Yuvraj Singh's waning power with the bat has led to question marks over his credentials. © Getty Images

Yuvraj Singh’s waning power with the bat has led to question marks over his credentials. © Getty Images

There’s one tweet my mind keeps going to each time I witness a batsman struggling to get going in a Twenty20:

“Not sure that catch should have been taken,” said Darren Sammy, referring to Yuvraj Singh getting out after a painful 21-ball 11 in the final of the World T20 2014 in Dhaka, which India eventually lost to Sri Lanka.

Sure, Yuvraj’s knock wasn’t the only reason India lost the game, and such days can happen to even the best in business.

Sammy might not even have ‘literally’ meant what he said, but it was no loose opinion, considering he wasn’t just an ordinary cricket follower sharing his thoughts on social media. Sammy had already led his side to a World T20 title by then, and would go on to win one more two years later.

The topic – strategic retiring out of batsmen, and strategic putting down of catches – is perhaps even more interesting now, considering the rapid growth of T20s, with batsmen dominating even more than earlier.

The average strike-rate in the last four years of IPL was 131.43, compared to 122.84 over the first six years. This year, the number has gone up even further, with the strike-rate nearly touching 138. Batsmen who have been successful in T20s in the past have found it difficult to adapt. An example is Ajinkya Rahane, whose strike-rate of 118 this season cost Rajasthan Royals dear in a couple of matches.

In such an era, can teams afford to have batsmen struggling in the middle, particularly in big games and in chases? There are numerous examples of ‘match-losing’ knocks; consolidators often overstay their welcome, eating up crucial deliveries that could have been better used by the big hitters who follow. What can captains do in such scenarios?

The rules allow them to ‘retire out’ a batsman at any point. It has happened in Test cricket too, with Mahela Jayawardene and Marvan Attapattu retiring out in a 2001 Test against Bangladesh, but for entirely different reasons.

Needless to say, such decisions come with an element of risk; the batsman won’t be allowed to bat again, and there’s no guarantee that the batsman who replaces him will get going. Why, the same batsman himself might turn things around, as has happened many a times in T20s. Not to forget the spirit of cricket debates that will eventually arise.

Yet, with a finite number of balls available to each team, and all 11 batsmen not necessarily required, it could well be a gamble worth taking.

Kolkata don’t care if Sunil Narine gets out first ball while opening the batting, they’ll happily take the riskier option of a quick start. © BCCI

Kolkata don’t care if Sunil Narine gets out first ball while opening the batting, they’ll happily take the riskier option of a quick start. © BCCI

Players, coaches and officials Wisden India spoke to over a period of time predict that it will happen at some point in future, but explained that the biggest factor surrounding such a decision would be the mindset of the retired batsman.

“It’s within the laws. You can always retire out a batsman. At the end of the day, it’ll depend totally on the situation,” said R Ashwin, who made his IPL debut as captain with Kings XI Punjab this season. “If a batsman is struggling in terms of injury or something, then yes. Otherwise, it’ll be insulting a batsman. It’s a touchy subject. As a captain, that option is always there if he wants to use it. It’s well within his rights.”

Shane Watson had said at the end of IPL 2017, “I think at some stage, it could happen. At a moment in time when the game is totally on the line… It’ll certainly take a fair bit of courage from the leadership group to be able to do that. There definitely will be a day when that happens. But I think the leadership will have to set that up with the team, with the individuals, just so they understand where things are so that it doesn’t hit too hard and they’re ready to go next game.

“It will happen at some stage. It’s more about the leadership around how you do it, when you do it and then also after the game for the batsman who got retired, how you pick up the pieces as well. The complex part of that is, if you do retire out a player if at that moment he’s not hitting the ball that well, how that will impact their mindset for the next game. It won’t make them feel too good about themselves, to be able to get them up for the next game might not be easy.”

Shane Bond, the former New Zealand pacer, was against the idea as he felt a batsman struggling was a part of the game. Bond also conceded that dugouts often discuss the option of not dismissing a batsman, but pointed to bigger issues like suspicion of spot-fixing that could cloud such incidents.

“That’s part of the game, I think. I don’t like that at all,” he had told my former colleague during an interview. “In football, you can sub someone when he isn’t doing well, but I don’t want to see that in cricket. How do you teach resilience if he is going out each time he isn’t doing well? It is part of a team sport where you deal with players who aren’t doing well. It could be a tough day batting or bowling, or even fielding … you just hang in there. You could be struggling for ten balls but then you might change the game in the next ten balls.

