Pathum Nissanka is scoring runs, but should he be in the T20I team?

Sri Lanka Batter Pathum Nissanka
Courtesy: AP Photo

Surely, you must be kidding, right? How can you not pick someone who has scored 562 runs in 19 innings at an average of 29.57 in T20Is? Someone who has scored two fifties in his last two series? Someone, to top everything off, is now among the top ten T20I batters in the world? Definitely, this must be a lame attempt at putting one over on me, I know.

I can hear your think.

But let’s take a look at his strike rate of 116.83. Now, the strike rate is divisive, I know. For some, it is the holy grail of T20s by which they judge all T20 batsmen. For others, it is overrated. This group also includes some elite batsmen. Those who think Nissanka should be a permanent fixture in T20Is can be found on both sides of this divide. The strike-rate obsessed would point to the fact that he is young and insist that he will improve. The strike-rate agnostics would allude to his role as an anchor and emphasize the importance of an anchor in T20s.

First, let’s see if an anchor is indeed needed in a T20 team. If, as believed by a certain section of the cricket community, the strike rate is given undue importance, then every batsman in a team can just forgo risks, batten down the hatches, and try to accumulate runs in the safest possible ways. We know where this will lead to. Fewer wickets lost and, of course, fewer runs scored.

In the shorter formats, batting teams get two resources—wickets and balls. Preserving one resource at the cost of another is counterproductive. Consequently, teams should find the right balance between maximizing wickets and maximizing balls. The shorter the format gets, the more the balance should be tilted in favor of maximizing balls. So, obviously, in T20s, maximizing the balls you get should take precedence. This, in turn, means, yes, the strike rate becomes very important in T20s.

Still, you could argue that one batsman, called the anchor, should bat through the innings while others try to score fast around him. Often, I hear people say that if not for the anchor, the team wouldn’t have even scored as much as they did, albeit the score being below par. Such arguments are flawed because they lack a control.

When a batsman is going to bat through most parts of an innings without taking too many risks, they are naturally going to score the bulk of the runs. Unless we have other batsmen facing the same number of balls during similar phases, we will not know how well an anchor has fared. Besides, one batsman holding one end up would force batsmen at the other end to take undue risks to offset the slow scoring and that would result in batsmen losing their wickets. Losing wickets would not only force the anchor to slow down further but will also vindicate his approach in the first place. It becomes a dangerous feedback loop.

In addition, good bowling teams will also backload their best bowlers so that they can be bowled to batsmen who would be looking to be aggressive. Teams that play an anchor often look to lay a platform to go hard at the end. So, teams can bowl out their weaker bowlers early and have their best bowlers bowl towards the end, making fast scoring towards the end all the more difficult. So, despite the strong platform, batting teams would end up with a subpar score.

An anchor can also expose their batting partners to negative matchups. In T20s, teams look to complement one batsman with another who can counter their weakness to sustain the scoring momentum. A good example of this is the opening partnership of Chennai Super Kings in the last IPL season. Faf du Plessis, who is a pace power hitter, was partnered with Ruturaj Gaikwad, who is a spin power hitter. Faf countered Ruturaj’s weakness against pace while Ruturaj shielded Faf from spinners. However, if you are going to have one batsman who can’t score faster on one end, then the other batsman is going to be coerced into even taking their negative matchups on. For instance, if Charith Asalanka and Pathum Nissanka are going to bat together, Asalanka could be forced to attack an off-spinner since Nissanka is going to just plod along. So, you risk losing wickets and at the same time miss out on scoring opportunities.

Moreover, a team cannot afford to have slow starters in the team if there is a dedicated anchor. Most batsmen, even those with an attacking bent, love to take a few balls to get the measure of the pitch. So, if a wicket falls, then that means the momentum of an innings is going to be stalled for neither of the two batsmen would be looking to take risks for a few overs. This means that you can’t have slow starters and need fast starters batting around an anchor. But fast starters are a rarity in cricket.

Playing an anchor also means that you are not going to maximize fielding restriction during the powerplay since anchors usually bat up the order. Furthermore, anchors are not going to make up for their slow starts if they get bogged down early on either.

