Why your opening bowler in the BBL needs to be a spinner
A good-length ball with little width flies towards the batsman at roughly 138kph. It's the first ball of the innings. The batsman gives himself some room, it takes the outside half of the bat, flies past backward point, and third man runs around in vain. The bowler then slightly over-corrects for his next ball. The batsman guesses he might and gets inside the line, trying to beat short fine leg. Instead, all he gets is some thigh pad on the ball. It still beats short fine leg and the score is 8 for 0. The next three balls go to plan for the bowling team. The final ball of the over is in the channel outside off stump. It's a good ball, but the batsman, emboldened by the early runs, throws his hands through the ball. It flies over cover point's head - the third four of the over.
The batsman has barely played a shot in anger, or a shot at all. All he has done is use the pace of the ball.
The first time Tom Cooper opened the bowling in a T20 game, he had no idea he was going to do it until he got out on the ground. "Down in Hobart last year, and we were up against [Ben] Dunk and [Tim] Paine, and Finchy [Aaron Finch] had this feeling that I could sneak an over in and get away with it. It went all right." By "all right" Cooper means it went for two runs.
A Cooper opening over is pretty standard. He'll probably come around the wicket to both the right- and left-hand batsmen. His quicker ball will be hurled in an ungainly manner. The batsman will then get about five to six seconds to face the next ball. It will be short of driving length, or low and flat, at the toe of the bat.
What started as a whim of Finch last year was continued this year, at first because Sydney Thunder had struggled against spin in their previous game. But now the tactic has become Cooper's incredible invisible over.
Melbourne Renegades are offering teams a 19-over contest since Cooper takes one over from the opposition for almost no runs, while also taking wickets.
In each of the first seven games of this season, he bowled Renegades' first over, and conceded 31 runs for three wickets in all. 1 for 4, 0 for 4, 1 for 5, 0 for 7, 0 for 1 for 4 and 0 for 6. Eoin Morgan, Luke Wright, Glenn Maxwell, Tim Paine, Rob Quiney and D'arcy Short are some of the batsmen who have faced his first overs, yet Cooper was going at 4.5 runs, and took three wickets from his first, and sometimes only, over.
Sunil Narine and Brad Hogg, Cooper's spinning team-mates, would be happy with his economy rate. Hell, Dale Steyn would kill for those numbers. But Cooper isn't Steyn, he's not even Jeetan Patel. At best, he's a poor man's Joe Root. He's not a bowler. He's not even an allrounder. If you're kind, you'll call him a part-timer. A club offspinner, Cooper wasn't even used by Netherlands as a bowler in the last World T20. Last season for Renegades, he bowled three overs. The season before, he bowled none. Outside his opening overs, he has only bowled six more, three of them in his second-last game. He has gone for 50 runs in those six overs while taking two wickets.
He's a part-time specialist opening offspinner. Not the first, but certainly one of the most effective. He is such a specialist that when Renegades needed a last over bowled against Perth Scorchers, with Dwayne Bravo injured, Finch didn't turn to Cooper. Given the Big Bash teams do extensive research on each other, it is even more remarkable that Cooper has succeeded seven times.
"You sort of know where guys like to hit," says Cooper. "I try to do as little as possible. There is a bit of discussion about the fields, and I try to execute to the field."
One team took the Tom Cooper over seriously. They looked at his pitch map, showed it to their opening batsmen, and tried to get them to come up with a plan after some work in the nets. One of the things the openers were told was: You don't need to run down the wicket. You know where the field is. Play your shots to the empty parts of the field. You know exactly what is going to happen before you get out there. Use that to your advantage.
With all that information, Cooper still took a wicket when the batsman raced down the wicket at him. And he went for less than six runs. An invisible lethal over.
"I probably see it as being lucky so far," says Cooper.
In his most recent match, Cooper had no luck, because he bowled to Brendon McCullum. The first ball was a quick short ball that gave McCullum no room. McCullum made his own and tried to slog the ball, which limped over mid-off. Had Cooper been lucky, it would have been caught. Instead, it went for two. The rest of the over, McCullum helped add 12 more runs.
