Pathirana vs. Thushara: so similar, yet so different

Matheesha Pathirana vs. Nuwan Thushara

When finding one slinger in a team is rare enough, Sri Lanka now enjoy the luxury of playing two slingers in Matheesha Pathirana and Nuwan Thushara in the same team. With two bowlers bowling with similar actions, a tendency among fans and some experts to see them as like-for-like can be seen. This article examines the veracity of this common view with the help of ball-tracking data.

The data used in this article was scraped from the official website of the Indian Premier League (IPL) and covers the 2022, 2023 and 2024 seasons. However, be warned that this data is neither exhaustive nor very accurate, but is nevertheless fit to provide a decent idea about each bowler. For better analysis involving more precise data, I would like to point you to the exemplary analytical content produced on Pathirana and Thushara by Sarvesh, Sai Krishna, and Rishikeshwaran.

To begin with, let’s start with an obvious differential factor between these two slingers—their pace. Unsurprisingly, Pathirana is the faster of the two bowlers. Thushara’s median pace was 130.63kmph in this year’s IPL, whereas Pathirana’s was 135.41kmph across his three seasons for Chennai Super Kings. However, Pathirana’s pace from season to season was consistently on the rise. In 2022, his median pace was 129.24kmph, which rose to 133.71kmph in 2023 before eventually reaching 143.47kmph in 2024.

Accordingly, as it stands now, Pathirana is around 13kmph faster than Thushara. Now, how did this impact their performance? To that end, let’s first see how well they operated during different phases of an innings. Subsequently, we shall see how the difference in their pace, the swing they got and their lengths impacted their outputs.

Before we begin, I should acknowledge that the sample size for some of the phases is small and hence, may not provide a very accurate picture. For instance, Thushara bowled only two overs in the second half of the powerplay and just one over between overs 7-11 in 2024, while Pathirana bowled all of 41 legal deliveries in 2022.

The phase-wise breakdown of performance shows that Thushara’s strength is in the first three overs, where he struck every 11 balls giving away only 7.91 runs an over. However, in the second half of the powerplay, his economy rate was 18.5 in 2 overs. At the death, he gave away 11.12 runs an over, slightly below the average of 11.27, while striking at 24. Consequently, in contrast to popular belief, he cannot be regarded as a death bowler, even though there is merit to bowling him at the death when left with no better choice as he fares as well as an average bowler. On the other hand, his economy rate during the middle overs was comparatively better even though he failed to strike.

In comparison, Pathirana’s numbers paint a contrasting image. He has never bowled during the powerplay so far in the IPL, but his economy rate of 8.28 and strike rate of 9.3 at the death in his three seasons make him a formidable death bowler. Just like his pace, his performance across seasons also saw a remarkable improvement. His economy rate between overs 7-11 and 12-16 dropped from 9 and 7.74 in 2023 to 7.33 and 6.86 in 2024. He also went from taking only one wicket between overs 7-16 in 2023 to striking every 9 balls between overs 7-11 and every 8.4 balls between overs 12-16 in 2024, turning himself into a middle-over enforcer in addition to being a death bowler.

In summary, Thushara’s strength lies in bowling with the new ball whereas Pathirana has shone during the middle overs and at the death. Now, how do we explain this difference? First, let’s look at the amount of swing they get during different phases to see if that can provide some explanation.

Thushara predominantly got the ball to swing away in the first three overs, producing an average swing of 1.28 degrees. He was particularly effective in the first over, swinging the ball 1.4 degrees, which was very close to the average swing of 1.5 degrees in the first over, and picking up 4 wickets while giving away just 7 runs per over.

However, his outswing disappeared after the first three overs as he could swing the ball away only by 0.29 degrees in the next three overs of the powerplay, which may explain why he was expensive during this phase. Nevertheless, during this phase, he started to get the ball to swing in at 1.09 degrees on average. All told, when the ball swung away by more than 0.5 degrees, Thushara gave away a meagre 0.88 runs per ball while striking every 8.25 balls. In contrast, when this outswing disappeared, he gave away 1.62 runs per ball while striking at 32. Consequently, it is important that he bowls 2 of his 4 overs in the first three overs of an innings.

