Recruitment in T20 Franchises - The Real Reason for Failure?

5th May, 2019

As the group stage of the 2019 edition of the IPL draws to a conclusion, several teams are already knocked out of contention for qualifying, including serial strugglers Kings XI Punjab and Royal Challengers Bangalore. Along with Lahore Qalanders in the PSL, these are three of the franchises in domestic T20 that have had a greater propensity to struggle than most.

However, recent quotes attributed to key men at the franchises come up with rather differing answers to their difficulties:-

R Ashwin (Kings XI) - "We definitely put our best team we could in the park". "We've lost most games on Powerplay battles". "When you have your overseas bowlers, you definitely bank on them". "We picked up a few people [at the auction] and they've got injured".

Gary Kirsten (RCB) - "There are some structural changes that need to be made". "While there might be some structural change next year, I'm hopeful and confident we'll have some continuity in our players".

Fawad Rana (Lahore Qalanders) - "This time the players will also be held accountable because we are tired of losing".

Despite the various explanations given for the failure of the franchises, there was one common denominator. Or rather a lack of one discussed - recruitment. It is absolutely fascinating that not a single one of the trio, who all gave rather forthright quotes, discussed poor recruitment as a reason for their failures.

Although Kings XI captain Ashwin was rather blunt in his interview, perhaps he could be forgiven for not mentioning recruitment himself, given that it could possibly reflect badly on his bosses at the franchise, but it's interesting that Kirsten (head coach) and Rana (owner) did not mention it at all.

In fact, it was rather easy to foresee the issues for all three teams. In the data packs that I create for each major T20 tournament, I analyse each squad and discuss their potential for success. Here were my thoughts on each franchises squad in advance of the tournaments this year:-

Kings XI:-

Pre-tournament analysis from IPL data pack:-

"New coach Mike Hesson has picked a curious looking squad for IPL 2019, and it’s not a huge surprise to see that they are unfancied by the betting markets.

However, they do have the potential for individual brilliance, with Chris Gayle, KL Rahul and David Miller capable of destroying bowling attacks, while AJ Tye, Mujeeb and Ankit Rajpoot form the core as strong bowlers.

However, the remainder of the squad looks largely questionable, and the question is, where do we start?

The batting options don’t look horrendous, with Mandeep Singh a potential asset, and Mayank Agarwal likely to positively mean-revert after disappointing IPL tournaments - his SMA trophy data shows he has obvious ability - while Karun Nair is another viable option as well. Nicholas Pooran also adds value as a batsman, but takes up an overseas spot as wicket-keeper, when KL Rahul can negate this requirement by doing a job behind the stumps as a domestic player. Young keeper Prabhsimran Singh looks a real boundary-hitting finisher (from a small sample of data) and might even be a viable pinch-hitter if given a chance.

All-rounders is where I am less enthused about Kings XI’s recruitment - Moises Henriques is simply a batsman who bowls a bit, while Sam Curran’s T20 data is pretty mediocre. I’m sure the franchise are gambling on him reproducing his red-ball form from last summer, and for me, that’s a huge gamble. The mystery spinner Varun Chakravarthy can bat a bit too, but I’d guard against expecting too much from him with the ball. He certainly should keep things pretty tight from an economy point of view, but I’m not sure how much of a wicket-taking threat he’ll be. It’s important to bear in mind that there’s a huge gap between the TNPL and the IPL and it’s the equivalent of a Premier League team buying a League One striker and then hoping he’ll be able to reproduce his League One goalscoring in a much tougher environment. He might do it, but I’d be surprised if he was one of the stars of this year’s tournament.

Other bowling options are covered by captain R Ashwin, the aforementioned trio of Rajpoot, Tye and Mujeeb, and bench strength with the ball could be a considerable problem. Mohammed Shami is in the Ishant Sharma mould - very poor historical T20 data, and it will be interesting to see if he can turn this around in IPL 2019. I also feel that recency bias played a decent part in Hardus Viljoen’s signing, and I feel that the franchise could have done better than the South African. A 5th/6th bowler for Kings XI could be where they’ll struggle."

Post-tournament analysis:-

Eventually, the problems that beset Kings XI in the tournament were largely predicted by my pre-tournament analysis.  

They had huge issues with their bowling attack and their 5th/6th bowlers in particular (they often went in with just five bowlers, which created further problems) and chopped and changed their team on a regular basis in an attempt to find a 'winning formula'.  I much prefer the continuity model adopted by MS Dhoni at Chennai Super Kings, and there is statistical evidence that successful teams make less changes and use fewer players, on average.  While there is a reasonable argument that part of this statistical evidence is weighted towards dropping players who perform poorly during the tournament, it's also worth noting that most 'fringe' players used in the IPL were not selected in the opening teams for the first few matches of the season, and overall, fringe players performed very poorly during the tournament - as I detailed here and here, several days ago on Twitter.

