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Business News/ Lounge / Ideas/  IPL 2024: 5 openers who are redefining T20 cricket
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IPL 2024: 5 openers who are redefining T20 cricket

Beyond commitment and boldness, the batting styles of some of the top strikers in this IPL season have set a new model

Kolkata Knight Riders' Sunil Narine plays a shot during an Indian Premier League (IPL) 2024 cricket match between Kolkata Knight Riders and Punjab Kings, at the Eden Gardens, in Kolkata, on 26 April. (PTI)Premium
Kolkata Knight Riders' Sunil Narine plays a shot during an Indian Premier League (IPL) 2024 cricket match between Kolkata Knight Riders and Punjab Kings, at the Eden Gardens, in Kolkata, on 26 April. (PTI)

What do Jake Fraser-McGurk, Travis Head, and Abhishek Sharma have in common? All three openers have strike rates over 200 in the 2024 edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL). That is over 12 runs an over. And they have healthy averages of 41, 53, and 36 respectively, which means they have contributed a substantial volume of runs as well, and not just cameos.

Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) openers Sunil Narine and Phil Salt have strike rates of 183 and 182 respectively, which places them a bit lower than the other three. But their approach and impact are similar. They too have healthy averages of 38 and 40 respectively.

Also read: Does India have the squad to win the T20 World Cup?

The cavalier attitude of these batsmen has transformed expectations of what’s possible in T20 cricket. Scores over 240 in 20 overs, at 12 an over, and over 90 in the powerplay of 6 overs, at 15 an over, are what’s expected on good batting wickets.

A baseball-style swing of the bat from the first ball of the innings is no longer an oddity. The classical elbows-up style is vanishing, except on bowler-friendly pitches that test batting technique.

In practice sessions, power-hitters are tuning up for sixes, rather than boundaries. And they are building their muscle memory to keep smashing the ball for long periods.

Classical versus modern

The classical batsmen also changed their style as the season wore on, seeing what the likes of Head and Fraser-McGurk were doing.

Virat Kohli, for instance, had a strike rate below 150 in the first half of the season. The lack of boldness in the Royal Challengers Bengaluru (RCB) top order sank the team. Then Kohli changed his tune, pulling pace bowlers and slog-sweeping spinners for sixes. His strike rate for the season went up to 155, and RCB’s fortunes changed.

More and more batsmen will come under pressure to raise the ante. Lucknow Super Giants (LSG) skipper KL Rahul has a strike rate below 140, despite his ability to hit big shots. The new norm is for a top-order batsman to keep going for his shots instead of hanging on to his wicket.

Not everyone is employing the same technique. It’s as much about a shift in attitude as batting style.

Narine’s evolution

Sunil Narine’s batting first caught attention in 2017 when Gautam Gambir, who was the KKR skipper then, promoted him as a pinch-hitting opener. The mystery spinner had some success with the bat, but his average was low as bowlers targeted his vulnerability to bodyline bowling. He disappeared from the top order after Gambhir’s stint.

The return of Gambhir as a mentor at KKR this year revived Narine’s role as an opener. The new avatar is more consistent.

Narine has clearly practised swatting bouncers, which makes him less vulnerable. An uncluttered mind, a limited choice of strokes, and the experience to anticipate what the bowler will do make the swish of the 36-year-old West Indian’s bat connect more often than not.

Narine has no fear of losing his wicket, because whatever he contributes with the bat is a bonus, with his main role being a bowler. But it shows what regular batsmen can also gain by discarding the fear of getting out.

His batting partner Phil Salt’s equally aggressive approach has contributed to Narine’s success, because both batsmen can be a bit more selective about which balls they hit. Salt was discarded by Delhi Capitals (DC) and only got a chance in IPL 2024 as a replacement when Jason Roy withdrew from KKR. He has grabbed it with both hands and will now be a formidable opener for England in the upcoming T20 World Cup alongside Jos Buttler.

Sunrisers Hyderabad's Travis Head plays a shot during the Indian Premier League (IPL) Twenty20 cricket match between Sunrisers Hyderabad and Lucknow Super Giants at the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium in Hyderabad on May 8, 2024.
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Sunrisers Hyderabad's Travis Head plays a shot during the Indian Premier League (IPL) Twenty20 cricket match between Sunrisers Hyderabad and Lucknow Super Giants at the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium in Hyderabad on May 8, 2024. (AFP)

Travis Head’s clarity

Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) opener Travis Head’s initial movement is to clear his front leg. This gives his raised bat a clear arc to smash anything on his body to the legside and slash away-going balls to the offside boundary.

Head is the most well-rounded power-hitter among the five who have been the best in IPL 2024. It’s after all a continuation of what he has been doing for Australia over the past couple of years.

Like Narine and Salt, Head and his SRH opening partner Abhishek Sharma complement each other. While Head is fluent against pace, and a little less so against spin, Sharma is the opposite. The uncapped Indian batsman skips down the wicket to tonk spinners for sixes, which makes the introduction of a spinner to curb Head a double-edged sword.

Fraser-McGurk's baseball stance

Unlike the four aforementioned openers, DC’s Jake Fraser-McGurk is a one-man show, plying his trade as a power-hitter with multiple openers. He came into the side as a replacement player and got an opportunity to bat at one down in DC’s sixth game after Mitchell Marsh was sidelined with injury.

The batting sensation from the Big Bash League in Australia became a talking point two games later when he scored 65 in 18 balls against SRH, although his team lost the game. Match-winning knocks of 84 in 27 balls against Mumbai Indians (MI) and 50 in 20 balls against Rajasthan Royals after moving into the opener’s slot reinforced his credentials. Other teams in the T20 World Cup in June will feel relieved that Australia left him out of the squad.

Fraser-McGurk’s distinguishing characteristic is a baseball stance with his bat raised high, clearly signalling his intent. This may become the default stance of a powerplay opener in T20 cricket.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.

Also read: IPL 2024: How bowlers adapt and succeed despite the odds

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Published: 15 May 2024, 07:30 AM IST
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