Opening batsmen no doubt play a key role in the performance of every team in T20 cricket, with 4 of the current top 5 run scorers in IPL 2017 opening the batting for their respective franchises. The first 6 overs of the innings, with stringent fielding restrictions in play, undoubtedly set the tone for the rest of the game. In this piece therefore, I have chosen to analyse the performance of the openers for each team in the tournament, giving a brief outline of how they have performed and a little of what we can expect going forward. I have not touched upon every individual player who has opened the batting in the tournament, as this would in my opinion, dilute the analysis to an inane level, but have covered what I believe make up the main talking points of this explosive competition that we all love so dearly…
I’ve decided to begin with arguably one of the more high-profile of openers, and certainly one of the best performing this season:
David Warner (AUS)
Forming one half of the most prolific international T20 partnership of all time alongside Shane Watson (averaging 34.63 and scoring over 1000 runs together), Warner has enjoyed similar successes during his time in the IPL, most notably during his time at Sunrisers Hyderabad. Currently standing loud and proud at the top of the run scorers chart, having amassed a whopping 489 runs in his first 10 games at an average of 61.12 and a SR of 150, it is difficult to find anything but positivity surrounding the performances of the SRH skipper. The pinnacle of his competition thus far was the magnificent 126 from just 59 balls vs KKR which included 8 maximums and 10 fours, and served to set another sublime platform for his team to build on and gain another valuable win against one of the other title contenders. He really is playing at the top of his game at the moment, and it is a pleasure to witness. Do not be surprised if Warner can carry his side to a consecutive IPL title, a truly remarkable feat.
Grade : A+
Shikhar Dhawan (IND)
Joining the destructive Aussie at the crease to open the batting for SRH is Indian enigma, Shikhar Dhawan. Dhawan’s tournament thus far has been a little underwhelming, although the numbers do not make for bad reading at all. We have witnessed the occasional great innings (such as the 77 from 48 in the win over KXIP, 70 vs DD) but a tournament SR of just 125 has seen criticism slung from certain quarters, suggesting that he should be more aggressive with his approach. For me, this fairly low SR can be legitimately excused due to the colossus that he bats alongside, mentioned above. Dhawan is largely happy to allow Warner the strike, especially during the powerplay overs when Warner is at his most damaging which is essentially what is required for the overall success of the team. He has played in a largely unselfish manner and his relationship with Warner has flourished yet again, allowing SRH to solidify their position as strong playoff contenders. It wouldn’t surprise me if we see Shikhar come out of his shell a little more as the tournament progresses, particularly if Warner is unable to continue his astonishing form and some of the responsibility falls to him.
Grade : B
Jos Buttler (ENG)
Another exciting import brought in for his explosive hitting has reaped reward for Mumbai Indians, with Jos Buttler finding his feet at the top of the order. Opening alongside Parthiv Patel, Mumbai’s strategy of beginning proceedings with 2 positive wicket keeper batsmen by trade, has largely paid off and Buttler’s 272 from 10 matches has certainly helped propel them to the top of the points table. The one criticism however is obvious : the need to convert starts into huge scores. Just once have we seen Buttler go above 50 (77 from 37 vs KXIP) yet he has made double figures in 80% of his innings. On the opposite side of the coin, a tournament SR of above 150 suggests he isn’t exactly hanging around for his scores, which is a positive not to be overlooked. It is also worth noting that Jos’s experience in the IPL is still relatively raw, so again, do not be surprised if Jos starts converting the reasonable scores into biggies soon. A huge future awaits for a man whose style seems custom-made for T20 cricket.
Grade : B
Parthiv Patel (IND)
One of IPL’s great journeymen having played for 6 different franchises since the tournament inception, perfecting his position as a useful pinch hitter at the top of the order, Parthiv has been called on to open the batting for Mumbai this year, and again has, to a degree, delivered with 239 from 10 matches. As with Jos Buttler though, the criticism remains the same, the need to convert. This has been levelled at Parthiv many times in the past, and it is difficult to identify exactly why this is the case with Parthiv, but the stats do not seem to change : 5 scores above 30 this tournament, just 1 conversion to the heralded half century. With a lower strike rate than Buttler, his position in the team may be a little more at risk (perhaps saved by the rules governing foreign imports), however on the whole his performance has been reasonable. It is fair to say that his failures have often been rescued by the sublime form of exciting prospect Nitish Rana coming in just behind him (amassing a stylish 50 after Parthiv’s duck vs GL) meaning Mumbai will almost certainly opt not to rock the boat, leaning on the old adage of “Why change a winning formula?”.