Kings XI all-rounder recruitment was another predictable issue, with Curran's performances a mixed bag, particularly with the ball - not ideal for a 7.2 crore purchase - while Varun Chakravarthy (8.4 crore) played just one match.  Yes, he was injured during the tournament, but he was not a regular starter before this injury.  Spending so much money (over 40x base price) on an unproven player with a small sample size of data effectively being promoted two divisions in a cricketing sense was a real gamble although for some reason, some IPL franchises are very keen on making such acquisitions, in an attempt to unearth the next superstar.  I have considerable doubts that many franchises understand the difference in standard between the IPL and other domestic tournaments in India.

Royal Challengers Bangalore:-

Pre-tournament analysis from IPL data pack:-

"Perenially top-heavy, with huge reliance on De Villiers and Kohli, you’d think that the RCB think-tank would have addressed such issues. Instead, they still lack batting back-up, and have doubled down with the addition of the talented but raw Shimron Hetmyer, and the bizarre addition of Marcus Stoinis. Rather like [Ben] Stokes, Stoinis is neither an above-average batsman or bowler, and given that he’s a virtual certainty for the Australia squad for the World Cup, won’t be available for much of the competition as well.

RCB, though, do have a ton of all-rounders and some are quite capable of contributing. Spin all-rounder Washington Sundar, I feel, was misused last year and I’d be interested to see if he could do a job as a pinch-hitter rather than a finisher, particularly given that the likes of Moeen Ali, Colin de Grandhomme, Parthiv Patel and Shivam Dube look better suited to that role.

They bat quite low down, but not necessarily with above-average quality, and they’ll need to guard against the batting collapses that have sometimes beset them in recent years.

Bowling-wise, I’m concerned for their expected economy. Sundar is the only bowler with expected economy below eight, although many do have an expected strike rate below 20 - at the Chinnaswamy, you could quite conceivably see opposition teams end their innings 190-9 or similar. A fit Nathan Coulter-Nile is an asset as a bowling all-rounder though, and while he’s available, will be expected to be a big contributor.

Another team at mercy of international call-ups, with Moeen, Stoinis and Coulter-Nile particularly vulnerable."

Post-tournament analysis:-

RCB's problems can be accurately surmised as 'twas ever thus'.  A change in head coach failed to address the same persistent squad problems, and despite an obvious need to address their pace bowling stocks, the franchise decided it was a better option to blow most of their budget on overseas batsman Shimron Hetmyer, domestic batsman Ashkdeep Nath, batting all-rounder Shivam Dube and 16 year old spinner Prayas Ray Barman - none of whom were regular contributors for the franchise this year.

My pre-tournament expected data for the RCB bowling attack are detailed below:-

Royal Challengers Bangalore


Playing Role

Expected IPL Bowling Average

Expected IPL Bowling Economy

Expected IPL Bowling Strike Rate

Colin de Grandhomme


Batting All-Rounder




Marcus Stoinis






Shivam Dube






Kulwant Khejroliya






Umesh Yadav






Mohammed Siraj






Tim Southee


Bowling All-Rounder




Nathan Coulter-Nile


Bowling All-Rounder




Navdeep Saini






The table above accurately illustrates my points.  The franchise has pace bowlers with a low strike rate (great) but generally, a poor economy rate (not so great).  All three non-spin all-rounders (not bowling all-rounders) had expected economy over nine which impacts on team balance and 5th/6th bowling options while only Navdeep Saini (who was their most economical pace bowler who bowled a decent sample size of overs) had expected economy below eight.  It was a surprise they didn't look at Kulwant Khejroliya until later in the tournament.  Tim Southee's pre-tournament expected data would be considered poor for a domestic bowler, let alone one taking up a valuable overseas berth and the New Zealander indeed struggled this year.  Nathan Coulter-Nile's absence with injury was a real blow.

Despite these problems, as discussed earlier, head coach Gary Kirsten is keen to adopt the Dhoni-inspired 'continuity model' for RCB in the future.  The problem with this is that continuity should only be adopted when the players there are good enough to start with, and fit into a positive expectation playing style model.  I'm not convinced either notion applies to many of the current RCB squad.

Lahore Qalanders:-

Pre-tournament analysis from PSL data pack:-

We’ve already discussed Lahore’s deficiencies with the ball in recent years, so how did they address that in the draft? By signing AB de Villiers - one of the world’s best batsmen - as a marquee player, and bits and pieces all-rounders Corey Anderson and Carlos Brathwaite, and all-rounder David Wiese, who looks below- average, based on my algorithms.

They have, however, signed Mohammad Hafeez as captain, and the spin all-rounder will offer bowling economy, although his batting isn’t likely to generate fireworks, and have also recruited one of the best young spinners in T20 cricket, in the shape of Sandeep Lamichhane. With Shaheen Shah Afridi a much better bowler than in PSL 2018, and Yasir Shah a reliable - if unspectacular - T20 performer, there is something to work with the bowling, although I anticipate the 5th/6th bowler and bench bowling strength (which looks likely to be expensive from an economy perspective) being a particular problem.

