Opening batsmen are the glamour players of T20 cricket. They score the most runs, at the fastest rate, and spend the most time in the middle. Who could forget Brendon McCullum opening the batting for Kolkata in the very first match of the inaugural 2008 season and immediately blasting 158 from just 73 deliveries?
9 of the top 10 scores in T20 cricket have been posted by opening batsman. David Warner has often single handedly dragged Sunrisers Hyderabad to victories in the last two IPL seasons as an opening batsman. The average match will feature an opening batsman spending the most time at the crease and their performances stick most in the minds of fans
In contrast, the middle order batsman are often tasked with the dirty work: maximising their teams chances of winning from the situation they inherit when they come into the game. They must be versatile and their role could be wildly different from game to game
In another Knight Riders match, number six Laxmi Shukla scored an seemingly uninspired 48 from 46 balls. Those 48 runs were invaluable. He had arrived at the crease with his team 30-4 and chasing a target of just 102. Nobody was scoring on this Durban pitch but Shukla did just enough to lead his team to victory
And then at the other end of the spectrum, we have Jos Buttler decimating South Africa's bowling in the final over of the first innings. As a middle order batsman arriving at the end of the innings, his role was to simply score as many runs as possible in limited time. His 32 runs pushed the total beyond reach and England won the game
Recently promoted to opening for the Mumbai Indians, Jos Buttler is in a position to compare the different responsibilities of opening in contrast to playing further down the order. In an interview with SkySports, he neatly summarised the difference between his old role and his new.
"I've enjoyed that freedom to go out and play without a scenario in front of me. Setting the tone is different but you can bring your intensity and try to set up the innings"
So which is more difficult? Where in the order do the best players ply their trade?
It is true that opening batsman score at higher run rates regardless of over but Buttler provides some insight into why that might not necessarily be the end of the argument....
I use a metric called Runs Added to compare batting performances up and down the order. It is calculated by comparing the strike rate of a batsman to historical averages for a particular match situation. The metric also accounts for the impact of wickets by looking historically at how losing a wicket affects the run rate
The chart shows the average strike rate during the first innings of a match, depending on the over and the batsman. For the sake of simplicity, I am only considering the first innings; situational factors get even more complex in the chase and I will leave that for another time
The strike rate, unsurprisingly, is highest when one of the opening batsmen is at the crease and it decreases the lower down the order we go. These averages are roughly what each batsman is compared to when calculating Runs Added. But there is a problem with this approach. Openers are compared against openers and tailenders and compared against tailenders (this isn't 100% true as 'match situation' is determined by the number of wickets fallen rather than batting position but the point remains valid)
But the average opener is a better batsman that the average tailender, right?
So a batsman who plays at the top of the order is at a disadvantage when it comes to Runs Added. He is being compared to more skilled benchmark players
This thought process is equally valid when comparing opening batsmen to the middle order. Which batting position produces the benchmark that is hardest to beat?
Answering the benchmark question
We can look at players who have batted at multiple positions in the batting order and see how they fared at each position. Virat Kohli has batted at a number of different positions during his T20 career. He usually bats at #3 but also has plenty of experience opening the batting. He has batted further down the order a few times as well
Kohli's statistics are fairly similar whether he plays at #3 or opens the batting. He has a strike rate of about 140 and his innings tend to last about 27-28 balls. At #6, on the other hand, he scored much faster but lasted fewer balls. We can compare his performances at each position by evaluating them against the appropriate benchmark
I identified 141 other players who have batted at different positions in the batting order during Internationals, IPL, PSL, or BBL matches. They also batted enough times at each position to make a fairly robust comparison
The chart below shows how easy it is to outscore different benchmarks for players who have switched between positions in different matches. If batting position 'A' is generally harder to out-perform than position 'B' then we can conclude that the players who tend to play at position 'A' are more skilled than those at position 'B'
In summary, for the players who moved up and down the order, they found it easier to outscore average opener than average middle order batsmen
Wickets may be over-valued in T20 but it would be wrong to assume that they have no value. In order to account for a batsman's ability to protect his wicket, I introduced a 6 run penalty for lost wickets throughout the analysis. This is based on the fact that, all else being equal, a team with one less wicket is likely to score 6 runs fewer as their final total. This obviously changes depending on the context of the match but, as we are trying to remove the complication that batting position is inextricably linked to match situation, it was better to apply a flat average for all wickets lost
Little difference among the top six
The headline is that the best batsmen tend to play a few places down the order rather than as an opener. Ultimately, the differences are very small. Synthesising the information in chart above suggests that average #4 or #5 scores roughly 0.06 runs per ball quicker than an opener. This amounts to 7.2 runs over the course of an entire innings
More important to consider are the different strengths of individual batsmen. Some have the explosiveness to capitalise of fielding restrictions during the Powerplay overs. Some have the mental strength to play the perfect innings under pressure. Some have the versatility to play equally well at multiple positions in the batting order
The more salient insight is that the average performance declines rapidly once we get past the number 6. If an opener was playing in the place of the number 11 then they should score faster by a full run per ball
Using Runs Added to quantify the value of batting performances, tailenders are given far too much credit. They are being benchmarked against other bowlers - a much lower standard than for those up the order