Finally, there are versatile batsmen who can drop anchor if the situation demands it. A very good example of this is the way Kusal Mendis batted in the fifth T20I in the recent T20I series in Australia and Charith Asalanka’s innings in the first T20I against India. Neither of these two is in the team to anchor innings but they could do so when the need arose. So, why do you need a dedicated anchor in a team?

Accordingly, the role of an anchor is redundant in T20s. If Nissanka is in the team to anchor innings, then this also makes Nissanka’s place in the side redundant. However, is there any merit to the argument made by the other school of fans—that is Nissanka is someone who will improve in the future?

I agree that we need to be patient with young batsmen, especially those who are from Sri Lanka. But before we invest in a player, we should make sure we are investing in the right player. So, what is that that makes Nissanka worth an investment?

For starters, Nissanka lacks power. His low strike rate and the fact that he has managed only 23 sixes in 46 T20 innings should vouch for this. His reliance on dabs and scoops to find boundaries should further prove this. Given his diminutive build, he is less likely to improve on this in the future either.

So, if not for power, does he have a very good range? Well, he is deficient in that aspect as well. He has a limited off-side game and that can be seen in his strike rate of 96.9 and dot-ball percentage of 47.1 during the powerplay. Usually, teams push their less powerful batsmen up the order to bat during the powerplay so as to allow them to score freely.  The fact that Nissanka even struggles to score during the powerplay clearly manifests his lack of range.

On top of that, whenever Nissanka gets bogged down, he can be seen either charging down the pitch or moving outside leg to generate room on the offside. An attacking batsman doing this is completely understandable. But when a batsman who is ostensibly tasked with batting through does this, it shows that his orthodox stroke making has serious limitations.

This should explain his anomalously low strike of 116.83, which is low even for an anchor. Babar Azam and Mohammed Rizwan, who play similar roles for Pakistan, strike at around 129 for instance. Kane Williamson strikes at 124 and Steve Smith at 125. Nissanka’s rate of scoring is below par even by the standards of his putative role in the team.

Can Nissanka at least negotiate tough conditions? He struggles against swing as his trials against Josh Little, Mohammed Siraj, and Avesh Khan would tell you. He struggled to counter the seam movement generated by Josh Hazelwood in Australia as well. In addition, he struggled in the LPL on the sluggish surfaces in Colombo, averaging 11.2 at a strike rate of 88.9 in five matches, which eventually saw him out of the playing eleven.

However, unlike it is the case with power hitting, we can reasonably expect him to improve his range and his ability to score in tougher conditions. After all, we are only talking about a 23-year-old batsman from a dysfunctional cricket system. So, he deserves a few years of patience.

But why should he be the chosen one? As we have seen, he has neither the power nor the range. Aren’t there better T20 batters in the system who could be expected to provide better results with time?

There is more merit in investing in an attacking batsman and expecting him to score consistently in the future than investing in a run grafter and hoping he would start to score quickly in the future. Batsmen like Ashan Randika and Lahiru Samarakoon have a lot of power. If you want range, then Nuwanidu Fernando and Lasith Croospulle have already demonstrated their better range at the domestic level. If at all, such batsmen would be better investments in T20Is than Nissanka.

What Nissanka does with the T20I team is the easiest job any batsman can ask for. Any half-decent batsman should be able to consistently rack up good scores if they are allowed to open the batting on truer wickets and are given the luxury of eliminating risks altogether from their game. That being so, what he has done so far in T20Is is nothing to drool over.

Having said that, Pathum Nissanka is an excellent longer format player and his temperament and style of play suit this format perfectly. However, the role of an anchor that some expect him to play in T20Is has become redundant, and he doesn’t really have the basic ingredients to be a worthy investment in T20Is either.

It is time Sri Lanka understand that you don’t and can’t turn all good players into all-format superstars. There is no harm in picking horses for courses and allowing players to concentrate on the formats that better suit their skillset. Nissanka is tailor-made for Tests. Let him thrive in Tests and relieve him from T20Is.