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Titans turn all-round T20-winning machine with new batting approach

Gujarat Titans had a problem last season. It didn’t hurt them, because they went and won the IPL, but that didn’t mean the problem didn’t exist. In most of their games, they picked five genuine bowlers plus Hardik Pandya, but that forced them to compromise on their batting depth. It didn’t hurt them, because David Miller, Rahul Tewatia and Rashid Khan batted out of their skins, but it’s rare for Nos. 5, 6 and 7 to fire so consistently and in unison over the course of a season.

When IPL 2023 dawned, Titans found themselves free of the need for this compromise, thanks to the introduction of the Impact Player. They could now stack their bowling and their batting in every game.

But just as teams can struggle to get to grips with a problem, they can sometimes struggle to get to grips with its solution.

Over their first six games of this season, Titans’ batting suffered from a bit of a 2022 hangover. Out of necessity, their top order had batted with a degree of conservatism last season. The necessity was gone now, but the conservatism remained.

Before Tuesday’s game against Mumbai Indians, Titans had the third-worst scoring rate (7.61) of all teams in the middle overs (7th to 16th) this season, while maintaining the best average (35.15) through that phase.

If those numbers didn’t make it clear enough that their batters needed to take more chances through the middle overs, consider this: before Tuesday, Tewatia had faced only 19 balls in six games without being dismissed. Titans were wasting a key resource.

ESPNcricinfo analyst Tom Moody brought up the Tewatia issue during Tuesday’s game, on the show T20 Time:Out.

“To be honest with you, I think [Tewatia’s] role has changed slightly because of this Impact Player,” Moody said. “He’s gone one further down the rung on the batting order because everyone has that extra player now, so he’s probably thinking also, ‘I wish I had a few more overs to get out there and do my thing, because I’m feeling good about my game’, but he’s not getting the opportunity.”

For all that, Titans had won four of their six games, and their two defeats had come about because of improbable late hitting from Kolkata Knight Riders and Rajasthan Royals. They could easily have looked at their middle-overs issue through an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ lens.

But they didn’t. They responded to the defeat against Royals by leaving out Sai Sudharsan, a top-order anchor who had made two impressive half-centuries at the start of the season, and making room in their middle order for both Vijay Shankar and Abhinav Manohar – both more natural six-hitters than Sudharsan – rather than just one of them.

The change didn’t bring immediate results in a low-scoring game against Lucknow Super Giants, but it paid off on Tuesday, when Titans made their biggest total of the season (207 for 6) on their way to a thumping 55-run win.

It wasn’t the perfect batting display, but the imperfections were, in a way, a true reflection of Titans’ changed approach.

Their batters made a clear effort to go after Mumbai’s spinners through the middle overs, for instance, but this intent only seemed to backfire initially, as Hardik, Shubman Gill and Vijay picked out deep fielders while trying to hit sixes. By the time they had bowled six of their eight overs in the game, Piyush Chawla and Kumar Kartikeya had combined figures of 6-0-46-3.

But Titans didn’t stop looking for the big hits against the spinners. Miller hit Kartikeya for a straight six in the 14th over, and Abhinav stepped out to launch Chawla for another in the 15th. The Abhinav six was particularly noteworthy, because it came in an over where he’d already drilled Chawla for a pair of fours through the covers off wide half-volleys – those boundaries didn’t temper Abhinav’s desire to keep going after the legspinner.

Interviewed by the broadcaster between innings, Abhinav said Titans’ batters had gone out with a clear message.

“There was an effort to actually get more runs in the middle overs,” he said. “In our batsmen’s meeting, Hardik made it very clear that if we go after their main bowler, which was Piyush Chawla, then we can get more runs on the board and the rest of the bowlers will be under pressure. So that’s what we tried to do and it worked.”

It worked – almost too well, because Tewatia came out, once again, with barely any time left in the innings. But he proceeded to do what he does so well in these situations, facing just five balls and hitting three of them for six, including an audacious shuffle-sweep off Riley Meredith off the first ball he faced.

Tewatia would probably prefer to come in with a little more time left in the innings, but for now he’s making an impact no matter how late he enters.

“He’s good enough to do it, and there’s not many people that are good enough to go from ball one,” Moody said. “He’s good enough to do it, which is a unique skill.”

With Hardik, Abhinav, Vijay, Miller, Tewatia and Rashid lined up from Nos. 3 to 8, Titans should theoretically be able to bat with none of them needing to hold themselves back unless absolutely necessary. Sudharsan could still play a role too, particularly as an Impact Player in chases of small-to-middling targets.

It’s a batting group that promises both depth and versatility, which will worry other teams. For their first season-and-a-half in the IPL, Titans were mostly a gun bowling team that did just enough with the bat. At the halfway point of this season, they seem to be taking the next step towards becoming that elusive entity: an all-round T20-winning machine.

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