Go boom, go home: Liam Livingstone is England's first-choice T20 finisher
Go boom, go home: Liam Livingstone is England's first-choice T20 finisher
Perera, Miller, Wiese and others talk about the challenges of closing out a T20 innings
When Michael Bevan, the original "finisher", played the final game of his decade-long international career back in 2004, T20 cricket was in its infancy. There had been 48 official matches in the format, all of them in England's Twenty20 Cup, and games were played in a state of tactical anarchy as teams invented short-form strategies on the job.
Bevan had earned his tag after perfecting a role that had been cultivated by the likes of Neil Fairbrother and Steve Waugh, one that relied primarily on his unmatched ability to rotate strike with low-risk shots and culminated in him taking Australia over the line in run chases.
In the T20 era, the term "finisher" has taken on a whole new meaning. Once, it referred to batters who finished games; now it refers to those who finish an innings, coming in after the tenth over, and often much later, with a focus on power-hitting and boundaries. Bevan was a master at minimising dot balls but hit only 21 sixes across his ODI career; Andre Russell hit more than twice as many (52) in the 2019 IPL alone.
The role has evolved with the format. MS Dhoni was the archetypal finisher in T20's formative years, winning countless games for Chennai Super Kings and India in the Bevan mould but with greater power; now, it is about six-hitting, with Russell and his West Indies team-mate Kieron Pollard at the forefront of the shift. While Bevan's role was focused on finishing run chases, his successors talk about finishing innings.
Expectations for the death overs have changed, too. Finishers no longer see 15 runs an over as an insurmountable task: eight of the 23 times IPL teams have hit 65 or more runs in the final four overs of an innings have come in the last three seasons (2019 to 2021). Demand for middle-order six-hitters has never been higher, as evidenced by the sums franchises were willing to spend on Odean Smith, Romario Shepherd, Liam Livingstone and Tim David in February's IPL auction.
Russell's jam: the West Indian batter has set the bar for hitting
Steve Bell / © Getty Images
Russell's jam: the West Indian batter has set the bar for hitting Steve Bell / © Getty Images
With the field spread and bowlers looking to defend (by restricting runs) rather than attack (by taking wickets), finishers need the skill, power and clarity of thought to go hard from the first ball they face. In the last three IPL seasons, openers have hit a six every 20.6 balls on average; despite facing a softer ball and having men back on the rope, No. 6 batters have hit a six every 14.1 balls.
Evaluating the impact of finishers is not a straightforward job. Volatility is inherent in the role: unlike opening batters, who face the same situation most times they walk out, finishers can be tasked with rebuilding after an early collapse, hauling a team towards a target at the death, or hitting out from the first ball they face.
"Fans love power-hitters so much: when they come to the ground they always want to see sixes and fours," says Thisara Perera, the Sri Lankan allrounder who has maintained a career strike rate above 150 after over 300 T20 appearances. "But I have to tell fans: don't look at the average for power-hitters. If they can look at our strike rate, then they can see what we can do in any match."
"For me, it's about batting impact," says David Wiese, the veteran allrounder whose cameos with the bat were key to Lahore Qalandars' title win in the recent PSL. "You could only get 20 runs but if it's off five or six balls, it puts the other team on the back foot - and it could be the complete opposite, where your team is in real trouble and you need to dig them out of a hole by going at a run a ball. It's not always about strike rate or averages; I like to pride myself on playing situations and being the guy who steps up in those tough situations."
ESPNcricinfo's stats team has devised a metric, the "Finisher Score", which aims to identify elite finishers in the last four years in T20 cricket. This score is not - and isn't meant to be - the final word, but it gives us a fair idea about which batters are more successful than others in finishing T20 innings. The scores, and the methodology, are below, and show AB de Villiers and Russell to be the two leading contemporary finishers by some distance.
© ESPNcricinfo Ltd
© ESPNcricinfo Ltd
But there's an aspect to finishers that metrics may not quite be able to capture: what effect their presence in the middle order has on the batters before them.
In 2009, Michael Lewis wrote a piece for the New York Times about the basketball player Shane Battier, labelling him "the no-stats all-star". Battier had attributes that Lewis described as "a weird combination of obvious weaknesses and nearly invisible strengths… when he is on the court, his team-mates get better, often a lot better, and his opponents get worse - often a lot worse".
Rob Key, who captained Kent to the Twenty20 Cup in 2007 and now works as a commentator, suggests that the best finishers do the same. "It's not about their stats necessarily, it's about the confidence they give everyone else before them. There's nothing more liberating than knowing you've got these guys still to come, and there's nothing more debilitating than thinking 'Jeez, if I get out here, we're in real trouble.' For me, when we had a really good T20 side at Kent, if I had a middle-order behind me of Darren Stevens, Azhar Mahmood and Justin Kemp, that gave us so much freedom to play our shots at the top… It lifts everyone's game."
