When KL Rahul decided not to be part of Punjab Kings for the new cycle of the IPL, the franchise decided to retain only two players – Mayank Agarwal and Arshdeep Singh – with the former also becoming the new captain of the team. “We felt that let’s go with a bigger purse and use up that purse to put together a successful squad,” head coach Anil Kumble had said ahead of the mega auction, adding that they were clear with regards to the approach to the game they wanted to adapt going forward, and were also armed with a purse of INR 72 Crore – the highest among all 10 teams in the bidding event – to get the necessary personnel for the brand of cricket the Kings were hoping to play.
In IPL 2021, none of the Punjab batters had a strike-rate of 150 or above, with Mayank’s 140.44 being the highest among those to score at least 100 runs in the season. In the 2018-2021 cycle, Punjab’s combined tally of fours and sixes were 1106, which left them at the sixth position. They had the third-best run-rate, and were fifth in terms of boundary percentage. Of the 405 sixes scored by the team, Rahul and Chris Gayle accounted for 202. Without both those batters for 2022, Punjab needed a new direction.
Dan Weston, who has worked as an analyst with Leicestershire CCC and Birmingham Phoenix in The Hundred, along with other franchises in various leagues, including the T10 League, was roped in by the Kings to help them during the auction. Sankar Rajgopal, the head of analysis and R&D at Punjab Kings, got in touch with Weston in order to get an independent voice to the recruitment process and give a more numbers-based analysis and a less biased view compared to some of the auction regulars who would subconsciously have some bias towards certain players.
“My job generally with whoever I work with is to start off by producing a long list of players to start with and to ascertain the value of each player statistically, and I’m not just talking about basic metrics you can find on the internet like average or strike rate. It’s to look at more value-added metrics, stuff that you can’t get in the public domain,” Weston tells Cricbuzz. “I build models that look at stuff like run production or run prevention. I also look at a lot of metrics that I find very valuable that aren’t discussed much in the public domain. Obviously then you draw the line for a lot of players, because a lot of players aren’t going to have half good numbers for the metrics that I value and then subsequently from there, it’s all about finding players who fit into the type of team that I feel is in line with the drivers of success for that particular league.
“There are a lot of things to consider – whether that player is viable for you in terms of the type of team you want to build, how you want to set your team up to play. There might be some very good players who don’t fit your style of play. And therefore it would be a forced economy to look to bid for them in an auction or buy them in a draft, because they don’t fit the style of play that you want to try and create. It’s all about finding the players who fit into your plans rather than just looking at the actual quality of the players, which is generally a good mantra regardless of what league you are recruiting for.”
The Punjab team, in the past seasons, have been largely dependent on the top order to perform, with the likes of Rahul, Gayle and Mayank being their primary run scorers. There have been plenty of occasions in the past where the top order has got the team close to the line but the lack of fire-power in the middle order resulted in Punjab losing many close games. Things, however, have been different this time around, with all-out attacking options available right through.
From the first game against Royal Challengers Bangalore, when they chased down a 200-plus target, Punjab have been quite clear with their gameplan. The addition of Liam Livingstone, Bhanuka Rajapaksa and Odean Smith to the line-up has lent immense potency and firepower to the middle order. Rajapaksa’s stroke-filled batting without beating about the bush, Smith’s game-changing cameo against RCB, and Livingstone’s unflinching aggressive approach have been outcomes of the new-found freedom in Punjab’s batting.
