Should spinners bowl in the death in IPL?

Spinners play a vital role in every edition of the IPL. The likes of R Ashwin, Piyush Chawla, Sunil Narine, Rashid Khan and Mujeeb ur Rahman can control the run rate at any phase of an innings and build pressure by not conceding boundaries. However, they are the exceptions: in the death overs, most captains still go to their seamers, who mix it up with the slower balls, bouncers and wide yorkers.

There have been a few instances of spinners bowling the last few overs in this IPL. And the results were rather contrasting. Mujeeb got hit for 19 and 14 runs against Royal Challengers Bangalore and Mumbai Indians, while Rashid bowled a maiden over and conceded just seven runs against Mumbai Indians and Rajasthan Royals. Both these instances came while defending totals.

Over the years, Kolkata Knight Riders have used this strategy quite effectively with Narine leading from the front. In the match against Chennai Super Kings, he and Chawla bowled the last two overs with MS Dhoni and Ravindra Jadeja at the crease.

Now Narine had never conceded a boundary to Dhoni in 57 deliveries in the IPL. Given that history, it made sense to use spin at that stage, but is there a case for spinners to bowl more during the death even without such obvious match-ups?

When bowling first in the last five overs of IPL 2018, spinners have conceded 8.65 per over and averaged 24.87, while pacers have gone at 9.98 and averaged 19.21. When defending, pacers have gone at 10.41 runs per over compared to 8.87 for spinners.

But what kind of spinners do well in such high-pressure situations? Considering data from the last two years of the IPL, both fingerspinners and wristspinners have managed to build control in this phase but the wristspinners have been the ones taking wickets. Do wickets really matter in this state though? Possibly, depending on match situations and the batsmen playing.

The most successful spinners in the death in the last two IPLs - based on economy-rate - are Narine and Rashid. Chawla and Axar Patel have also kept runs down, but have rarely bowled in this stage of an innings. The stats suggest that spinners have done reasonably well in the final overs, but then they have also been used carefully by captains, sometimes in situations when the batting team has already lost wickets and isn't in a position to attack. Still, depending on the pitch, outfield size and batsmen at the crease, spin could be a good alternative to the traditional death-over tricks by pace bowlers, whether in the first innings or the second.

Only twice in 74 overs has a spinner gone for more than 20 runs this IPL in the death. The corresponding figure for seamers is nine in 284 overs. If a team is reliant on overseas batsmen to be their finishers, there is definite merit in bringing a spinner on to bowl the final overs. This season the top seven overseas batsmen across teams have gone at a strike-rate of 128.1 against spinners compared to 150.7 against pacers. With most players not picking the googly as well, wristspinners can be a very good asset.

Although the sample size isn't enough to draw definite conclusions, captains should not look at bowling out spinners before the death overs. Depending on the skill of the bowler and the match-ups that are likely to happen, teams could be more open to using spinners at the end instead of relying on average pacers. With any innovation, however, comes risk, which was evident on Wednesday when Chawla went for 22 runs in the 20th over against Mumbai.