New Zealand made 248 in the first game of the 1992 World Cup. David Boon and Geoff Marsh came out to bat, and Chris Cairns bowled the first over. Dipak Patel bowled the second over. Before that day, in 24 matches, Patel had only bowled his full quota three times. He had not bowled in four games. Patel was an offspinning allrounder.
In that game against Australia, Patel took 1 for 36 in ten overs. In the next five World Cup games in which he opened the bowling, in ten overs each he took 1 for 28, 2 for 19, 0 for 29, 1 for 26 and 2 for 25. In the semi-final, for the first time, he went for any runs - 1 for 50. After the World Cup, where he had opened in seven out of eight innings in which he bowled, Patel did so another 17 times in his career.
It's weird that opening with a spinner didn't become a wider cricket tactic. Martin Crowe's mad brain had worked out that it would be hard to score quickly when you had two new batsmen starting against spin. But the Patel move was seen as a fluke, not a successful tactic that all teams could replicate. The new ball was too crucial for seamers. Other spinners wouldn't like to bowl with it. Patel's success, according to some, came through the fact that he took batsmen by surprise.
In the first 26 matches of the 1996 World Cup, played in Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka, not one of the opening bowlers was a spinner. It wasn't until Steven Lubbers of Netherlands opened in the 27th match, against South Africa, that the tactic was used once more in a World Cup. Patel opened only once in that tournament. His opening the bowling wasn't a revolution. It was a novelty, a sideshow. And even when spinners opened after him, there were no specialists, and it didn't happen often.
"I bowled pace until I was about 17. If someone told me when I was a kid that I'd be lucky enough to open the bowling for Australia, that's the dream of every young kid who wants to bowl fast. And I got to do it in a Test as a spinner."
That is Michael Beer, the first spin specialist opening bowler in Australian cricket.
"Even at club level, before I played it at the state level, I was opening the bowling in T20. It was due to my control of the white ball."
Beer has opened the bowling 30 times in the Big Bash. For someone to do it more, Beer would probably need to sit out about three seasons, maybe more. In those overs he goes at 6.09 an over. In the Powerplays he goes at 5.96, and outside it, 6.66. So the more fielders that go out, the worse (in relative terms, 6.66 is, as Cricket Australia would say, elite) he goes.
"It's all about playing the percentages," says Beer, who has been with Melbourne Stars for three seasons now. "For me, in the Powerplay it's all about whether I am trying to get the guy out, or am I wary of the bloke's scoring shots, or am I trying to give him one to attack from the other end. You can work out pretty quick if the batsman is lining up to have a crack at you, or is he just trying to get up the other end."
Beer hasn't been lucky. Since he was a fast bowler, he can pump up the pace a little bit. Then there's his consistency. He bowls quick, well-placed fingerspin in the right place almost every ball. But his secret weapon is video analysis.
"My whole T20 game is based on match-ups and game plans against individuals. I have always used video and looked at my footage. I know where the batsmen are going to hit me the majority of the time. I know what's coming before I bowl it, and I strategise around that, so that I can go to a captain and say, 'I match up well against this bloke.' If I don't do my video analysis and have plan A, B and C against each batsman, I wouldn't be as successful as I've been."
Not that he doesn't adapt his plans. "From ball to ball, day to day, it varies. We all know taking wickets in the first six makes a big difference. There are guys you know [against whom], if you do restrict runs, you are more likely to get them out. It is all about summing up the conditions and the player you are against and then executing the right ball".
Beer has been so successful in his plans that Renegades tried something new against him this year. "The opposition are now getting better. We saw Sunil Narine come out [to bat] just to target me."
For all the targeting, Beer's first over went for only eight runs, and overall his three Powerplay overs for 22. In Stars' next game, against Renegades, Narine opened the batting again and hit Beer for a six in the first over. In his 372 balls in the Powerplay, it was only the fourth six Beer had been hit for.
"They used to try to get through a couple of overs of what I bowled and not get out to me," says Beer. "It feels like they are coming at you for the whole 20 overs now, compared to when the BBL started. Now they think, well, these are important overs, let's attack him with someone other than our normal opening batsmen. I am a little bit surprised that it has taken so long for a specialist pinch-hitter to face me. But on the other hand, we could turn around and bring on the fast men."