Both Rajapaksa and Smith appeared on Weston’s radar in the T10 competition last year. Rajapaksa was among the top 10 run-getters in T10 2021, scoring 249 runs at a strike rate of 193.02, with three fifty-plus scores. Smith’s 139 runs in four innings came at a strike rate of 283.67, the highest in the tournament (Min. 100 runs). Livingstone, who has has also worked with Weston, was part of the competition too scoring 309 at a strike rate of 210.20 with two half-centuries
“I watched both Bhanuka and Odean play a lot in T10. I was in T10 also recently and they were in opposition teams. The format was such that we ended up getting to the ground pretty early and ended up watching a lot of matches that started before yours. That gave me a chance to see pretty much every player regularly. It was really very useful. And two players who really impressed me were those two. Bhanuka, I like his flexibility because he can bat in multiple positions. He’s left-handed which is always useful – a lot of teams pay a premium price for left-handers – and he can keep at a level as well. Playing for probably the weakest team in the league, he was the key player for them. And he still went off like a train. He didn’t get bogged down by that responsibility, he played very,very positively and his numbers are very good in the areas that I value. So he was a really good fit for us (at Punjab).
“And Odean, he impressed in the T10 and I knew a lot about him as well. I worked at Leicester with Paul Nixon, who actually gave Odean his debut for Jamaica Tallawahs a few years ago. Nico was with me in T10 as well and we spoke about him quite a lot. I was impressed by the whole package that he can offer. Power-hitting, obviously we saw this already in the IPL – he hit the biggest six I’ve ever seen, top of the upper tier. A lot of people think he is quite leg-side oriented but I’ve seen him play a lot of shots through the off side. I feel like he’s got a lot of power in multiple areas and ultimately I expect him to continue to get better as well. Bowling wise, he’s obviously quick, he can get a little bit of consistency, but he’s got the skills to be a very strong bowler in the future as well. He’s a great investment for us,” notes Weston.
Although he had played a limited number of IPL matches before being chosen by the Kings in the auction, Livingstone is quite renowned for his big-hitting and had already made waves in 2021. He was the highest run-getter in the inaugural edition of The Hundred, scoring 348 runs in nine innings at an average of 58 and a strike rate of 178.46 playing for Birmingham Phoenix. His average, strike-rate and runs scored were far superior to the other batters in the competition. Just before The Hundred, Livingstone had also scored the fastest fifty and hundred by an England player, which happened in the same game against Pakistan.
“Livi offers a rare skillset. We know he is a power-hitter, and he was the leading run-scorer in The Hundred last year, How many players bat in the top four-five, bowl off spin and leg spin? For me his unique skillset is extremely attractive and the fact that he is permanently in the game, whether as a batter, bowler or a fielder, and now becoming something as a senior player as well. He is not such a senior player in terms of experience in the IPL level but in England he is certainly a very senior player there.”
With Jonny Bairstow also part of the Kings squad, and Indian names like Shahrukh Khan, Jitesh Sharma and Prabhsimran Singh who can also tonk the ball, the Kings loaded their squad with plenty of power-hitting options in their batting arsenal. Not that their bowling is any weak in comparison, with plenty of quality also present there, including Kagiso Rabada, Nathan Ellis and Benny Howell among the overseas lot. With impressive performances already from the current group.
“I call it a nice problem to have,” says Weston about the plethora of options available at the Kings’ disposal. “Having some high quality overseas (players), even some who are not going to feature in every game, is very positive for us. The fact that we can bring these guys in when they are needed to, and they can have an impact.
“We were extremely thorough with our planning. I would say that definitely the planning that we did, one: it was the most thorough that I’ve done being involved with any team, and two: when we walked away from the auction a lot of people thought we had assembled a pretty decent squad,” Weston adds.
Be it the inclusion of Weston to help with their recruitment process or roping in power-hitting specialist Julian Wood as their batting consultant, PBKS has done a lot in the background to make their new approach work. The changes have been quite evident in the matches the Kings have played so far, and they have proven rather productive as well.
The Kings have already struck 33 sixes so far in IPL 2022, the highest among all the 10 teams, while their six-hitting percentage of 9.59 is the next best to Rajasthan Royals’ 10.42. Their run rate of 9.16 is the third-best in the competition so far while they also have the third-best boundary-hitting percentage. It has been a rejuvenated start from the team this season and the sustenance of that will define the Kings in their search for the elusive IPL title.
(Numbers as of April 3, 2022)