One-on-one duels have existed among humans for ever, in various forms. The more powerful or the smarter of the two contestants ends up victorious, and the closer the fight, the greater the amount of folklore around the duel. Such contests are central to sports narratives. Who wouldn't stop to watch Shane Warne bowling to Sachin Tendulkar? Or Brian Lara facing up to Glenn McGrath?
As cricket evolved to accommodate the 50-over format, the importance of the duel began to dissipate. The primary focus in limited-overs cricket is always on not conceding runs, so the bowling lengths and the field positions did not allow duels to prosper. T20 has taken it a step further - now sometimes all attempts are made to avoid certain one-on-one contests.
Some of these one-on-one contests still exist in the longest format of cricket, because there's no place to hide in Tests. A bowler may have your number, but in Test cricket, that is not seen as a reason for you to be demoted in the batting order, or for you to refuse a single to stay at the non-striker's end.
T20 is, by far, the most tactically evolved format, for the shorter duration doesn't give a team that falls behind time to come back into the game. One bad decision could be the difference between a win and a loss. While bowling teams still try to throw their best bet against the opposition's best batsman, batting teams' attempts to avoid such match-ups have reached crazy proportions. And very often, they are driven by data and analytics.
If a certain batsman has poor numbers against legspin, irrespective of the quality of the batsman, attempts are made to keep him in the dugout till the threat is negated partially or completely.
We saw that happen in the Royal Challengers Bangalore vs Kings XI Punjab match in Sharjah. On a spin-friendly pitch where batting wasn't easy, the Kings XI had two legspinners, M Ashwin and Ravi Bishnoi, both uncapped and with limited IPL experience. Even so, the batsman who had demolished the Kolkata Knight Riders' bowling in the previous game at the same venue was kept in the dugout while RCB sent out two left-handers to counter the legspin threat.
We are talking about RCB looking to avoid a duel between a batting genius, AB de Villiers, and two uncapped Indian spinners. Obviously, the RCB management realised their mistake after the event and it's unlikely to happen again.
But the fact that it happened in the first place begs the question: how much should we read into match-ups? Are they really as important as some of the data analysts suggest? Or are they as overrated as some cricket pundits want us to believe? Was there any merit in shielding de Villiers against legspin? Numbers tell us that R Ashwin gets the better of Chris Gayle. Should he come on to bowl the moment Gayle walks in?
Well, there's no perfect answer to this question. Since RCB had lost a couple of wickets before the tenth over, there was indeed merit in sending Washington Sundar, the left-hander, in to bat alongside Virat Kohli. Sometimes you want a certain player to play a certain role, and if, in the bargain, a perceived threat can also be neutralised, why not?
Sundar's plan that night should have been to hang around for a bit, go after the legspinners, or any spinner, for that matter, after the halfway mark, and then go hell for leather every ball. In the process if he made an exit, well and good.
Role definition and its fulfilment are a critical component of T20 cricket. Where it went overboard that night was when Shivam Dube came in to bat after Sundar because the legspinners' overs weren't done yet. de Villiers is not a walking wicket against legspin. It was surely a case of paralysis by analysis.
One must also focus on the merits of these match-ups and how they play out in the middle. The moment Glenn Maxwell comes in to bat, you ought to have a pace bowler bowling bouncers and a legspinner bowling wide to him. If that legspinner happens to be Yuzvendra Chahal, even better. It would be futile for the batting team to avoid that contest, but it's essential that the bowling team exploit it.
These match-ups, when presented by the bowling team as an attacking option, are worth their weight in gold. But when you start hiding a batsman or a bowler based on reputations and data, there's a serious chance of going overboard. We've seen so many instances of a left-arm spinner or a legspinner not being allowed to bowl to a left-hand batsman early in his innings, but that strategy can come back to bite you if the bowlers preferred over these spinners don't dismiss that batsman.
There's a valid match-up that must take place in every encounter: the best against the best. You must let Jasprit Bumrah, Jofra Archer and Kagiso Rabada bowl at KL Rahul, David Warner and Kohli. Even if that contest lasts only a few balls, it's worth giving it a shot. Such a contest happens in isolation and often has nothing to do with the remainder of the game, for the bowler must bowl the right length and line to dismiss the batsman, and it's up to the batsman to either cope or perish. Once that's done, the rest of the match can resume. The key in all these match-ups is to look at the quality of the players in question and not merely the data.