Grade : B-
Gautham Gambhir (IND)
Traditionally one of the most consistent performers in the IPL, Gautham Gambhir has once again lived up to expectations amassing an impressive 411 runs averaging above 50 this year. With elegant, low risk strokes, particularly off the back foot, Gambhir has been a rock at the top of the order of one of the best batting units in the competition. Scoring four 50’s in the competition thus far shows exactly what Gautham can be – a veteran model of consistency and a true IPL stalwart. His one apparent weakness (if you can call it that) lies in his 6 hitting, scoring just 4 maximums all tournament which one feels serves to hamper his SR somewhat to a modest 134. Nevertheless, his performance has been on the whole, excellent and added to that the fact he is carrying the pressure of captaining the franchise, I am happy to give Gambhir a very reputable grade. Special mention at this point also has to be given to those following the KKR openers, Robin Uthappa and Manish Pandey who have both made solid contributions throughout, giving KKR some real substance with their batting unit as a whole.
Grade : A-
Sunil Narine (WI)
In the nicest possible way, if Gambhir is the beauty, then Narine is most certainly Kolkata’s beast. With his stand and deliver style, making a valiant attempt to moose every delivery out of the park during the powerplay, at times, Narine has been devastatingly effective at the head of KKR’s batting. To some, the promotion of Narine to the top of the batting order came as a huge surprise, though the KKR think-tank had clearly been watching Narine in other global T20 products such as the Australian Big Bash where he had been clearing the ropes with aplomb and even tried his hand at the top of the order for the Melbourne Renegades. If, as planned (cough), I had penned this column 2 weeks earlier, after his consecutive opening blitzes against KKR (42/17) and RCB (34/17) at the top of the order, Narine would have almost certainly commanded an A grade. Nevertheless, recent failures against DD,SRH and RPS have to be taken into account. To surmise, Narines figures do not currently, and most likely, will not compare well alongside “classier”, more traditional T20 openers and primary batsmen like his partner Gambhir. However, his value to the team is arguably greater. As a promoted pinch hitter, his wicket is *almost* a “no-lose” to the team (hence the arguably generous grade), yet on the occasions that this strategy comes off, it can be *hugely* beneficial to the team giving them an immediate foothold on the game with swift, significant runs. I feel that this particular niche position of promoting a lower order pinch hitter to the position of opener will become more and more popular for T20 teams as the game we love develops. The low risk / high reward option is perfectly suited to the ever evolving short format, and is something I can see Narine becoming somewhat of a beacon for.
Grade : B-
Virat Kohli (IND)
It is difficult to write a passage on Virat Kohli without stating the absolute obvious and covering ground that has already been highlighted a million times before. Make no mistake about it, Virat Kohli is a great. He is a runs machine. A chasing teams dream. Technically (almost) flawless and a genuine poster boy of modern-day Indian Cricket. This was all beautifully displayed with his absurd batting in IPL 2016 where he scored a casual 973 runs. This year however, and certainly by the measure of the great man himself, Kohli has fallen slightly short of his usual brilliance. 239 runs across 7 matches with an average of 34 is not to be snuffed at for the everyday cricketer, but as touched on earlier – the everyday cricketer Virat Kohli is not. He has been part of a Bangalore team which, it is fair to say, is in a state of imbalance and turmoil. This is highlighted by the fact that Bangalore have sided with 6 different opening combinations from their largely unsuccessful opening 10 games (add the fact that their preferred opener, Lokesh Rahul has missed the tournament through injury and this indecision really looks like a cause for concern). I see very little point in me predicting how Virat will go from here. As Bangalore as a franchise stabilise, things will only get better for the genius, but this year may have to be a write off for the team as a whole.
Grade : B-
Brendon Mccullum (NZ)
318 runs in 10 innings is a modest return for a man of Brendan Mccullum’s potential. This is a man with both the third and fourth highest individual scores in T20 cricket (158* for both Birmingham Bears and KKR), and so as with Kohli, the standards he sets himself are high. Whilst Mccullums average of 31 is respectable enough, his high score of 72 just screams out what could have been. Opening at the top of a batting heavy Gujarat Lions line-up should have, in theory at least, given B-Mac the freedom to be able to fully express himself as an ultra-aggressive opener and allow him to rack up some huge scores with eye watering strike rates, allowing for the occasion failure in between. The reality though, has been 6 scores above 30 but 0 above 75. Good, but not outstanding. A little scathing maybe, but I expect better from a great of the game. His understated performance has quite possibly been amplified by the expectancy of colossus runs from the top-heavy Gujarat line-up falling to materialize. As always though, you feel with Mccullum you are only one “shimmy down the wicket for 6” away from a 30 ball century. One can hope anyway…
Grade : B-
Sanju Samson (IND)
Long heralded as a future Indian national team player, Sanju Samson has finally delivered on that promise by exhibiting signs of real class on his way to picking up 313 runs from 9 games at the top of the order for Delhi Daredevils. A sublime 102 from 63 against Pune coupled with a 60 from 38 vs KKR has done nothing to dampen the enthusiasm for the future of Sanju Samson, and at 22 he has plenty of scope to improve further. One would speculate that a large price tag may have put unnecessary pressure on Samson in earlier competitions, but it looks as though he has finally learned to live with expectation and is delivering consistently on the pitch. Alongside his teammate Shreyas Iyer, Delhi really do harbour two of India’s brightest hopes for the future.
