The Art of Doing it at the Death

Time and time again, games in the IPL come down to the final few overs. Teams are left chasing a total that is achievable but not easy, often requiring somewhere near 1.5x-2x as many runs as balls. As to be expected, teams have varying levels of success chasing at the death. So, what do you want to be doing if you find yourself in this position?

Bat in Hand, Chasing to Do

Let’s look at this first from the perspective of the chasers, think not of Mark Labbett and Anne Hegerty, but more of Sanju Samson and AB de Villiers. The first 15 overs have come and gone, the job is not yet finished. The next few overs go well, so let’s imagine that you now need 22 runs off of 12 deliveries.

Here are the key factors to consider.

  • Beat the Boundary Rope

At any given stage of a T20, this is the single best advice for batters. The runs will be quite simply easier to accumulate if you are taking them in 4s and 6s rather than 1s and 2s. Too often, teams seem to fall into the trap of trying to keep to a run a ball with quick singles. This is wrong.

First and foremost, you are only delaying the inevitable. In taking singles, you know that a run a ball is not enough to win the game. With 22 to chase, a run a ball leaves you 10 runs short. This phenomenon is such a common sight, but at the most basic level it will never be enough to win. It also has two adverse effects.

One is that it drastically increases the chances of losing a wicket. T20 cricket is plagued by the disease that is ‘running hard’ and taking ‘quick singles’. Teams constantly lose unnecessary wickets in the pursuit of one extra run, it does not take a genius to understand that this is not a particularly attractive trade deal. If you lose a wicket trying to snatch a single, it will probably do more harm than good.

Also, it may be disruptive to the concept of matchups (more on this soon). If the bowler coming at you is a left-armer with a reliance on slower ball variations, you probably have one batsman who is better suited to face this. Taking singles can get in the way of creating the best situation to score runs in. Do not fear the dot ball, do what increases the chance of a boundary.

This is often the first hurdle that chasing teams fall at. The key to winning in T20 comes in having the superior boundary percentage. This should always influence behaviour at the death.

  • Know the Game Plan

Matchups. The absolute key to data-driven success. Matchups are looking at a batter’s performance against either a specific bowler or bowler type, or vice versa. In simple terms, they are the idea of looking at who performs best and worst against who. Understanding them will massively help your chances of chasing at the death.

As I said earlier, you can only benefit by knowing the relative strengths and weaknesses of your batters and the bowler they are about to face. If you do not know that Batter A is hopeless against back-of-a-length cutters, then you may be sleepwalking into a disaster. This is even worse if the team who are bowling are aware of the matchups. In poor preparation you place yourself in an unnecessary position of weakness.

Batting at the death often feels like a tense, spur of the moment event, but good teams can massively improve their odds by doing their homework.

Of course, things may not go perfectly. Against Punjab Kings, Sanju Samson turned down a run so he would face the final ball. After he failed to hit a 6, many jumped to criticise him. The truth is that Sanju Samson did the right thing.

Rajasthan’s odds of hitting a boundary were much higher with him than Chris Morris. Morris did go on to hit the winning runs in their next game, but that does not change the fact that an in-form Samson was always the right pick.

Instances like this should not scare teams away from sticking to a plan. More times than not, you’ll be happy with the results.

  • Run Properly

This is a very obvious one, and yet perhaps Kolkata Knight Riders would benefit from taking note. If it is a situation with a set batter at one end, and a tailender at the other, the tailender should at least know how to run properly.

This includes, and is not exclusive to, not wearing excessively clunky protection despite you not having to face a ball, not tripping, and pushing hard as opposed to dawdling.

It is beyond underwhelming for a game to be lost because of bad running, do not do it.

  • Think Ahead

If you ask a martial arts teacher what the best thing to do in a fight is, their answer may just be ‘don’t get into one’. A similar idea can apply in T20.

A late chase is dramatic, fantastic theatre, but is often the product of earlier sub-par batting. Too often, teams either fail to make the most of the Powerplay, or the run rate slows excessively in the middle overs. Fundamentally, a lot of teams and players still play T20 very badly. They do not score quickly enough, and they prefer to take risks at the end of a game rather than at the start.

Of course, there are several options for scoring early to avoid drama at the death.

