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March 22, 2020

Is there an advantage to having left-right batting pairs?

Sports

March 22, 2020

During a tense passage of play, when a bowling attack appears to have a batsman pinned down at the striker’s end, we often hear commentators wonder why the batsman doesn’t try to score a single to ease the pressure. This is especially the case when a left-right pair are at the wicket. Otherwise, it is only a matter of time before a wicket falls, we hear.

I’ve often wondered about this. If batsmen were able to hit the ball into a gap for one or more runs, why would they choose not to do so?

Batsmen, it seems to me, get pinned down on strike only when the bowling is too good to give them a chance to hit something for runs. At the elite international level, it is not unusual for a combination of bowling quality, field setting and bowling conditions to create such a scenario. Nevertheless, the idea that “batsmen should look for the single” against difficult bowling, or that “the best place to survive a great spell is at the non-striker’s end” has wide currency. Are batsmen missing a trick? Or are the commentators misreading the situation?

A few years ago, I showed from partnership level records that there’s no advantage to having a left-right batting pair at the crease over a left-left or right-right pair if all the batsmen involved are equally good.

In this article, I will consider the record at the ball-by-ball level first to measure the effect of a single on a stand, and then to measure the effect of a left-right pair if the single is taken. Ball-by-ball data for the 841 Tests and 2452 ODIs from the 21st century for which such records are available is used here. The earliest Test in this data set is the 2001 Lord’s Test between England and Pakistan. The most recent one is the 2020 Christchurch Test between New Zealand and India. The earliest ODI is the 1999 Lord’s ODI between England and Sri Lanka. The most recent ODI is the 2020 Potchefstroom ODI between South Africa and Australia.

During this period in Tests, 60% of deliveries faced by opening batsmen have been faced by left-handers. Twelve of the 15 most prolific Test openers (and 11 of the top 12, Virender Sehwag being the sole exception) in this period have been left-handers. Left-hand openers average 39.8 while right-hand openers average 34.4. This basic record does not reveal an advantage to being lefty or righty; it reflects the quality of the average left- and right-hand Test opener in this period. This difference in quality does not extend to the rest of the top six. In the top six, the average right-hander averages 40.3, while the average left-hander averages 40.1.

In ODI cricket left-handers don’t dominate quite as much as they do in Tests. Nevertheless, even in ODIs, left-handers tend to be openers more often than middle-order players. While 12 of the 20 top-scoring ODI openers in the matches under consideration are left-handers, only four of the top 20 ODI middle-order bats are left-handers. All told, there is no evidence in the record to suggest that the overall quality of left-hand bats is superior to that of right-hand bats. The only indication is that left-handers make up a higher share of the batting in the top half of the order than they do in the bottom.

There’s nothing that suggests having a left-right pair adds to the security of a partnership when compared to a left-left or right-right pair.

There is some evidence elsewhere for the proposition that batsmen who are prepared to bide their time are often harder to dismiss than ones who prefer to assert themselves. Cheteshwar Pujara is dismissed once every 86 balls in Tests outside Asia compared to 82 balls for Virat Kohli at the same venues, even though Kohli averages ten runs more. Pujara’s game is based on defence, and he makes bowlers bowl longer to get his wicket. Scoring becomes easier against the older ball (and perhaps against the change bowlers, who tend to be less challenging than the new-ball bowlers).

Sachin Tendulkar would often start slowly in Test innings in the 2000s. In the 27 innings where he had scored fewer than 20 by the time he faced his 50th delivery, Tendulkar averaged 70. Rahul Dravid averaged 68 in the 71 innings where he played his 50th ball without reaching 20. When batsmen make a quick start to a Test innings it indicates either that the field is attacking or that the bowling is inconsistent.

Singles are the most common way to rotate the strike during an over in cricket. The number of singles scored in the first 50 balls of a Test innings is proportionate to the number of runs scored overall during those first 50 balls.

There are 10,765 individual innings that lasted at least 50 balls in the 841 Tests under consideration. These are summarised in the table below by the number of singles scored in those balls. The most singles scored in the first 50 balls of a Test innings is 28. (There are only 12 innings out of 10,765 where more than 20 singles were scored in the first 50 balls, and these have been ignored below.) Ninety percent of innings involve ten singles or fewer. Ninety-nine percent of innings involve 15 singles or less. The table does show that a batsman’s average score goes up when he takes more singles - from 48 when he takes no singles, to 70 when he takes 16 - even though the length of the innings in terms of balls faced does not improve. — Cricinfo