At the same time, the amount of inswing he got continued to rise during the middle overs, averaging 1.16 degrees during overs 7-11 and 1.23 degrees between overs 12-16. However, this declined to 0.71 degrees at the death. If the inswing he got was due to reverse swing, then that doesn’t explain this decline at the death. However, given the small sample size of the data available, it is prudent not to draw any conclusions here.

On the other hand, Pathirana generated an outrageous amount of swing at the death in 2024 averaging 1.6 degrees, a sizable increase from 1.03 degrees in 2023. This increase could be due to the rise in his pace as we can observe a very strong positive correlation between his pace and the swing he got. This copious amount of swing he got explains why he was so effective at the death, but that doesn’t tell the full story.

His lengths at the death also played a major role in making him stand out. 46.23% of all balls he bowled at the death in his three seasons were attempted pace-on yorkers. In his first season, 50% of his balls at the death were attempted fast yorkers, whereas in 2023, it dipped to 35.71%. However, in 2024, a whopping 58.69% of his balls at the death were attempted fast yorkers.

At the same time, Pathirana’s accuracy with his yorkers was 36.55% in the three seasons. However, predictably, this saw a rise from 30.6% in 2023 to 40.4% in 2024, which was higher than the average accuracy of 39.4%. Despite his accuracy being around the average, he went only at 1.13 runs per attempted yorker while striking every 11.8 balls in 2024, while an average attempted yorker went at 1.63 runs per ball at the strike rate of 20.  

The reasons could be threefold. First, on average, he clocked 145 kmph with his attempted yorkers in 2024. Second, he swung his attempted yorkers by 1.68 degrees, which was higher than the average of 0.94. Finally, his attempted yorkers bounced an average of 22.4cm, lower than the average of 25.7cm, making getting under them difficult. His faster pace combined with the greater swing and lower bounce made his yorker-heavy strategy at the death more effective despite an on-par accuracy.

In complete contrast, Thushara attempted yorkers only 22.92% of the time at the death. He instead preferred to take pace off with 41.67% of his balls at the death being slower balls. Approximately half of those balls were bowled around the short and shorter than good lengths. Even though Thushara preferred to attempt yorkers less at the death, his yorker accuracy was 41.7%, which was better than Pathirana’s. However, the 0.78 degrees of swing he got with his attempted yorkers at the death and his average pace of 131kmph when attempting yorkers made him less effective than Pathirana. Nevertheless, he was far less expensive when he attempted to bowl a yorker at the death than with any other lengths. He gave away only 1.36 runs per attempted yorker at the death, which was significantly less than the average of 1.68. When attempting anything shorter than the slot length, he haemorrhaged runs at 1.59, which turned into a much worse 1.73 when bowling fast at the good or short of a good length, which constituted 22.91% of his balls at the death. His slightly-better-than-average yorker accuracy in consort with the lower-than-average bounce of 23cm made him a better-than-average yorker bowler, something he failed to maximize enough at the death.

Coming back to Pathirana, another skill upgrade that could be noticed in Pathirana’s evolution as a T20 bowler was his ability to bowl into the pitch. In 2023, he hardly attempted bouncers during the middle overs. However, in 2024, 6.45% of his balls between overs 7-11 and 3.23% of the balls between 12-16 were bouncers. He also bowled more pace-on good and short-of-a-good-length balls during the middle overs in 2024 compared to 2023. He hit these lengths 27.27% of the time between overs 7-11 and 34.21% of the time between overs 12-16. However, in 2024, the corresponding numbers during both phases went up to 38.71%. He also used his slower balls scarcely in 2024, preferring to put his pace gain to good use instead. Pushing batsmen back with fast into the pitch lengths may have also made his yorkers even more lethal in 2024, making him an enforcer during the middle overs, in addition to being a merchant of death.

