What is plaguing Hasaranga’s T20 bowling?

Courtesy: BCCI

It is not an exaggeration to say that Wanindu Hasaranga is Sri Lanka’s best white-ball spinner since the retirement of Muthiah Muralidaran. Even though not a big spinner of the ball, his impeccable accuracy and well-disguised googly make him one of the most potent spinners in white-ball cricket at present. However, he has so far not been able to remain a consistent threat across the world, with his lackluster performance in the last season of the IPL being a prime example.

There are times when Hasaranga stupefies all and sundry with his brilliance. However, there are also times when he not only looks toothless but also hemorrhages runs. His strike rate of 13.6 and economy rate of 1.14 runs per ball in T20Is vouches for his brilliance. He is also the best spinner in the LPL with 57 wickets at a strike rate of 15.16 and an economy rate of 1. Nevertheless, his inconsistency is exemplified by his underwhelming performance against top teams in Australia, India, and New Zealand where he goes at 1.49, 1.36, and 1.41 runs per ball.

Hasaranga’s record in the IPL follows the same pattern as well. Even though his strike rate of 15.7 makes him the most penetrative bowler in the IPL, his economy rate of 1.34 makes him more expensive than an average spinner. His performance has been mercurial across the three seasons he has played, going for 1.67 runs per ball without picking a wicket in his debut season, making a roaring comeback in his second by prising 26 wickets at 1.24 and finally relapsing in his third leaking runs at 1.47 and dismissing batsmen only every 19.33 balls.

Accordingly, we can see that he has lacked consistency. Even when he has managed to be amongst the wickets, he has not been able to stanch the flow of runs. What is holding him back from being consistently good? We are going to study his pitch map to try to find an answer. But before analyzing his pitch map, we need a benchmark to analyze his performance against. Since the nature of pitches and quality of opposition differ from one franchise league to another and across international T20 matches, I decided to use data from IPL matches since 2015 to find the best spinner to compare Hasaranga against. IPL is arguably the best league in the world with the best players taking part and matches being generally played on good batting wickets. Hence, I believe IPL provides a level playing field to compare different spinners.

That being so, let’s look at the economy rate and strike rate of spinners who have bowled at least 500 balls since 2015 in the IPL. An ideal spinner should have a lower economy and strike rate, and would be found in the bottom-left quadrant of the graph. Accordingly, and not surprisingly, Rashid Khan stands apart from the rest, striking more frequently and giving away fewer runs per ball than an average spinner. Hasaranga, on the other hand, has the best strike rate for a spinner in the IPL but gives away more runs than average.

On that account, we are going to use Rashid Khan as the benchmark to analyze Hasaranga’s pitch map. The pitch maps are manually marked and were obtained from a database created by scraping ESPNCricinfo. Credit should be given to @qatil_kabutar for this monumental effort and for making this data publicly available.

Hasaranga vs. Rashid Khan
Pitch maps of Wanindu Hasaranga and Rashid Khan.

Looking at the lengths bowled by Rashid and Hasaranga across their careers, there doesn’t seem to be a significant difference. 23.43% of Hasaranga’s balls have pitched on a full length, 60% on a good length, and 14.24% short of a good length. In comparison, Rashid has bowled 21.83% of his balls on a full length, 58.84% on a good length, and 16.43% short of a good length. As we can see, even though Hasaranga has been fuller and Rashid shorter, the difference is not stark.

However, what is stark is the difference in outcomes. Hasaranga’s fuller lengths have gone at 1.44 runs per ball whereas Rashid has given away only 1.28 runs per ball. The short of a good length has seen Hasaranga go at 1.27 and Rashid at 1.12. In contrast, there is relative parity between the two as far as the good length is concerned as Hasaranga has given away 0.95 runs per ball while Rashid has gone for 0.9. Now, why have Hasaranga’s full lengths and short of a good lengths cost him more runs?  Could it be due to his lines?

44.43% of Hasaranga’s full lengths have been on the stumps, while 47.39% and 5.58% have been outside the off stump and down leg respectively. In comparison, 41.22% of Rashid’s full lengths have been on the stumps, whereas 49.71% and 4.73 % have been outside the off stump and down leg. As can be seen, there doesn’t seem to be a significant difference in the distribution of lines as far as full-length balls are concerned. Hasaranga has also been more expensive than Rashid with all of his lines save for the balls outside the off stump.

