January 26, 2017

Why Yuvraj's selection makes sense, regardless of his form

He is one of the best middle-order power-hitters in the world - and India need one
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Rather than picking a player who can clear the boundary and also bowl a few overs, though not necessarily economical ones, India's selectors chose to give heft to the batting with Yuvraj © AFP

Yuvraj Singh's return to India's limited-overs side has proved to be triumphant. He made his highest ODI score, in Cuttack, and in the process took India from the peril of 25 for 3 to the safety of 281 for 4.

It is tempting to conclude, based on this effort, that the selectors have been proved right. But this would be just another side of the fallacy holds that, had Yuvraj failed in all three games, the selectors would have been proved wrong. The merit of a selectorial decision does not depend on the player's performance over a single series; perhaps not even over a year.

Selection is a thankless job. It involves expert judgement, which can be difficult to write about, because the inner logic that produces it is often inaccessible to a non-specialist audience. Journalists do not have systematic access to a selection committee meeting. There is no tradition of transcripts or minutes being published. As such, it is difficult to coherently argue the merits of a selection committee's decisions. Beyond the words of the chairman in the press conference and the odd leak or whisper, all one has to go on is the little other information that is publicly available. As a result, it is difficult to write intelligently about selection decisions. This should it make more difficult, not less, for writers to argue that the selectors made dumb choices.

Coming back to Yuvraj, why might the selectors have picked the 35-year-old this year? When asked, they pointed to his improved domestic form this season, especially his multiple long innings in the Ranji Trophy. The long innings also signal match fitness, which, given his recent battle with cancer, is a tremendous achievement in itself.

The counterpoint is that there are plenty of promising younger batsmen available. Given Rohit Sharma's injuries, and the fact that Ajinkya Rahane's and Shikhar Dhawan's place in the XI is not undisputed, Karun Nair, Manish Pandey, Kedar Jadhav, and even Shreyas Iyer might represent more fruitful long-term investments.

There is one possible explanation for Yuvraj's selection.

ODI cricket has changed in the last few years, with fielding restrictions and the use of two new balls decimating bowlers. Consider the first two India v England ODIs. At most, they featured four bowlers who have demonstrated sufficient skill to be considered specialist international-class bowlers - R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Chris Woakes. The remaining overs were bowled by journeymen, picked as much for their ability to hit the ball hard. This is not surprising. Why would teams pick specialist bowlers when the rules are designed to constrain them for nearly all 50 overs of the innings? ODIs are gradually being transformed into elongated T20 contests.

Given these developments, teams are being built accordingly. It is a lesson England learnt after the 2015 World Cup. One essential skill in a contemporary ODI team is power-hitting in the middle order. India lacked this muscle from positions four to eight in the last World Cup. They have also lacked it since. The result is that after nearly a decade of great success, India have lost more games than they have won against teams other than Zimbabwe since the World Cup.

The table below shows the record of each team against the top nine Test-playing opponents (excluding Zimbabwe) in batting positions four through eight since the 2015 World Cup. India have been unable to compete with the top teams when it comes to middle-order power (or the ability to score boundaries). Further, elementary arithmetic (and small grounds) shows that scampering twos and threes cannot adequately substitute sustained power-hitting capability throughout the middle order.

Team Boundary runs per 100 balls faced Balls faced per six Balls faced per four
England 53.3 34.2 11.2
Australia 43.0 51.7 12.7
Bangladesh 41.9 74.0 11.8
South Africa 41.1 48.4 13.9
West Indies 40.5 36.9 16.5
New Zealand 39.8 52.8 14.1
Ireland 39.5 93.8 12.1
Pakistan 36.9 67.5 14.3
India 36.1 53.7 16.1
Afghanistan 33.5 47.8 19.1
Sri Lanka 33.1 68.6 16.4
Zimbabwe 29.2 87.0 18.0

A trade-off has to be made to achieve these hitting results. In exchange for power-hitting, one has to be willing to concede that teams will occasionally collapse. Batsmen who score quickly also get out more frequently. Unless one can find a truly elite batsman who can hit the ball hard when needed and who has the technical skill to build innings when required, it is probably a better idea to pack the middle order with power-hitters than with batsmen. The power-hitters will lose many games, but they will also win many.