An economy rate of 6.3 in T20 cricket is obscenely good. Beer's figures are as good as Samuel Badree's, and better than those of Narine, Daniel Vettori and Johan Botha in the Big Bash. But unlike the others, the Big Bash is Beer's only league.
"I've been in a few auctions and never been taken. Most of the overseas competitions are based on fast bowlers and power-hitters, and that's where the money goes."
But if the other team has all these power-hitters? Isn't someone who has spent the last few years stopping them just as important? Also, unlike Adam Zampa and Brad Hogg, who have both been successful in home and away leagues, Beer can bowl in all three phases of the game - the Powerplay, the middle overs and the death. Hogg has bowled only one Powerplay over in the entire Big Bash; Zampa none.
"I'll never say never, and I'll keep going in auctions, especially for the CPL and PSL, but for the IPL, I think there are so many Indian spinners who are world-class, so I would struggle to get on a list there," says Beer.
It is the IPL where Beer could be most handy. Without the need of being played for every game, he could just be chosen for certain pitches or match-ups. If he had success, he might become a regular. If you're playing a team with Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers, Chris Gayle and Shane Watson in the line-up and you need an extra spinner, Beer coming off the bench is better than an inexperienced player being sent to the wolves.
If cricket was smarter, Beer would be a franchise player around the world. Instead, he's the guy who has never left Australia to play. And though the last three World T20s have been in Asia, not only did he not play in any of them, he has never played a T20I for Australia. Apparently he does his job so well that no one even notices.
Seam bowlers who have opened in this year's Big Bash have been going at 7.89 an over, the spinners at 6.2. There has only been one season of the Big Bash where spin bowlers weren't less expensive at the top of the innings - 2015-16, where the fast bowlers went at 6.65 and the spinners at 6.7. In the 2011-12 season, spinners went at 5.15 an over, the quicks at 6.8.
In the Powerplay overs this year, seam bowlers have been going for 8.67 an over, the spinners at 7.38. In 2012-13, spinners went at under six an over in the Powerplays. That was the only season in which the seamers went for less than seven an over - 6.99.
When it comes to wickets in the first two overs, over the history of the Big Bash, seamers average 29, spinners 32. In all the Powerplay overs, seamers average 30, the spinners 34.
The spinners are harder to hit, are marginally worse at taking wickets, and yet they only bowl 21% of the balls in Big Bash Powerplays. Even in the opening overs it's only 25%. Part of this is to do with the reason Beer isn't travelling around the world playing franchise cricket, and why Badree still gets the wickets of batsmen who underestimate him: spinners are still not seen as proper opening bowlers.
But it's also because it's hard to open the bowling as a spinner. Jon Holland and Jason Krejza both go for over eight an over when they bowl in the Powerplay. David Hussey is a useful T20 bowler as long as he isn't bowling in the Powerplay and going at 8.3 an over. Even Nathan Lyon, who first made his name as a T20 spinner, is nowhere near as effective in the early overs. Still, because of Badree, Ashwin, Botha and Beer, more spinners are being tried at the top of the innings and are succeeding.
Not just part-timers like Cooper and Travis Head, but spinners like Clive Rose. Outside the Powerplays, left-arm spinner Rose is a disaster at 9.5 an over. Inside them, he's a handy 7.4. Steve O'Keefe, another left-arm spinner, is brilliant in the Powerplays, at 5.7, and handy outside, at 7.2. Botha and Vettori are the same - better bowling with two men out than with five men out.
And yet, despite their success, it's still rare for teams to bowl as much spin in their Powerplay as pace. But then it was only recently that people stopped mentioning how novel it was to open with a spinner.
Badree started opening the bowling as a spinner when his club's fast bowlers were injured. He did so well that he was chosen to open the bowling for Trinidad and Tobago in the Stanford T20 and picked up 3 for 6 from 3.5 overs.
It isn't unusual for West Indies to have great opening bowlers, but to have a legspinning opening bowler is quite unorthodox. And Badree is unorthodox even by legspinning opening-bowler standards.
"My unique style and grip is quite different from traditional legspinners," he says. "I have a very low trajectory, with a collapsed front arm that helps me to achieve some level of consistency, which contravenes conventional thinking."