One is the very simple notion of aggressive scoring in the Powerplay. The IPL is chock-full of top order batters who trundle on at roughly a run-a-ball. Players like KL Rahul and Manish Pandey are frequently guilty of leaving their team with too much to do late on. A different approach to a chase is both possible and should be encouraged, which is to try to do more of it upfront.

Take Sunrisers Hyderabad for example. They have no batting depth whatsoever in the current team. If Warner, Bairstow, and now Williamson do not do the job, then no one will. It is simply more viable to try and get the work done early, than rely on poor batters to do anything.

An alternative option, is to instead focus on specific bowlers. For example, teams know that the Mumbai Indians pace battery is not the easiest to attack. Jasprit Bumrah in particular can be practically unplayable. You know that you are unlikely to cart him around near the death. Instead, attention should be turned towards Krunal Pandya and Rahul Chahar.

If you can attack the spinners effectively, you can have less to do against Bumrah and Boult later on.

This may be a counter-intuitive way to win at the death, and does sound like a bit of a spoilsport, but sometimes the little boy who does his homework early has more free time at the end of the day.

Ball in Hand, Palms are Sweaty

Let’s shift perspective. Now, you have the ball and are trying to defend a total. Here are the key points to hit.

  • Have a Plan

Sport has a lot of moments where instinct is king. Moments where pre-meditation is pointless, and you have to act in the heat of the moment. Death bowling should not be one of these situations.

Too often, world class bowlers look absolutely clueless at the death.

The single most useful thing a bowler can do is be dead set on what 6 deliveries are they going to bowl. Have a bowling plan. The top of your mark may be too late to decide that you want to try a toe-crunching yorker.

Similarly, know the enemy. If the batter has a hole in their game, make sure that you know what it is. Cricket players and teams seem to have an odd relationship with data, where many seem somewhat reluctant to take its helping hand.

Data is your friend, it will make death bowling easier.

  • Life Beyond the Yorker

This one may sound like heresy to some, but the wide yorker might not be the answer to bowling at the death.

When perfectly executed, a wide yorker is pretty much impossible to punish. It’s tricky to get underneath, and pretty tough to send into the stands. This is when it is perfect.

Of course, very few ‘perfect’ balls are bowled in a game of cricket. You miss the mark by a few centimetres and suddenly it’s no longer perfect. Too short and you’ve teed up a half-volley. Too full, a literal full toss. If bowling to batters with the quality of Jos Buttler and Hardik Pandya, you will get punished.

The alternative is to be a bit more creative.

One potential route is to cater to the specific batter. If they get easily hurried, go back of a length and put your back into it. If they bite at slower balls too eagerly, throw up a cutter. Make yourself the batter’s worst nightmare.

Alternatively, play to your own strengths. If you know that you can nail a back-of-a-length delivery, do exactly that. If you find the batter has sussed you out, have a back-up plan.

The yorker when perfectly done is the ideal delivery. Unfortunately, you cannot rely on being perfect.

  • Deep Breath In, Deep Breath Out

It goes without saying, but the greatest battle one faces at the death is with their own mind. Everything can feel very lonely when you are bowling to try and win your team the match.

A fine example of overcoming this fear is Jofra Archer in the CWC 2019 Final Super Over. Archer bowled a wide first ball and was soon hit for a six off the third ball. Defending 15 off 6, this made the last three balls a colossal task.

It would have been easy here for Archer to totally freak out. It’s not uncommon to see bowlers at the death lose their cool and start bowling wide after wide. Archer did no such thing and saw his team through to victory.

This is perhaps the hardest part about bowling at the death, because there is no easy answer. Bowlers have to find what works for them. This may be extensively practising death scenarios in training. This may be something like breathing exercises in the middle. Some players may not even have to do anything special.

In respect to this, it is also a good idea to make sure your bowler actually wants to bowl at the death. There is absolutely no shame in not wanting to put yourself in these situations. Cricketers at the end of the day are only human. They are not mentally invincible.

An Enormous Task

Cricket at the death is immensely difficult for all parties involved. The nature of the game is that only one can be successful. It is possible for teams to follow all of these tips and still fall well short.

Winning a game early is the sensible and safe option, but there will always be a lot of romance surrounding leaving it late. It will never be easy, but it will always get hearts racing.

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