The recent PSL match between Peshawar Zalmi and Lahore Qalandars was, for lack of a better word, farcical. After having put up the shortest T20 innings in the format’s history, Lahore saw themselves almost pull off a miraculous victory as Peshawar choked their way to the final total. While the pitch was slow, it wasn’t anywhere near the bowling paradise that the scorecard seemed to make it look like. So what really happened?
The answer lies in one of the truisms of T20 cricket, and one that still hasn’t truly been accepted by most teams save that of the West Indies’ national side, and a few others. In a series of influential posts, the blogger Kartikeya Date had shown that in cricket’s shortest format, hitting is a more optimal approach than batting. Central to that logic is the fact that batting sides have an overabundance of resources, and as such there comes a point in an innings where a dot ball is just as damaging as a wicket falling. Date has shown that rather than approaching batting in the conventional sense - getting your eye in before moving up the gears it is actually more useful to be able to start blasting away from ball one. The best example of this approach is the West Indies, who have won two of the last three WT20s. The entire side is packed with power hitters, and no one in the side wastes any time trying to play themselves in. Instead they go for their shots almost immediately. While most batsmen haven’t caught on to such an approach, in the decade that we have seen this format, this realisation of needing to hit out has slowly spread across the board.
Recently, I was speaking with Saeed Ajmal who described the T20 format as one where “the batsmen look to hit and the bowlers look to hide and defend.” While the quote comes across as very defensive, it is a smart insight from one of the most intelligent bowlers around. Because the implicit logic in Ajmal’s observation is that if the batsman is not hitting, then he is failing at his job. In other words, as Date’s data has shown, bowling dot balls can have a destructive effect on the batting side.
Still, the ridiculously low score that Peshawar were chasing meant that objectively, even dot balls weren’t that much of an issue. But because batsmen in this format are becoming used to the pressure that a dot ball causes, it seemed to muddle their minds even when it wasn’t an issue. Peshawar’s only successful batsman was Eoin Morgan, who realised the unique nature of the chase and decided to play it like a regular innings in longer formats, and thus ended with a strike-rate around 100 when he was given out rather ridiculously by the umpire.
The rest of the line up however managed to create a situation where they accumulated a lot of dot balls and then got out trying to hit out. In almost every case, the lack of conviction in the shot that got them out spoke volumes of their muddled headspace. Unlike other formats, dots in a T20 seem to induce panic even with a very low target to chase, or that seemed to be the case.
Let's start with Mohammad Hafeez, who had been wretched in the PSL so far having been dismissed for a duck twice. Given that context, perhaps it was expected that he might be circumspect, even though he got a run off his first ball. He then played a couple more dots before picking up a single. In the second over, he played four consecutive dots before picking up another single, following which his partner Dawid Malan got out. Hafeez then faced the next over, where he played another dot before attempting a suicidal charge against Sunil Narine. Rather than looking to hit out though, Hafeez seemed to be looking to tap the ball, which snuck through to the keeper. It was a nothing shot for a nothing innings.
Kamran Akmal, who had destroyed Islamabad in the league opener, is our second exhibit. Kamran picked up six consecutive dots before getting his first run, and then picked up three more dots in his next five balls. When Yasir Shah came on in the eighth over, the senior Akmal looked to play what was a confused shot, caught somewhere between a chip and a big hit. It took a good catch to dismiss him, but it was a mindless shot, and one that wasn’t needed at all given the low target.
Sohaib Maqsood was the fifth wicket to fall, and right from when he came in he played the same shot three times in four (dot) balls. His second effort was stopped athletically by McCullum, which was a portent for what was to come. After defending a ball, Maqsood tried to repeat the same shot but with more power. Rather than going for an actual hit and getting the ball over the infield, he struck it powerfully in the air at a low trajectory. Most Pakistani fielders might have missed it but BMac pulled off a stunning catch. What was instructive was that he never got to the pitch of the ball, and seemed desperate to just nail his shot. It was the wrong decision, and he paid the price.
The captain Darren Sammy, who might have been the one who advised a caution-first approach (though it feels very un-Sammy) emulated his much more limited Pakistani counterparts as well. It didn’t help that Yasir had him in his sights from the start. Sammy had played two dots in five balls before the 14th over, but then Yasir got three dots against him. Again, the situation didn’t require any theatrics but Sammy went for them, looking to hit inside out and getting an unlucky deflection that bowled him.
Of course, I am aware that bowling dots doesn’t automatically bring wickets, but in T20s they carry a much bigger burden, and batsmen are more likely to panic when the dots accumulate. Rationally, none of the shots that led to the wickets described above were needed, and it's pretty clear that the balls that got them weren’t exactly unplayable. But when it comes to T20s, dot balls have a way of signalling a death warrant, and they nearly accounted for Zalmi that night.