When you consider balls short of a good length, Hasaranga has bowled more balls outside the off stump than Rashid. He has bowled this line 58.74% of the time while Rashid has employed this line only 48.15% of the time. Rashid has preferred to bowl more on the stumps than Hasaranga with 46.34% of his balls pitching on the stumps in contrast to Hasaranga’s 31.23%. So, does this explain why Hasaranga’s short of a good lengths have been more expensive? Well, no, as he has been more expensive on the stumps than Rashid.

Consequently, differences in lines cannot be the answer for why Hasaranga’s full lengths and short of a good lengths have been more expensive. So, how else can this be explained? Empirically, Hasaranga bowls slower than Rashid. Balls bowled slower and fuller are more likely to be tossed up and hence, easier to hit. On the other hand, short-of-a-good-length balls sit up nicely to be hit when bowled slower. Therefore, the difference in pace might provide a reasonable explanation even though it is difficult to confirm it without data on the pace of each ball bowled.

Interestingly, in the IPL, Hasaranga was more economical with his short of a good lengths in the first two seasons. However, his economy rate for this length went up to 2.17 in 2023 from just 0.94 in 2022 and 1.14 in 2021. Even though the percentage of full-length balls Hasaranga bowled steadily declined across the three seasons, the short of a good lengths he bowled declined from 19.44% in 2021 to 10.53% in 2022, before spiking to 20.12% in 2023. The higher percentage of short-of-a-good-length balls he bowled in 2023 combined with the high economy rate of this length played a major role in his struggle in that season.

Even though Hasaranga bowled his short of a good lengths significantly more on the stumps in 2023 than in 2022, he was nevertheless more expensive across all lines in 2023. Batsmen preferred to pull him from this length as 60% of the balls on the stumps and 42.86% of the balls outside the off stump were pulled in 2023. In contrast, in 2022, only 40% of the balls on the stumps and 8.33% of the balls outside the off stump were pulled.  

It is not easy to explain this observation. The change of venues may have played a part as the league stage was entirely played in Maharashtra in 2022.  Hasaranga may have also bowled slower in 2023 than he did in 2022. Or else, he may have bowled more googlies short of a good length in 2023 than in 2022, allowing right-handed batsmen to pull him with the spin. It is also possible that Hasaranga’s short-of-a-good-length balls in 2023 were shorter than they were in 2022. The fact that Rashid Khan also gave away 1.7 runs per ball bowling short of a good length in 2023 may point to external factors. It is difficult to test any of these hypotheses without data on pace, variations, and trajectory.

However, despite going for runs with his full lengths, why does Hasaranga persist with them? Perhaps, it could be due to the age-old belief that tossed-up balls bring you wickets. However, his strike rate of 12.47 bowling the good length is way better than his strike rate of 17.94 bowling the full length, contravening the conventional belief. Even though in the IPL he has struck every 14.6 balls with the full length in contrast to 15.9 with the good length, he has given away 1.92 runs per full-length ball while his good-length balls have gone for only 1.03 runs per ball. Consequently, the good length has provided him with a better risk-to-reward ratio. Nonetheless, unless one takes a look at the data, they are more likely to persist with conventional beliefs.

The fact that Hasaranga has not paid a huge price bowling full or short of a good length playing in Sri Lanka may also be a reason for his persistence with these lengths. In Sri Lanka, his full lengths have gone at 1.16 while his short of a good lengths have gone at 1.06, a far cry from his overall numbers. This could be due to both the bigger grounds he generally plays in Sri Lanka and the poor quality of batsmen in the LPL, as evidenced by the fact that he has been more economical with these lengths in the LPL than in T20Is in Sri Lanka. In the LPL, his full lengths and short of a good lengths have gone at 1.11 and 0.96 whereas the respective numbers for T20Is in Sri Lanka are 1.29 and 1.44.

This method which he then takes with him outside Sri Lanka has been a major reason for his undoing. Hasaranga gives away 1.63 runs bowling full and 1.38 runs bowling short of a good length away from home. These lengths have got him punished severely, particularly in Australia, India, New Zealand, and the UAE.

In conclusion, to become more consistent, Hasaranga needs to realize what has not cost him much in Sri Lanka or against weaker opposition does so dearly when he plays outside of Sri Lanka or faces stronger opposition. Even though Hasaranga’s lengths are more or less similar to Rashid’s, the difference in pace may explain why he fares worse. However, one should be wary of drawing such a conclusion without data on pace. If the slower pace is indeed the reason, then either Hasaranga should increase his pace or should simply stick to the good length that has held him in good stead so far.