So theoretically, batsmanship can keep evolving until teams learn to make 720 in a T20 innings.    

It was a bit early in the day for such thinking. But there was more. In years to come, Kirsten said, far more T20 matches would be won by bowlers than batters. Bowling, he said, was way behind batting in terms of its T20 evolution. If the quest for fours and sixes was inexorable and insatiable, the bowlers who were best able to slow down the big hitting would change matches — and specifically those able to induce errors and take wickets.    

This view hardly made Kirsten a savant — there must have been many others who held the same view — but he was swimming against the prevailing tide. Ten years ago most of the emphasis was on identifying and producing powerful, creative boundary-hitters, not wicket-taking bowlers and specialist deliverers of dot balls. These days there are even specialist deliverers of balls that can only be hit for a single.    

Ten years later it seems Kirsten’s glance into the future was pretty accurate. On Sunday night he was in the Gujarat Titans’ dugout as they eviscerated the Rajasthan Royals by seven wickets in the IPL final, winning with 11 balls to spare, having restricted their opponents to a meagre 130/9 after winning the toss and bowling first. Remember, the Titans also finished top of the league phase of the competition with a remarkable 10 wins out of 14.

Mohammad Shami (1/33) and Yash Dayal (1/18) opened the bowling during the power-play and Rashid Khan (1/18) and Lockie Ferguson (0/22) also bowled an over each during the first six. They bossed the power-play to such an extent that even the world’s most in-form and destructive opener, and the tournament’s top-scorer, Jos Buttler, was becalmed.    

Throughout the tournament the Titans conceded just 26 runs per wicket during the power-play, the most economical in the competition. The Royals were the second-most economical. Shami took 11 wickets during the power-play, the most in the tournament. Ferguson took six and Dayal five, the fifth and sixth most respectively.    

In the final five overs of every innings, the so-called “death overs”, the Gujarat Titans were the only team in the competition to concede less than 10 runs per over, mostly because Rashid was the only bowler in the entire tournament to concede less than a run-a-ball bowling at the death, and he bowled no fewer than 17 overs there, one more than Shami.    

Ah, but what about David Miller? He scored almost 500 runs batting at No 5, which is remarkable in itself. Even more impressive was the fact that 287 of them were scored in the death overs, more than anyone else in the tournament. Those runs played a huge part in the Titans’ consistency and success and, naturally, our attention is drawn to them because that’s what T20 cricket does — runs eye-catching, wickets and dot balls less so.    

But how much easier is it to score those runs in the knowledge that you have the best-performing bowling attack in the tournament? In the knowledge that, once you’ve reached 165 batting first, you’ve already got a good chance of winning. Runs after that might be bonus. And when you’re “only” chasing 165 rather than 185, that equates to one less boundary in each of the death overs.    

So another IPL is over and the planning for the next one has already started. And the next 10 years. You need to be able to look ahead to stay ahead in this game.

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