How do you stop Andre Russell? That's the most intriguing question that this edition IPL has thrown up. Even the cynics of T20 would be piqued. Rarely has world cricket seen such a destructive batsman who has turned the art of unadulterated hitting into a scientific art. The question for Tuesday morning can be phrased thus: Can Chennai Super Kings leg-spinner Imran Tahir stop Russell, who is reputed to be a touch iffy against quality leg-break?
That "iffy" comes with a rider though: it's not as if he has grave issues. Since 2015 he has scored 101 runs off 79 balls from leg-spinners and has been dismissed just four times. Since 2018, he has scored less against leg spin – 8.56 runs per over as opposed to 12.23 against other bowlers. He has created such chaos in opposition ranks that all the tactical heads are clutching the straws. The plan is to squeeze in pressure through choking up run-flow (if nearly 9 runs per over can be called that) through legspin, and work on his ego.
But Tuesday presents his severest test yet: a wearing track that does help turn and Tahir fizzing with his googlies. Even though he is yet to be dismissed by a spinner this season, he doesn’t really relish facing the slow bowlers. Last year he had said, "Against the spinners, I just look to survive and then against the seamers, I am looking to maximise because it’s a lot easier."
It would be interesting to see what will be Tahir’s plan. It won't be just the googlies though for if there is one thing that Russell is yet to show are the inside-out square drive over point. That's why the wide fast yorker is considered a good ball against him by the seamers as he has the tendency to plant his back foot and wait. At times he hasn't reached the ball. Would a leg-spinner try a similar trick?
Tahir has done that in the past. Rewind to 2017 season to a game against Bangalore when Tahir was playing for the Pune team. He had kept bowling googlies and leaking runs to AB de Villiers when a word came out from the dug out. "Why are you bowling only googlies to AB? Bowl that loopy legbreak around off and middle!".
He switched to that loopy legbreak and de Villiers was beaten, trying to work it to the onside, and was stumped by MS Dhoni. It's something worth looking out for in the game today: how Tahir mixes his googlies with legbreaks and the lines he bowls.
Dhoni generally prefers to operate Tahir in the middle overs, a period of play when Russell tends to make his presence felt in the match.
Slow starts, blazing crescendo
Another interesting thing about Russell is the way he starts his innings. He takes about half-a-dozen balls to warm up even as he furiously contorts his body while at non-striker in an effort to get all his aggressive muscles working into a gear. To call it sedate seems laughable but in the context of how he violently he ends up, it is a circumspective start. In this period, he usually plays and misses on a few occasions and shows absolutely no inkling of his underlying imperiousness.
Same was the case against the Delhi Capitals at the Feroz Shah Kotla ten nights ago. Enroute his 28-ball 62, he began with a single from his first four deliveries. On an average, Russell gets a boundary in every two deliveries that he faces in IPL-12. He is at his best in the death overs - acing arduous chases with ridiculous ease. Sample this: He has scored 170 runs from 54 deliveries in the death overs of IPL 2019, at an even stunning strike-rate of 314.81, smoking 11 fours and 18 sixes in the process. Russell’s intimidatory approach to batting, especially during chases, is reminiscent to Lance Klusener for South Africa in the late 1990s.
It's not that only spin can stop Russell. As we saw when Kagiso Rabada, the best fast bowler this IPL, crash his stumps with a perfect yorker. Not everyone can produce that ball though. Especially with the way the likes of Russell create their own length by their positioning in the crease. What has been astonishing that for a such a free-flowing swinger of the bat, he rarely ever gets tricked by a slower one. It seems as if he is always let the bat fly through the downward swing but somehow retains enough control to adjust to the changes of pace.
The beauty about his batting is that he does not really premeditate and has an incredibly wide arc, which in essence minimises margin of error for bowlers. He trusts his instincts and is even willing to play out a few dot balls before going for the onslaught. In that sense, he does not rely on the cute ramp and paddle shots - which are the go-to shots for most players in this format.
If Tahir needs inspiration ahead of this crunch duel, he needs to look no further than Sunday’s late-night match featuring Rajasthan Royals and KKR. That match was supposed to have been a toss-up between Kuldeep Yadav and the rampant Jos Buttler. However, it was Piyush Chawla who stole the show, keeping Buttler under check, who managed to score just seven runs off 11 deliveries against the leg-spinner.
What worked for Chawla were his well-pitched up googlies, which cramped the Englishman for room and blunted his aggression. Like Chawla, Tahir, too, possesses an effective googly in his armoury, one that skids off the surface and turns in sharply to the right-hander. If used intelligently, it could well turn out to be the tool that can stop Russell.