As you may have already noticed, a recurrent theme that could be observed while perusing Pathirana’s numbers is his staggering improvement across seasons. Now, what changes did he make to his bowling to facilitate this massive progress? A significant change that can be identified in the available data is in his release points.

An average right-arm pace bowler from over the wicket released from a height of 197cm and 62cm away from the middle stump in the three seasons. Pathirana released from a height of 155cm and 5cm away from the middle stump. This is both lower and closer than Thushara’s release points of 158cm and 15cm. However, over the seasons, we could see Pathirana’s release point getting higher and higher. In 2022, he released from 152cm, which rose to 155cm in 2023 and 157cm in 2024.

One can also observe subtle changes in his release points when bowling different lengths. He released from higher and closer to the stumps when bowling fuller in 2024, and lower and farther from the stumps when bowling shorter. Consequently, there is a case for arguing that his release points may have gone higher due to him bowling more fuller lengths. However, the fact that his release points got higher across all lengths from season to season shows that this argument doesn’t hold water.

So, what else could be the reason? A possible hypothesis is that it could be to get more bounce. In fact, the amount of bounce he got increased from 2023 to 2024. For instance, when bowling the good length, Pathirana got the ball to bounce 53cm on average in 2023. This increased to 55cm in 2024. For short lengths, it went from 94cm to 100cm. One could observe a corresponding increase in the release height from 154cm to 156cm for good lengths, even though the release height remained at 155cm for short lengths across the two seasons. However, the correlation between release height and bounce was weak with a correlation coefficient of 0.1 for good lengths and 0.22 for short lengths, falsifying this hypothesis.

Besides, in Pathirana’s case, there does not exist a strong correlation between his release heights and the lengths he bowled either. In 2024, the correlation coefficient was -0.19, a slight decline from -0.23 in 2023. This shows that even though there was a slight variation in the average release height for different lengths, there wasn’t a strong relationship between the two. This weaker correlation actually makes Pathirana’s variation of lengths difficult to read.

However, this is not the case for all fast bowlers. Thushara, for instance, had a stronger correlation between his release heights and lengths of -0.5. Of all IPL fast bowlers with a big enough sample size, Kamlesh Nagarkoti had the strongest correlation of -0.9. In 2024, Pathirana had a correlation of -0.19, which was better than Bumrah’s -0.3, making him the third-best in the league.

Now, back to the original question. So, the bounce doesn’t explain why his release point got higher. Then, how did he get more bounce? The release angle had a stronger correlation of 0.95 with the bounce in Pathirana’s case, which was also the case with most fast bowlers. So, the greater the release angle, the greater the bounce generated. Now, how do you increase the release angle? One way is to delay the release, lowering the release height. However, we have already seen that the release height didn’t correspond to the bounce. Accordingly, the only other way I can think of to increase the release angle is to use the wrist.

Pathirana could be learning to use his wrist more and more. This may explain why his release point got higher because it may be difficult to cock the wrist when the arm is lower, necessitating the arm to rise a bit higher. The use of the wrist may have mostly been to get the ball to swing more, and he indeed swung the ball more in 2024 than he did in 2023. Closer release heights when bowling different lengths may have been an unintended, yet desirable, side effect of this change. Although there seems to be a concerted effort from him to swing the ball, there is less likelihood of him generating outswing like Malinga or Thushara with the new ball given the pace he bowls at, as a bowler who bowls in excess of 90mph is only going to produce reverse swing even with the new ball.

In conclusion, even though both Thushara and Pathirana bowl with similar actions, Thushara’s strength lies with the new ball, whereas Pathirana’s strength is during the middle overs and at the death. Thushara can be deployed at the death when there are no better options and he can become better at the death by attempting more yorkers. Pathirana, on the other hand, has made huge strides across seasons, improving on his pace, swing and the variation of lengths. He also seems to be working on using his wrist more, allowing him to generate more swing while making it difficult to pick his variation of lengths.