Given the lack of quality domestic bowlers, I’d be tempted to play Lamichhane regularly as an overseas player, and perhaps Hardus Viljoen will also be used in this role also, although this does generally go against the pre-requisite template of PSL teams needing to use domestic bowlers and overseas batsmen. However, picking their five best bowlers looks a reasonable strategy for Qalanders, and it means a difficult decision regarding prioritising this over their batting (and rely on De Villiers in the extreme) despite the fact that the tail looks very long if they do so.

A final problem is the wicket-keeper slot. Brendan Taylor can keep but takes up a valuable overseas berth, and the two domestic options, Gauhar Ali and Umair Masood, are unlikely to be much of a threat with the bat. This represents a tough decision for Lahore’s ‘brains trust’, who again look to have struggled with recruiting a balanced squad.

Post-tournament analysis:-

As with the other two franchises, the deficiencies that my numbers perceived to stem from poor recruitment from Lahore (despite predictions from many that they would improve in 2019) came home to roost.  

In March, I wrote detailed analysis of Lahore's issues in the 2019 edition of the PSL - this can be viewed here.  However, it's worth re-iterating from that article that a random team coming bottom of the PSL four years in a row is around a one in 900 chance.  Overhauling recruitment at the franchise would be a project that I would be extremely interested in...

The previously mentioned common denominator between the three franchises is also worth re-iterating again - recruitment.  In all three cases, it wasn't difficult to anticipate that each franchise would struggle due to questionable recruitment, and despite the fact that leading figures at the franchises mentioned other reasons that they considered representative of their failures, this questionable recruitment was - in my view - the biggest problem that the three franchises faced.  Sadly, for them, it was all too predictable to foresee.

I want to finish by discussing something slightly related to the above.  In another sport (football) there is one Sporting Director (akin to Director of Cricket) who impresses me every time I read or watch an interview of his - Stuart Webber, Sporting Director of Norwich City (who have just been promoted to the English Premier League). There is a fantastic interview with him available here and in my experience of the world of cricket, we can draw some comparisons with how he discusses squad structuring, recruitment and running a team in general. I've quoted what I perceive to be some of the most fascinating areas below :-

Quote One - "You have people in charge of clubs who were really successful in their own industry who just don’t understand this industry."

Quote Two - "You probably watched the Sunderland documentary on Netflix. When you watch that, it’s no surprise that they suffered a double relegation, it really isn’t. They put all their faith in one man, the manager, and as soon as it went wrong, said, ‘it must be his fault’. Why not look a bit deeper? Maybe that group of players wasn’t good enough, maybe the culture wasn’t right, maybe the head coach needed some support. Instead, you put him on a pedestal and said, ‘go and sort this out will you? Ah, brilliant - on my own, with 20 departments and 25 players, half of whom are overpaid and don’t want to be here and don’t care. That’s where the Sporting Director comes in and that model is really ingrained in Germany, which helps their coaches a lot. As a Sporting Director, you need owners who allow you to do your work. In my last two jobs I’ve worked for two of the best owners around. They let you get on with it, so long as you keep them up to date with what you’re doing. I look at some of my friends in the game who have owners who interfere and overrule them and think ‘how can you do your job?’"

Quote Three - "if you’ve got a certain number of caps then people are in awe of you. ‘He must know what he’s talking about, he’s got 50 caps for his country’. In fact, he might not have a clue. I was fortunate to visit Red Bull recently and their Team Principal, Christian Horner, said most of their drivers don’t have a clue and you couldn’t put them in charge of a team. But in football, everyone thinks, ‘he played, he was a top footballer, let’s put him in charge of 25 players, 30 staff - and he can deal with the media and the board.’ It’s actually a pretty tough job. If you immediately put Max Verstappen in charge of a Formula One team, with 300 staff, people would think you were crazy."

Webber's first quote certainly has parallels with cricket. Private franchise owners - often very successful in unrelated businesses - often make a number of the big recruitment decisions despite frequently having little in the way of logical reasoning, or knowledge of the sport and what drives success or failure. The final sentence of quote two in particular also probably has plenty of similarities in cricket, for the same reason.

In addition, his third quote - about successful ex-players - has huge resonance across multiple sports, cricket included. How many times do we see high profile ex-players get coaching job after coaching job, despite little track record of success? As the data analytics revolution in cricket continues, I anticipate this changing, although it will probably be a fair while before we see - similar to how baseball has developed - more non-players or non high-profile ex-players running teams than high-profile ex-players.  Furthermore, while virtually every major cricket team worldwide employs at least one analyst, teams employing analysts primarily focused on recruitment and squad strategy is much more unheard of.  This is also likely to be a potential growth area in the future as the T20 format, in particular, evolves.

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