When Matthew Wade walked out to join Marcus Stoinis in November's T20 World Cup semi-final against Pakistan, Australia were down to their last pair of recognised batters and needed 81 in less than eight overs. They were an improbable duo. Wade, coming in at No. 7, had batted outside of the top five in only three T20I innings in the previous year and a half; of Stoinis, the No. 6, only a year earlier the coach, Justin Langer, had aired the view that he was best at the top of the order. Across the preceding three Big Bash seasons, they had batted almost exclusively as openers.
But Australia's management had recognised a counterintuitive truth of T20 cricket: that for many openers who are forced to bat out of position, No. 5 or 6 is a better fit than No. 3 or 4. The reason is that at the death they are more likely to face fast bowling against which they are significantly more destructive than against spin. On that night Stoinis and Wade added an unbroken 81-run stand in 40 balls, with Wade's hat-trick of sixes off Shaheen Afridi at the death sealing Australia's progress. Pakistan had fallen into the trap: only four of the 40 balls they bowled to the partnership came from spinners. For the batting pair, the win confirmed that their work adjusting to the role of middle-order closers had been worthwhile.
Mumbai Indians forked out plenty for Tim David in the 2022 IPL auction for his finishing ability
Ron Gaunt / © BCCI
Mumbai Indians forked out plenty for Tim David in the 2022 IPL auction for his finishing ability Ron Gaunt / © BCCI
"For Stoinis and Wade, it took them a while to realise just how important that role was," says Trent Woodhill, a batting coach who has worked with Melbourne Stars and Royal Challengers Bangalore. "For coaches, it's about identifying players and pushing them into that spot: sometimes they don't want to be there, but it works so much better when they embrace that pressure."
Teams like their best batters to play in the top three so they can face the highest numbers of balls; batters prefer it too, for that reason or for some other, says Woodhill, "whether it's ego or not wanting to embrace being uncomfortable".
This remains an inherent contradiction in T20 cricket: the longer a team holds back one of its best players, the smaller the chance that batter will be able to have a significant impact on a game. Jos Buttler, a finisher for most of his career, has averaged 53.55 at a strike rate of 148.75 since he moved up to open for England; David Miller, who has opened just once in a 363-match T20 career, admits he has "always wanted to try it at some stage". Russell, even during the 2019 IPL, in which he had arguably the best ever individual season by a finisher (510 runs off 249 balls in 13 innings), suggested that he wanted to move up the order to No. 4.
"Batters can say they're happy to do whatever the team needs as much as they want," says Key. "But if you put a gun to their head, they'd want to open."
Perhaps this serves to highlight the longevity of the select few - Pollard, Dhoni and de Villiers, for example - who have managed to thrive in their role.
Yet, says Woodhill, a significant minority have woken up to the "new market" which rewards finishers handsomely. "If I'm an athletic, tall batter at the moment, I'm doing everything I can to bat at the back end of an innings in short-form cricket. That's where the money will be spent now. We've seen it in the IPL: Stoinis being picked up by Lucknow, [Tim] David being picked up by Mumbai."
Kieron Pollard launches one in the 2020 CPL game where he made 72 off 28 balls, the highest-ranked innings on ESPNcricinfo's Finisher Score metric
© Randy Brooks - CPL T20 / Getty
Kieron Pollard launches one in the 2020 CPL game where he made 72 off 28 balls, the highest-ranked innings on ESPNcricinfo's Finisher Score metric © Randy Brooks - CPL T20 / Getty
Livingstone, who became England's first-choice finisher last year after his success in different roles in leagues around the world, was signed by Punjab Kings for Rs 11.5 crore (US$1.53 million). "I had an interesting conversation with Livingstone during the Hundred," recalls Chris Benjamin, his Birmingham Phoenix team-mate. "He said obviously everyone wants to bat in the top three, it's the best time to bat and you get big runs, but there aren't many consistent finishers in world cricket. He told me: 'If you can nail that, doors will open around the world for that role.'"
Benjamin is a 22-year-old keeper-batter who found himself batting out of position, at No. 6, when he broke into the Warwickshire and Birmingham Phoenix sides last summer. He had to readjust his expectations after focusing on scoring fifties and hundreds for most of his career.
"It was a big adjustment," he says. "Feeling your way in is obviously ideal, but in a couple of my cameos I had to go from ball one. You have to be happy that 20 off ten balls is actually a great knock - and probably better than 50 off 40 balls - because it wins you games. In the moment where the game can go either way, can you be the guy to get your team over the line? That's the way I tried to look at it."
When Brad Hodge, who had batted in the top three for the majority of his T20 career, arrived in India ahead of the IPL ten years ago, he was taken aback when Rahul Dravid, his new Rajasthan Royals captain, told him he planned to use him as a finisher.