Yuvraj's limited-overs record tells us that he's an exceptional power-hitter. He can reach or clear the boundary as well as MS Dhoni does. The table below shows the records of all Indian batsmen in batting positions four through eight since Rahul Dravid took over the captaincy in 2005. That was the beginning of India's successful run as an ODI side. Rohit, Rahane and Virat Kohli have unsurprisingly been preferred at the top of the order (Nos. 1, 2, 3).

Player Boundary runs per 100 balls faced Balls faced per six Balls faced per four Balls faced per dismissal
Yusuf Pathan 69.95 17.5 11.19 23.2
Yuvraj Singh 47.81 53.5 10.93 45.4
Suresh Raina 43.81 50.0 12.58 37.6
Virat Kohli 37.71 146.2 11.90 60.2
Ravindra Jadeja 37.38 61.5 14.48 35.2
MS Dhoni 37.35 56.3 14.99 54.9
Irfan Pathan 35.74 72.8 14.55 27.3
Ajinkya Rahane 35.46 87.1 14.00 37.3
R Ashwin 35.32 128.3 13.05 19.3
Rahul Dravid 34.97 170.0 12.72 51.9
Harbhajan Singh 34.57 40.5 20.25 17.8
Dinesh Karthik 31.72 152.6 14.40 40.2
Rohit Sharma 26.77 120.4 18.36 41.7

Yuvraj has been not just the top middle-order power batsman in India over the last dozen years, he's been one of the two or three top bats in the world during this period. The table below shows all such players who have made at least 2000 career runs batting from Nos. 4 to 8 in the last dozen years.

Player Boundary runs per 100 balls faced Balls faced per six Balls faced per four Balls faced per dismissal
Shahid Afridi 79.6 17.8 8.7 17.7
Jos Buttler 62.5 26.7 10.0 32.8
Yuvraj Singh 47.8 53.5 10.9 45.4
Andrew Symonds 45.3 45.4 12.5 48.0
Suresh Raina 43.8 50.0 12.6 37.6
AB de Villiers 43.7 56.0 12.1 60.7
Eoin Morgan 43.3 44.3 13.4 39.6
Kevin Pietersen 41.1 77.2 12.0 45.1
Marlon Samuels 39.3 52.5 14.3 48.2
MS Dhoni 37.4 56.3 15.0 54.9
Umar Akmal 36.5 72.7 14.1 38.2
Ross Taylor 35.3 61.1 15.7 54.7
Dwayne Bravo 34.9 62.5 15.8 31.6
Elton Chigumbura 34.6 53.9 17.1 33.4
George Bailey 33.7 64.9 16.4 50.8
Angelo Mathews 33.5 81.6 15.3 47.2
Shoaib Malik 32.3 69.0 17.0 41.8
Michael Hussey 32.1 79.5 16.3 54.5
Mushfiqur Rahim 30.9 90.2 16.5 40.1
Mahela Jayawardene 30.9 90.2 16.5 40.1
Shakib Al Hasan 30.5 165.0 14.9 39.8
Scott Styris 30.3 136.8 15.4 47.8
Paul Collingwood 29.1 84.4 18.2 47.2
Michael Clarke 27.3 201.9 16.4 58.7
Ravi Bopara 26.8 107.5 18.8 39.7
Misbah-ul-Haq 26.4 90.6 20.2 58.4
Mohammad Yousuf 26.4 431.8 16.0 55.7
JP Duminy 26.2 102.8 19.7 42.0
Dinesh Chandimal 25.0 122.9 19.9 44.3

Yusuf Pathan, Shahid Afridi and Jos Buttler present an interesting sub-category within this group. If you bring the qualification mark down to 1000 runs, several other players of this type are evident in contemporary ODI middle orders. These are players who get out more frequently but also score boundaries more frequently.

