Why T20 teams can afford misfiring superstars
Between the CPL last year and his 38-ball 77 against Gujarat Lions in Rajkot, Chris Gayle had an extended run of ordinary T20 form. Over three different franchise tournaments, in 17 innings, he scored just 329 runs at an average of 19.35 and a strike rate of 116.25. He went through a similar phase in the last World T20 in India, leading into the previous IPL. He scored 32 runs in eight matches in that period, never once reaching double figures, and still played in 13 out of 16 matches for Royal Challengers Bangalore.
Murmurs outside the franchise gained momentum with every Gayle failure. People wondered if Gayle was done, but there was no chance Royal Challengers weren't retaining him despite the year he had had. It was unlikely they were going to bench him for too long this IPL either. It says something about the impact Gayle can have when he comes off - 70s in three innings in under 40 balls - but it says much more about the T20 format. With six to seven batsmen available over 20 overs, teams can simply afford a misfiring batsman who can have the kind of impact Gayle has when he comes off.
It is not limited to batsmen. Bipul Sharma is a tall left-arm spinner. He was born in 1983 in Amritsar, played some cricket for Punjab, then moved to Himachal Pradesh, and is an IPL champions medal holder. Since April 18 last year, he has played 10 matches for Sunrisers Hyderabad, including the last year's final, but chances are, you would not have noticed him because he has bowled just 21 overs and batted only 39 balls.
However, Bipul got the wicket of AB de Villiers in last year's final, and was taken off immediately. He has got Brendon McCullum out twice. His batting, at No. 8, is a bonus. Out of his 10 matches, two have been against Royal Challengers, three against Gujarat Lions, and two against Kolkata Knight Riders. He has been the ultimate tactical pick. Sunrisers select him for specific match-ups against certain batsmen. They are also satisfied if those batsman get out early and Bipul ends up doing nothing. Only thrice has he bowled more than two overs in an innings despite an acceptable economy rate of 8.04 over this period.
Sunrisers can afford Bipul for the same reason Royal Challengers can afford a misfiring Gayle. While you still need 11 fielders in the format, the duration of a 20-over match allows teams the luxury of carrying a player or two. It is usually batsmen, but the presence of Moises Henriques - a proper allrounder - in the Sunrisers XI opens up a bowling slot too.
The IPL is filled with Gayle-like sporadic match-winners. Knight Riders invest in Yusuf Pathan and Suryakumar Yadav even though they hardly bowl and get only a few chances to bat. Even when their first-choice opener Chris Lynn is injured, they don't all move up one spot; Knight Riders want them to be the fail-safe that provides the top order the freedom. They can afford to do so because they rarely need all their batsmen to contribute.
At arguably the most successful IPL franchise, under the watch of arguably the most successful IPL captain, S Anirudha managed to get in 25 matches to face 153 balls and not bowl a single delivery. Chennai Super Kings won 18 of those 25 matches and lost six, a much better win-loss ratio than their overall 1.593. Unlike Bipul, Anirudha wasn't even a tactical pick. Knowing MS Dhoni, he was probably just pushing the limits of the format. And The format allowed them to.
Johnson Charles is an unadulterated slogger in T20s, who has had about nine special innings in his 98 T20s. One of those was in the semi-final of the World T20 last year, in a tournament that he didn't do much outside that innings, apart from superb ground fielding. Yet such is the nature of the format that his selection was considered a success. Consistency is not as important in this format as impact. A team of six batsmen who come off once every six innings but score at a strike rate of 175-plus is likelier to do better than a team of six consistent batsmen, who score well every second innings but at a strike rate of close to 135. Gayle has already had more impact on this tournament than, say, Shikhar Dhawan, who has had a start in five of his six innings but has a strike rate of 120.58.
Especially in a long league like the IPL, expect franchises - they can be ruthless when making selections - to give players like Gayle, Kieron Pollard and Yusuf more leeway than they would get in any other format. They are not paid big bucks for consistency but for impact. For example, a higher rate of Gayle's half-centuries results in wins than, even, Virat Kohli's: 68% to 62%. Three out of four Pollard fifties end up in wins. The big hitters might not succeed as often, but that doesn't bother franchises because they don't need to succeed as often. Their failures can be accommodated because there are only 20 overs to bat and only so many batsmen can fail in a given match.
Even conservatively speaking, four batsmen, four bowlers and two allrounders are plenty for a 20-over match. If an innings comprised 40 three-ball overs or 30 four-ball overs, there would be merit in playing more bowlers, but not in this format. Currently, there is at least one surplus player in every team. For some teams that player is a batting fail-safe, for some he is a big hitter, and for others he is the floating bowler. It has resulted in longer ropes for T20 superstars such as Gayle, and careers for tactical picks such as Bipul.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo