Louder than words
Indian batting prodigy Shubman Gill has found his best format
Welcome to the 23rd edition of Plot the Ball for 2023.
If you missed the previous edition, you can read it here:
To start off the year, I ported over the concept of ‘effective field goal percentage’ from basketball in order to try and progress traditional approaches to the analysis of white-ball batting in cricket. A few weeks out from the next edition of the men’s One-Day International World Cup, I’m returning to the same theme — and picking out an Indian player who could shine in front of home crowds during the tournament.
Indian batting prodigy Shubman Gill has found his best format
When they speak to the press, professional athletes have all sorts of indecipherable incentives — making it hard to know exactly what to think.
That said, it’s a bit easier when they stick to specific and verifiable details.
I sometimes think about putting stock in what players say in media appearances on a sliding scale, with LeBron James at one end and England cricketer James Anderson at the other.
James is famous for his supernatural powers of recall in NBA post-game pressers — and, crucially, fact-checking has borne out the best-known example of the superstar showing off his play-by-play memory.
On the other hand, we have Anderson. The fast bowler has stated that in the past that “he can land the ball on one side consistently” to keep it in the best condition for his team — a big claim that was repeated in an excellent Wisden feature on seam bowling earlier this summer.
The problem is, though, that there doesn’t seem to be any public evidence that this is true1 — and printing it without any back-up verges on the hagiographic.
Not assuming that something is true just because a professional athlete says so is a rule — and not a particularly controversial one — that I think it’s important to apply.
With that in mind, some of the most striking media copy I’ve come across in recent times was from Indian cricketer Shubman Gill.
In an interview with ESPNCricinfo last year, Gill said:
“I believe that the fewer dot balls you play in T20s, the better your strike rate will be. Almost all batsmen have the same boundary percentage, but the ones with fewer dot balls have a higher strike rate.”
It’s striking precisely because — as any readers of the excellent Substack of professional analystwill be acutely aware — it goes contrary to much of the available evidence about T20 cricket2.
The reasons why Gill holds this position — or, more accurately, stated this position in a single interview — are ultimately unknowable.
But it’s nonetheless an interesting starting point from which to consider one of the most enjoyable young batters to watch in the men’s game — and, over the last year or so, one of the most successful.
Even if it’s not correct in a broader sense, is Gill’s statement reflected in how he approaches T20 cricket?
One of the most valuable repositories of T20 data on the internet is Amol Desai’s BoundaryLine database — which repackages raw ball-by-ball match records and aggregates them into context-adjusted player statistics.
Across the 100 T20 innings available in Desai’s records, Shubman Gill is adjudged an above-average batter — to be specific, he is in the 83rd percentile of all players by ‘Additional Runs [Scored] Per Over’.
In other words, the record bears out the approach to T20 cricket4 that Gill has publicly espoused — even if that’s not an ‘optimal’ approach to the game in theory.
The natural balance between risk and reward in Gill’s game, however, is almost perfectly suited to batting at the top of the order in the longer format of white-ball cricket.
Among players who have batted in the top three in One-Day Internationals since the last 50-over World Cup in 2019, no one else can touch the Indian opener.
The players who score at around the same pace as Gill do so while giving up their wicket much more frequently. The only other top-order batters to score at better than a run a ball over this period — Jonny Bairstow, Rohit Sharma and Quinton de Kock — have averaged around 20 fewer runs per dismissal than Gill.
And the only other players to score roughly as many runs per dismissal as him — Babar Azam’s average is slightly better at 67, and Temba Bavuma’s a bit worse at 60 — have done so at a markedly slower clip5.
Among those fast-scoring players I identified above6, Bairstow and Rohit are perhaps the pre-eminent top-order boundary hitters of the modern game — but don’t rotate the strike well on the deliveries they don’t hit for 4 or 6.
Meanwhile, a player like Babar Azam scores efficiently in 1s, 2s and 3s — but doesn’t hit the ball to the boundary as frequently.
Shubman Gill is special because he does both of these things extremely well — conforming nicely to the model he laid out in that ESPNCricinfo interview.
The chart below plots each top-order batter’s ‘non-boundary strike rate’ — the number of runs they score per 100 balls, excluding balls they hit for 4 and 6 — against their ‘effective boundary percentage’.
The latter is a concept borrowed from basketball. You can read this post for more detail on its application to cricket, but the key is that it gives more credit to batters for hitting 6s than 4s — in a way that the more traditional stat ‘boundary percentage’ doesn’t:
Boundary %: (Boundary 4s + Boundary 6s) / Balls Faced
Effective Boundary %: (Boundary 4s + 1.5 * Boundary 6s) / Balls Faced
No player with a higher effective boundary percentage than Gill over this period has a better non-boundary strike rate — and vice versa.
The ability to push the pace without sacrificing control that this is evidence of is probably sub-optimal in T20 cricket — but right in the sweet spot for the 50-over game.
To be fair to him, at just 24 he may yet evolve his approach in the shorter format; he only debuted for India in T20 Internationals this year, but the results so far have been promising.
We don’t even need him to tell us himself.
You can find the code for this piece on GitHub here
To be clear, I’m not saying here that it’s not true — it may well be! — but that I haven’t seen anyone verify it. If I’m wrong on this, please do let me know.
Weston’s major insight into T20 franchise competitions is — to paraphrase — that hitting more boundaries than your opponents is a key differentiator between winning and losing teams.
Specifically, he is in the 47th percentile of all players by ‘Additional Boundaries [Scored] Per Over’.
Quinton de Kock is essentially a slightly lesser version of the model followed by Gill, which I’ll explain.
When I ran some ‘runs per dismissal vs. expectation’ calculations — the theory for which is outlined here — for India’s men’s batters after the World Test Championship final earlier in the summer, Gill came out a couple of runs above expectation in his career to date; this would have excluded his below-par returns in the West Indies series in July.