Player Boundary runs per 100 balls faced Balls faced per six Balls faced per four Balls faced per dismissal
Glenn Maxwell 67.7 29.2 8.5 26.8
Luke Ronchi 66.6 27.9 8.9 22.5
Corey Anderson 69.4 17.3 11.5 27.0
Thisara Perera 59.8 24.5 11.3 15.4
Ben Stokes 52.5 31.2 12.0 29.4
Darren Sammy 56.5 22.5 13.4 24.4
David Miller 45.6 40.8 12.9 33.3
Brendon McCullum 48.4 30.8 13.8 26.6
Mitchell Marsh 49.8 37.2 11.9 38.5
James Hopes 37.1 244.8 11.5 26.6

These players also present a different trade-off. They usually end up taking the place of specialist bowlers in the XI. Instead of playing four specialist bowlers and two allrounders, teams are increasingly willing to play two specialist bowlers and four allrounders. This is a gamble India have been (rightly) unwilling to take. It would involve selecting power-hitters who can bowl a bit in place of R Ashwin or Ravindra Jadeja (or both), which would weaken the bowling.

India have been looking for an elite, middle-order power batsman to play alongside Dhoni. They have also been looking for an able replacement for Yusuf - a player in the mould of Glenn Maxwell or Corey Anderson or Buttler.

In Yuvraj, they have one of the greatest middle-order power bats in the limited-overs game in the last dozen years. If the selectors were convinced that Yuvraj's game and physical preparation were close to what they were before his illness, then, given the Champions Trophy is in June this year, it was a no-brainer to try him out in this short series against England.

The preference for the 31-year-old Jadhav ahead of Ambati Rayudu (also 31), Rahane and Pandey is another sign that India are looking for power in the middle order without opting for the bits-and-pieces power-hitter. If India can find a bowler who can bowl as well as, say, James Faulkner, while being capable of hitting the long ball, they'll probably pick him. On flat pitches Hardik Pandya's bowling (like that of Ben Stokes for England) is probably too great a liability, but he is perhaps currently India's best available player of this type.

Happily for the Indian selectors, Yuvraj vindicated their faith almost immediately. But even if he hadn't, the argument I've made here would still have just as much merit. If he's near his best preparation, Yuvraj gives India additional power-hitting capacity in the middle order without requiring them to sacrifice their two best spinners and without them losing depth in the middle order.

Kartikeya Date writes at A Cricketing View. @cricketingview

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Nandan on January 31, 2017, 17:48 GMT

    Brilliant brilliant analysis. Great use and example of data analytic's . Bravo. I think we should use this in the team selection process.

  • Nish on January 31, 2017, 13:02 GMT

    Chances are that if he fails in the last series deciding T20 match against England tomorrow, that will be end of his T20i career. Frankly it should have ended after his poor showing at the 2014WC & just being over-nostalgic in still picking him for the team in the hope he will eventually come good is just hindering the progress of other much younger & hungrier players. Unlike ODI's, you can't be scratchy or take time to play yourself in like he does. He is now a poor fielder too - in fast & furious T20 matches, poor fielders cannot be hidden somewhere on the field!

  • Arun on January 29, 2017, 21:09 GMT

    Kartikeya, Did you see him bat against that pie-chucker Moeen Ali today? A 4 off 20 balls, with masterful plays and misses off Moeen Ali. I told you so... never could play spin on pitches that turn, can't play pace on pitches with seam or swing and bounce, can't play express pace regardless of pitch, not much of a fielder anymore. At least Dhoni earns his keep keeping wickets.

  • dimple7673319 on January 29, 2017, 19:28 GMT

    You are making sound like in a population of billion people and so many 20-20 players only Yuvaraj is the powe hitter at the age when players usually retire.