"I said to him, 'Look, I've made all my runs in the top order,'" Hodge recalled on ESPNcricinfo's Stump Mic podcast in 2019. But he soon came around: Dravid told him that he was the only player in the squad capable of taking down opposition teams' best fast bowlers at the death, and Hodge became a reliable finisher over the next three seasons, blending his Bevan-esque 50-over skills with a focus on power-hitting in training.
Hodge would later try to replicate the move as a coach, recruiting a number of top-order options for Gujarat Lions and using Aaron Finch, Dwayne Smith and even Jason Roy as finishers. The move was a qualified success, and they finished top of the league phase in 2016, one of the two seasons the franchise was around for.
David Miller: "I do get my confidence from training: it is huge for me, so I focus on it really hard"
Ishara S Kodikara / © AFP/Getty Images
David Miller: "I do get my confidence from training: it is huge for me, so I focus on it really hard" Ishara S Kodikara / © AFP/Getty Images
In international cricket, an additional challenge is identifying finishers for particular conditions: the role is markedly different on a slow pitch in India, with 60-metre square boundaries, than it is on a fast, bouncy pitch in Australia, where this year's T20 World Cup will be played. As Woodhill puts it: "If there's a guy coming over from the subcontinent who strikes at 160-180 in the back five overs, if 90% of that information is coming from the IPL, do we know how he's going to go when someone's bowling 145-plus [kph] into his ribs and he's hitting to the long side at the MCG? That's where data becomes really important."
Only the most powerful batters can consistently clear 80-metre boundaries; some hitters may find they have to adjust their power game and use the big square boundaries to their advantage by hitting well-placed twos, the way old-school finishers used to.
Before the IPL auction this year, Rajasthan Royals were weighing up how much of their purse they should allocate to signing a finisher. "How many balls will [Nos.] five and six actually face on average?" the lead owner, Manoj Badale, asked his colleagues in Bengaluru, a conversation aired in their auction series of videos. "The balls are not the point in question," replied Zubin Bharucha, their director of cricket. "The question is whether they're enabling you to win the game or not."
The exchange was instructive about the kind of pressure finishers face. T20 leagues are short. In Major League Baseball, teams play 162 games in the regular season; in the IPL, the longest major franchise league, they play 14. Finishing positions and play-off spots are regularly determined by the finest margins, but owners demand success and are willing to fire an entire backroom staff for failing to qualify. It is easy for teams to overreact to a run of failures - which for finishers, in particular, can mean constant anxiety about being dropped, such is the volatility inherent in their position.
"It's brutal," says Miller. "You're probably going to lose more games than you win. To do it consistently is really challenging; the guys who do, they don't get enough credit."
The role requires batters to play selflessly, generally playing aggressively from the outset for the team's benefit - nothing is riskier as a T20 batter than not taking risks at all - but they must balance this with their own needs, including the desire to keep their place in the side or win other contracts. As this scatter graph shows, most of the world's elite finishers start their innings quickly, reaching at least seven runs off the first five balls they face.
Wiese says that the best piece of advice he has received in his career came from Rob Walter, his old Titans coach. "He said, 'Look, cricket is a game built around failure. The most successful guys only succeed 30% of the time.' You've got to remember it's a job: it's what you do, it's not who you are. He told me, 'Enjoy yourself, express yourself, and if it doesn't come off, it doesn't change who you are.'"
Lance Klusener, a precursor to the prototype T20 finisher during the 1999 World Cup, when his focus on boundary-hitting for South Africa marked him out as an outlier, gave similar advice to Miller at the Dolphins franchise. "He said to me, 'What is pressure? When you're in the trenches at war and there's bullets flying around your head, that's pressure. Chasing ten an over? That's not really pressure.'"
Wiese hit identical innings of 28 not out off eight balls in the eliminator and final of this year's PSL, but had only faced 75 balls in the season heading into the play-offs. As a senior player in his fourth season with the franchise, he knew he had the support of the management and the fans. "Walking out in the final and hearing the crowd chanting your name - that gives you another boost too. You know that it's not just the team and the management that's backing you."
Like many finishers, Wiese benefits from his multi-dimensional role: he has bowled two and a half overs per game on average across his T20 career. "That's a big thing for me: I know if I don't do well with the bat, I can make up with the ball and justify my selection. It's such a volatile game that we play: you can have the worst run but one moment of brilliance might be enough for people to forget what's happened before." Over the last four years, the average No. 6 batter faces 11 balls per game in the IPL; it is rare for teams to pick someone in that role without them contributing something on top of their batting.
"The most important thing from the captain and the coach is to back me during a tournament," Perera says. He calls Dhoni, whom he played under at Chennai Super Kings and Rising Pune Supergiant, "my best captain" because of the confidence Dhoni instilled in him. "He told me, 'If you are selected for any IPL team, it's because we are thinking about you as a very good power-hitter. Don't stop playing your scoring shots.'"