Grade : B+
Hashim Amla (SA)
Without doubt the purists’ opener of choice, Hashim Amla has displayed elegance and effectiveness in abundance to collect a substantial 315 runs from 8 innings, aided by 32 4’s and 12 maximums. The very cool 104* vs Mumbai displayed everything that Hashim Amla is about, stroking the ball to all areas of the pitch and helping himself to a cool 6 maximums with very little “bottom hand”. Another hugely experienced figure in all formats of the game, it is no surprise to see a player like Amla collecting runs in the manner he has this year. Though not as visually gung-ho as some of his counterparts, his strike rate of 140 shows he is no slouch, and a difficult man to dislodge once he has his eye in with 3 red inker’s from 8 innings. If utilised and understood correctly, Hashim Amla can still continue to be a very useful T20 opener for the foreseeable future, and at KXIP under Maxwell’s leadership, I believe he has his perfect (albeit contrasting) surroundings.
Grade : A
Rahul Tripathi (IND)
Coming into the tournament as somewhat of a surprise package in terms of ability, Rahul Tripathi really has grasped his opportunity to exhibit his talent at the top order of RPS with both hands. I was as surprised as anybody to see Tripathi promoted to the opening position for Pune after scoring 10 from 5 batting at number 4 in his inaugural game, but it is difficult to label the decision made by Pune management anything other than a masterstroke now. In his first venture opening for the franchise, Tripathi bludgeoned 33 off 17 including two maximums to recover from a shaky start after the loss of Rahane for a duck. Since then, whilst adding another 309 runs in his following 7 games, Tripathi has not looked back. The pinnacle of his tournament was his magnificent 93 against KKR striking at 178 and this was complimented by mature innings of 59 off 41 against Sunrisers and 45 from 31 against Mumbai earlier in the tournament. Heralding from Dhoni’s hometown of Ranchi, Jharkhand – Tripathi will no doubt be dreaming of achieving some similar successes of his idol. Whether he will be able to, remains to be seen, but the early signs are very, very positive. I for one, will be watching Tripathi very closely over the coming months.
Grade : A+
Other names that could have been mentioned in this article:
Chris Lynn –
It is very possible that this man would have been right at the top of this article had a shoulder injury not cruelly curtailed his tournament before it had chance to erupt as initial promise suggested it could. After another fruitful Big Bash campaign, Lynn-sanity (sigh) was selected to open to the batting for KKR and promptly stepped up to do what he does best; massacring the Gujarat Lions bowling attack on his way to 93* from 41 with a casual 8 6’s. He then followed this up with a sleek 32 from 24 against Mumbai before injury struck. Nevertheless, we are hearing tentative rumors Lynn is now back in training, so do not be surprised if he comes back to light up this tournament once more (we can hope). This man is without doubt one of the cleanest strikers of the ball in world cricket and has a huge future at the top table of T20 cricket. I have no doubt we will see him back on everybody’s radar very soon.
Ajinka Rahane –
226 runs in 11 matches paints a picture of a very capable opening batsman, and Ajinka Rahane is certainly that on his day. On the other hand, this year his strike rate is not what we are perhaps hoping for from an opening batsman (120) in the modern game. Making a half century just once in the tournament further undermines the performance of somebody who is capable of much more and who has been on the fringes of the Indian National Team setup for what feels like forever. He needs to kick on very soon if he is to be considered an international regular going forward.
Sam Billings –
Yet another aggressive wicket keeper batsman (I’m sensing a trend here) with round the world experience, Billings began the tournament with a lot of promise opening the batting for Delhi Daredevils. A fairly modest return of 138 runs in 6 matches later, despite only failing to reach double figures once, Billings was unable to capitalise on his beginnings and has since been dropped from the side in favour of a more robust overseas bowling unit and has returned to the England Nation setup. As another relative youngster at just 25 though, Billings has plenty of time to hone his game and go on to even better things.
Ishan Kishan –
Providing a fairly useful 150 runs but not all collected as an opener, as the tournament wears on Ishan Kishan has provided a nice alternative option to Gujarat and served to take some pressure from off the high-profile, imported batsmen that many expected to open. It is not easy to be shuffled around the order seemingly on demand but Kishan has taken this in his stride and proved to be a useful asset to Gujarat this campaign.
Manan Vohra –
With 179 runs coming from 8 innings at a strike rate of 155, Vohra has provided reasonable cover for the aforementioned Amla at KXIP, although it must be said that not all of his runs have come from the position of opener, with KXIP adopting RCB’s formula of rotating their top order (albeit with more success). The highlight of his tournament thus far was undoubtedly his impressive 95 from 50 against SRH, although recent failings with the bat meant a full feature was not quite warranted in this instance. A nice asset to KXIP nevertheless.
Christopher Henry Gayle – ….I think I’m going to opt to leave that one for the next article about IPL 2017…