“We do sit in the dugout and we keep saying ‘let’s not get this guy out, it’s better if he stays there’. But it’s a slippery slope with spot-fixing and things like that. It’s a blurred line for me. How do you distinguish between a played deliberately dropping a catch for other considerations and one where he is dropping a catch to keep the batsman in there?”

Simon Taufel, the former international umpire, stressed that tactical retirement was well within the laws. However, he cautioned against misuse by batting teams, considering there is a chance they could fake injuries to retire hurt instead of retire out. The penalty of being dismissed, Taufel explained, was key to maintaining fairness between the batting and bowling sides.

“The umpires will have to judge each situation on its merit,” he said. “While they are not doctors, they do the best they can with the information and spirit of the game in front of them.

“It does change the nature of the game and contest quite significantly. It would be a huge shift from the importance of the team getting their selection right before the toss and also their batting order. It would also impact on the game in other ways – T20 is designed to be a fast and fluent game. Would this proposal have the potential to see unlimited swaps of batter across the 20 overs?

“One of the great attributes about the Laws and how the game of cricket is played is the degree of equalisation of “justice” and “fairness”. i.e if the batter can score runs, they are eligible to be dismissed. If someone does something unfair, the umpire has the ability to step in and caution or penalise. So we hear in this proposal how the batter can be replaced if they are not performing in their role without penalty, but where is the equalisation with the bowler/fielding team? What if the bowler gets hit for three fours in successive deliveries: can the bowling captain take him off and finish the over with someone else, or if the replacement bowler gets hit for 6 on the fourth ball, can another bowler come in to bowl the fifth ball and so on? How much time would this take to change bowlers and fields?

“We have often discussed the issue of illness and injury that affects fielders, bowlers and how we manage those things. The topic was often discussed when we had the ability to apply the Law of Cricket and allow a runner for an injured batter. Various Cricket Committees and Governing Bodies felt that teams were abusing the privilege and taking advantage of a slower running batter, so the option was removed. If such bodies took the view that this was not how the game should be played and give what they saw as an “unfair” advantage to the batting side, why would they see allowing a batter the benefit of walking off without penalty and be replaced with someone potentially better and not allow the same for the fielding team?”

Each of those opinions brings about an interesting dimension. Players are subbed out in every football game for reasons including underperformance and tactical strategies, without exactly worrying about the ‘mental state’. Why can’t an underperforming batsman be subbed out, if time is running out?

In any case, T20 cricket already demands mental toughness from the players for the sheer ruthlessness of the format. No player has the automatic right to be out of form for a long time; big names have often gone unsold in IPL auctions. Why, even captains have dropped themselves from teams after going through rough patches, like Gautam Gambhir did this year. The next ruthless step could well be tactical retirements.

Interestingly, teams have not shied away from tactically maximising their best fielding resources at crunch moments, often replacing slow fielders with quicker ones.

During the Super Over against Gujarat Lions in IPL 2017, Mumbai Indians kept out Lasith Malinga and Harbhajan Singh, and instead had sharper fielders on the park. © BCCI

During the Super Over against Gujarat Lions in IPL 2017, Mumbai Indians kept out Lasith Malinga and Harbhajan Singh, and instead had sharper fielders on the park. © BCCI

During the Super Over in the game between Mumbai Indians and Gujarat Lions last year, Mumbai kept out Harbhajan Singh and Lasith Malinga and instead had sharper fielders on the park. It’s definitely not a one-off case either. If fielders can be taken out, without considering it an ‘insult’, why not extend the same to batsmen?

Over the last two years in particular, teams have begun to realise that the potential benefit of scoring quicker is at times greater than the risk of losing wickets.

Kolkata don’t care if Sunil Narine gets out first ball while opening the batting, they’ll happily take the riskier option of a quick start. In short, all 10 wickets are not always needed for the batting side in every match.

There was another small but interesting example of a batsman wanting to maximise balls, at the cost of another batsman’s wicket, in this year’s IPL. Off the penultimate ball of Chennai Super Kings’ innings against Delhi Daredevils in Pune, MS Dhoni refused a single and denied Ambati Rayudu a chance to get on strike, thus running him out. Rayudu himself was striking in excess of 170, but Dhoni wanted to be on strike for the last ball.

At that point, Dhoni backed himself to hit a six off the last ball and was even willing to trade the single, and Rayudu’s wicket, for the same.

Now, here’s another scenario: His side is at the fag end of a chase in a knockout match, and his batsmen are struggling to up the ante. Wickets don’t exactly matter much, but they need someone to give the big sixes. Will Dhoni, waiting for his turn in the dugout, call one of his batsmen out and step in?

That could well be the next innovation in T20 cricket.