It is contravening conventional thinking that Badree does best. He has opened the bowling in T20 cricket 122 times in his 149 bowling innings. R Ashwin and Shakib Al Hasan are second and third on the list, and he has done it more than both of them combined. Badree is the world's only globetrotting franchise T20 legspinning opening bowler.
While he does prepare for batsmen he hasn't faced before, Badree isn't an analysis fiend. "I have always got different plans, but at the end of the day, you deal with what is before you, which, in many cases, is quite different from what you planned for. Thinking on your feet then becomes critical." What Badree does is incredibly subtle, skilful and deceiving.
"I think it's the fact that batsmen underrate what I do, and that they don't see me as a threat, someone with great variety or a huge turner of the ball. That gives me a slight advantage, as they don't prepare. I also have good control and quite often attack the stumps, which increases the probability of taking a wicket."
It's not just batsmen who underestimate him. For someone with a record as incredible as his, Badree has played for almost as many IPL teams (three) as he has played IPL games (five), which is weird, because what team wouldn't want the chokehold he puts on in the Powerplays? Plus, he takes wickets. Wickets in the Powerplay are like gold. Once you get three, you have a 70% chance of winning. In the Big Bash Powerplays, Badree averages 12.
He is not as good outside the Powerplays. Like against New South Wales in the 2009 Champions League, where he bowled only one over.
"What happened in that game was that I was introduced after the tenth over or so, very strange to me at that point, and was hit for about 24 runs in an over by the set David Warner. I bowled that over the same way I would have with a new ball, but that was my mistake. Learning experience."
Outside the Powerplays, Badree experiments more. In the Big Bash, outside the Powerplay, he is going at seven an over, but generally, by the time he finishes his first three overs in the Powerplay, his fourth over is not as important. His economy rate for his 152 T20 matches is 5.62.
With that record, teams have treated him much the same as Beer. "I have been involved in games where the opposition used a match-up and sent a left-hander to just swing for the hills. It's quite funny, though, because most times the captain then just doesn't open with me."
Badree was a teacher, and is now a curriculum officer for physical education and sport in the ministry of education in Trinidad. "I love to see others reach their full potential," he says. Few players in the world have used more of their potential than Badree. "I think I have a responsibility give back to the education system in Trinidad because so much was given to me, and also to promote the sport of cricket as much as I can because of what this glorious sport has done for me. I never dreamt that I would win a World cup, I now have two. I never dreamt I would open the bowling, especially as a spinner in the West Indies; I now have opened in every single game that I played."
He has already given back. Whether people ever actually said spinners were going to die a death because of T20 cricket or not, Badree has not only proved that straw man pointless. He has literally opened up new possibilities for spinners.
"I almost missed the wicket against the Sixers and still went for four in the first over," says Cooper.
"Sometimes in the first over it's a bit slippery", admits Beer, "I don't know what is coming out sometimes. Sometimes that makes it harder for the batsmen, or vice versa, sometimes the batsmen are aware of that."
Despite those problems, Cooper and Beer, and others like them, are taking over the first over and the Powerplay in T20s.
"I don't know. With pace on the ball, it sort of flies off the bat, and with the field up, it can just run away," says Cooper. "If you think about the first over, it's one of the easiest overs to bowl because you have two new batsmen."
Beer is also unsure. "I'm not sure. Maybe it's still because the opening batsmen are so used to facing quick bowling."
Badree agrees. "I think because opening batters are so used to facing fast bowling, it takes a bit longer to adjust to the pace. Spinners usually have crowded fields, and thus less space to rotate the strike, so it's either a dot or a boundary, which may be risky."
Beer also believes that quicker bowlers are getting hit more. "As you look at this tournament, the quicker you bowl, the further you go. Look at guys like Chris Lynn hitting the quicks."
When asked why spinners did so well at the top, Beer says "I'm not sure" three times. Then he gives three less-than definitive answers. It was the interview version of the opening batsman facing a spinner in his first over. He wants to smash the ball, but mistimes the first one for a single, then over-complicates it for the second ball, before swinging widely and missing the third. In the end, he's happy to get out of the over at all.
And while that keeps happening, the spinners will keep opening the bowling.
Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber