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The Stoinis conundrum – Where should he bat?

When one has to choose the first pieces of a puzzle to build a great T20 team, the most precious commodity is an all-rounder. All-rounders come in various different shapes and sizes – batting all-rounders, bowling all-rounders, bits-and-pieces players et al, and form the cornerstones of any T20 lineup. The ones that are most sought after and command the uppermost echelons in the broader category of all-rounders are those who can win a match either with the bat or with the ball. Add to that the fact that Indian all-rounders are limited in supply, the demand for genuine foreign all-rounders multiplies manyfold. Such a true match-winner is hard to obtain, and once retrieved should never be relinquished easily. In Marcus Stoinis, RCB have captured a gem. As a bowler, he can be trusted upon to regularly complete his quota of four overs, and can bowl them under different scenarios in the game – he has been used as a death bowler to good effect by Melbourne stars in the recently concluded Big Bash League. As a batsman, the 29-year-old Western Australian, has the skillset to competently carry out his responsibilities across any number in the batting order. Thus, the Aussie superstar, can be dubbed an all-round batsman, and a complete all-rounder. RCB have been long-standing admirers of him, as they went as high as 6.2Cr in the auction in 2018, but had to lose out to KXIP’s right to match. When an opportunity arose again to possibly acquire the player they coveted, it came as little surprise that RCB didn’t hesitate to trade Mandeep Singh in exchange, despite the dearth of local Indian batsmen in the squad.

So now that Bangalore have a complete all-rounder, something that was lacking last season, how can he be used the best? His bowling adds value to the team, but in this article we will take a closer look at how his batting abilities can be utilised to the optimum.

Note – Except for the opening slots(which mean the batsman has come in to bat in the first over), I will be repeatedly referring to the over number in which he has come in to bat, as a better measure. This provides a more accurate representation of the situation of the game in comparison to the outdated batting order parameter.

Stoinis, the opener?

Among his most recent exploits in domestic T20 competition is the Big Bash league 2018-19, a tournament which he finished as the player with the highest average(53.3). Playing for the runners-up, the Melbourne stars, Stoinis amassed 533 runs, at a strike rate of 130.63. It took a stroke of genius from the Stars’ management to get the best out of the player, as in his first 3 innings, he scored a total of 34 runs while batting in the middle order. In the following 10 innings, Stoinis was promoted to open the innings, and the Stars reaped the rewards instantly, as Stoinis went on to score 499 runs in the next 10 innings at an average of 62.4. Clearly, the strategy of Stoinis opening the batting had worked wonders. Based solely on these colossal numbers, the answer seems to be obvious that Stoinis should be asked to open the innings. But, does that paint the complete picture? In a word, no.

What did he do last year in the IPL?

To elaborate, there are many more factors at work when looking at where a batsman should play. Sure, making him play in a position where his numbers look impressive is one way to go. But, we should not lose sight of the fact that he played the BBL in conditions completely different to what he is likely to encounter in the IPL. Be it the pitches, the variety in bowling attacks he will face, or the ground dimensions, everything has a collective impact on a player’s performance. If we are to look at statistics again in Asian conditions, the sample size would be too small to portray a fair assessment(He has only played 2 innings as an opener in the sub-continent across T20’s and T20I’s over the last 2 years). Our next best bet to understand what best suits him in sub-continent would be to look at his numbers from IPL 2018, playing for KXIP. Stoinis was used mostly as a lower-middle-order batsman by the franchise which failed to qualify for the knockouts following an impressive start. In the 7 innings, 3 of which were not out’s, he scored 99 runs at a strike rate of 130.26. So, what do these numbers indicate? At first look, nothing impressive at all. A closer inspection reveals a clearer pattern. 

Out of the seven innings he played, Stoinis came in to bat post the 12th over in five. Out of these five innings, he stayed unbeaten in three, and two of the three in a run-chase – both successful. In the two innings where he arrived at the crease before the 12th over, he had little impact on the game. A contextless look at the bare numbers would suggest a poor tournament for the Aussie, but a more in-depth analysis gives us a better indication that it was rather the team management which failed to get the best out of him. In a way, the poor handling of Stoinis was in itself a microcosm of the KingsXI campaign – a dominant start, which petered away due to lack of continuity and mismanagement.

The three innings in which he remained not out seems to suggest that he has the pedigree to finish an innings effectively. The calls by certain ex-Aussie players for him to be included in the Australian test team for the upcoming Ashes, is a testament to his batting technique, meaning he can be entrusted upon the role to carry an innings in case of an unexpected collapse, an anchor to be more in-sync with modern terminology. To summarise, coming in to bat after the 12th over, and going on to finish the innings would appear to be ideal.

The sum of the parts is greater!

Now that we have ascertained what the seemingly best possible position for him as an individual would be, let us look at how he can fit into the team dynamic that RCB has. After all, cricket is a team game, and the team always comes first. If a player’s abilities aren’t suited to the best interests of the team, then the inclusion of the said player in itself becomes a bone of contention.

For a team to be successful, it is paramount that the best players get the freedom to express themselves, and hence the team can get the maximum value out of those players. For RCB, it is hard to look beyond Virat Kohli and AB De Villiers. Virat has played his best cricket batting in the top 3(starting in the powerplays), and AB De Villiers is too devastating a player, in that his abilities should not be shackled and his role in the team must not be limited to that of a finisher. Having two anchor players in Virat and Stoinis at the top of the order would not be advisable, except for rare scenarios like a low-scoring game, which might call for two sensible players at the top. A common trait among T20 units with a strong batting lineup, is the presence of a technically adept player who can finish the innings. Such a player can either provide impetus towards the end of an innings, or be a calming presence in the face of calamity, batting lower down the order. Such players play a key part in allowing the players batting above them to play their natural, attacking game without the psychological barrier of having to put more value on their wicket than necessary. Plain, out-dated, test-match-era statistics(runs, average, strike rate) do not always do justice to players of such ilk, and there is a need of new parameters which measure efficiency of an innings. Until that day comes around, such batsmen will remain the unsung heroes of a T20 team. 

Going in-depth into the kind of bowlers he potentially will have to face up to might not be the best of ideas, as on any given day, the possibilities are that he will have an unknown challenge, regardless of the situation he comes in to bat, and hence I have refrained from providing such an analysis.

To infer…

Even though Stoinis has proved to be a phenomenal success opening the innings in the BBL, there is not sufficient data to convince one that he can replicate his scintillating form in the sub-continent as well. His best performances for KXIP in the previous season came around playing the role of a finisher. With stalwarts of cricket in Virat and AB De Villiers already batting higher up the order, along with the new swashbuckler on the block Shimron Hetmeyer, it makes more sense to preserve Marcus Stoinis to play lower down the order, thus allowing the flare players above him to bat without fear. In no way should the role of a finisher hinder Stoinis’ game either, as he has shown previously that he can effectively carry out the duties expected of him in such circumstances. The presence of a heavyweight like Stoinis in the lower middle order, would ensure that RCB would once again become a batting firepower, and a lineup that can put fear in the hearts of the best of the bowling lineups in the IPL.