  • varunm0643317 on January 29, 2017, 15:44 GMT

    Lol, RoFL, So Mr Author, Mr Genius, Mr Yuvi is really a power hitter with 12 of 13 balls and then 4 of 12 balls, WOW, Really WOW.

    Great Power hitting man, never seen before, he just repeated his 2014 t20 WC performance of 12 of 21 balls.

    Dude Yuvi has lost his touch and so is Mr India or i mean Mr M.S.Dhoni, who is pretty much making run a ball score, doesnt help in t20 format.

    Run a ball score is good enough in tests and in ODI too to some extent, but is nowhere good in t20, especially if you happen to play more balls. 10 in 10 is not as bad as 30 in 30.

    Yuvi man, be a man, own up, you have been a hero, i dont think u got to prove it all over again. You will still be a hero.

  • greata9204042 on January 28, 2017, 20:48 GMT

    The only catch is that Yuvraj is past his prime most likely at 35. Looking at numbers over the past 12 years is pointless. It is actually unfortunate that he made 150, which means that he can't be dropped now. It was very flat wicket with small ground, easy batting conditions. His record in Ranji was good last year, but against very weak bowling. Yuvraj and Dhoni are two formerly great batsmen who are likely to cost India the Champions Trophy. They can't be dropped, and will perform only once or so in 5-6 matches. Now one can only hope that they can show some flashes of their former selves.

  • ravi.narla on January 28, 2017, 16:13 GMT

    The author should have included this stat in his article.

    http://stats.espncricinfo.com/indian-premier-league-2013/engine/records/batting/highest_career_strike_rate.html?id=117;type=trophy

  •   Jatin Sutaria on January 28, 2017, 10:40 GMT

    Yuvraj is old - not in the age sense which he actually is, but in terms of fitness, eyesight and as some one whose best is past.

    He lost us a 20-20 cup, can't field or run well between wickets and is tad slow to react to express pace.

    In his prime, he has won us matches but now putting emotions aside, he should be substituted for someone whose best is yet to come.

    Atleast in 20-20 where there is no breathing space, he is a burden to carry. I wonder how long Kohli will carry him.

  •   Deepanjan Datta on January 28, 2017, 4:24 GMT

    If it's a myopic selection aimed solely at the Champions trophy, it certainly makes sense. However, with WC 2019 in mind, it's best that India start investing in the youth of Shreyas Iyer, Baba Aparijith etc. In fact, even Dhoni would probably need to hand over the big gloves to Rishabh Pant/ Sanju Samson as a keeper-bat. The sooner they start the transition, the better. And they don't need to look beyond the Indian test team to see how a well-timed transition works. Timely, and staggered phase-out plans for Dravid, Laxman, Sehwag, Gambhir, Harbhajan, and Tendulkar ensured that they have recovered reasonably and gained enough experience to be dominant again. Perhaps the only test position we haven't adequately replaced is that of a good southpaw in the middle-order like Ganguly, as Raina, Yuvraj, and Jadeja all fell short of test class as batsmen.

  • Ramana on January 28, 2017, 4:12 GMT

    Some very interesting points made by the writer. Need for power hitting batsmen is absolutely correct. Main reason why India cud not win the T202016 on home grounds was the lack of power hitters. West Indies probably has mastered the template for T20s.

    But is Yuvi the answer to the problem ? At best, he may serve till CT2017. Surely he cannot be the future upto WC2019. Are there no power hitters amongst young Indian batsmen today ? Yuvi was undoubtedly THE original power hitter in T20s, starting from T20WC2007. But that was 10 years ago !!

    ODIs, if they become 'extended T20s', as the writer says, cannot survive long. Test Cricket will survive as the epitome of the sport, T20s is for the quick highs. ODIs must get back the flavour of a 'mini-test', with better balance between bat and ball. If not, even the premier championship event of the cricket world, the 50 over world cup will quickly get devalued. Perhaps T20 and ODI will converge to a new championship of 35 overs ?? T30??

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