Such backing is particularly important for younger players. Benjamin recalls a team meeting before his Hundred debut in which Moeen Ali, his captain at Phoenix, told the batters that they had been drafted for a reason: to play positively. "As a new guy, called up last minute, it was great to hear. When the pressure was on, I didn't think twice about what they might have said if a shot hadn't come off. I just backed it 100%." Benjamin reverse-scooped the 11th ball he faced for six, and saw the side home with 24 not out off 15 balls.
One scoop or two? David Wiese brings out his bag of tricks in a Vitality Blast game
Will Matthews / © Getty Images
One scoop or two? David Wiese brings out his bag of tricks in a Vitality Blast game Will Matthews / © Getty Images
Jimmy Neesham was New Zealand's designated finisher at last year's World Cup and faced only 31 balls across the Super 12s stage - 23 of them against Namibia to dig his team out of a hole - before sealing their progress to the final with 27 off 11 against England. "I can't imagine I'd have faced more than 20 balls very often for New Zealand," Neesham said after the Namibia game; in fact, it was only the third time in a 38-match T20I career that he had done so.
"That's the nature of the game and this team," he added. "I have to be ready for that… I'm batting a lot in the nets at the moment and Luke Ronchi [New Zealand's batting coach] is putting a lot through his shoulder for me to try and keep in nick."
His comments revealed a contrast in the training methods of different finishers. Some, like Hodge during his time at Rajasthan, like to practise by recreating match situations: they face only a handful of balls in a session, aiming to hit as many of them as possible for six rather than worrying about their defence or their cover drive. Others prefer to hit as many balls as possible, to feel as though they are in form or rhythm despite a lack of match practice.
"I don't do that enough - just hitting ten or 15 balls, that's my net," Miller says. "I really enjoy hitting balls and I'm a big feel guy. The day before a game, I'll look to have some throwdowns, feeling bat on ball, getting into that feel; I'll face a bit of spin and finish off with some half-volleys to get nice and confident. I do get my confidence from training: it is huge for me, so I focus on it really hard. I think I faced 30-odd balls  in the World Cup. Then, if you're required to perform with a big game on the line, it's all in the mind."
Ever since the start of the power-hitting revolution, finishers have had to evolve: batters do not develop in a vacuum, they have to react to how bowlers change their plans. With Pollard, for example, teams quickly worked out that attempted yorkers were risky business: his reach and strength meant that slot balls and low full-tosses disappeared into the stands.
Early in his career MS Dhoni was Michael Bevan with a power boost at the end; these days he's learning to go hard from the get-go
Arjun Singh / © BCCI
Early in his career MS Dhoni was Michael Bevan with a power boost at the end; these days he's learning to go hard from the get-go Arjun Singh / © BCCI
Woodhill recalls a Big Bash game in late 2012 - when he had just become Melbourne Stars' assistant coach - in which Pollard hit 65 not out off 43 for Adelaide Strikers but was foxed by Clint McKay's slower balls, repeatedly swinging and missing as he failed to pick them out of the hand.
"I think Pollard has been the most improved cricketer for a long time with his ability to evolve in that role," Woodhill says. "Clint bowled him four off-speed balls out of six, and he wasn't able to hit them; nowadays, he'd probably hit two or three of those out of the ground. Guys like Russell and Pollard became better cricketers because they spent so much more time training for that role, getting really good at getting underneath off-speed balls and holding their shape."
"The fascinating thing with T20 is that the analysts can work out your game pretty quickly but they also dictate the trends," Key says. "There was a period when it was pretty simple: fast bowlers bowled at the top and the end and spinners bowled in the middle overs, so teams had their hitters in the middle order.
"There's now this trend where the high-pace guys bowl in the middle overs when the hitters come in, who can't seem to hit that type of stuff. These trends will constantly be in a state of flux; what you have to do as a team and as a batter is to be one step ahead of where that trend is going."
As Key suggests, the most recent trend has been to bowl back-of-a-length balls to finishers like Russell and Pollard, with genuine fast bowlers able to rush them on the pull. In IPL 2021, Pollard scored at a strike rate of 193 against attempted yorkers - balls classified as full, yorkers or full tosses by ESPNcricinfo's data - compared to 136.6 against balls that pitched on a good length or shorter.
Even Dhoni has had to adapt his method. Compared to younger, more dynamic finishers, he has been a notoriously slow starter for much of his T20 career; in Chennai's second game of the 2022 season, against Lucknow Super Giants, he hit the first ball he faced in an innings for six for the first time in his IPL career, at the age of 40. In T20, even the great finishers have to evolve.
With inputs from Gaurav Sundararaman and Shiva Jayaraman, senior stats analysts at ESPNcricinfo
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98
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