The worst innings in T20 cricket is not a first-ball duck. It's the one where a batsman can neither hit out nor get out. Ben Stokes' struggle with the bat on Thursday belonged to that very category.
Opening the innings, Stokes laboured to 30 off 32 balls as the Rajasthan Royals finished with a below-par 154 for 6 and went on to lose to the Sunrisers Hyderabad. In other terms, Stokes consumed 26.7% of the total balls while scoring 19.9% of the bat-runs the Royals managed.
It's not that Stokes didn't show any intent. He tried to slog, reverse sweep and scoop but was hardly in control. His control percentage of 68.75 was the worst among the top five in the Royals batting line-up. When on 17 off 19, he was dropped in the deep. Twice before that, the ball had fallen short of the fielder; Stokes failed to make use of those chances. In fact, he struggled so much that, ESPNcricinfo's Luck Index favoured the drop catch, instead of it hurting the Sunrisers.
The Sunrisers too had done their homework. Right from the outset, Jonny Bairstow stood up to the stumps to prevent Stokes from advancing down the pitch. The first time he went back was when Jason Holder came in to bowl - Stokes walked down and flat-batted him for a boundary over mid-on.
Bairstow stayed back when Vijay Shankar came on to bowl. Shankar is arguably the least threatening of the Sunrisers bowlers and bowls at a pace similar to that of Sandeep Sharma, the new ball bowler. Out of the nine balls he bowled to Stokes, six were either on a good length or just short.
The idea, it seems, was to bang it into the pitch and cramp Stokes for room. It worked as he managed only five off those nine deliveries. Also, while Stokes was in the middle, David Warner didn't bowl left-arm spinner Shahbaz Nadeem, whose angle he would have found easier to score off.
So far in IPL 2020, Stokes has opened in all five matches he has played, scoring 110 runs in 103 balls. He is yet to hit a six, and his strike rate of 106.79 is the lowest among those who have played at least 100 balls in the tournament.
There can be many reasons why Stokes hasn't clicked as an opener. For one, he has been batting out of position. Stokes doesn't open for England in any format. In international cricket, he has opened only once - against West Indies in a Test earlier this year when England were looking for a quick declaration. In white-ball cricket, his role for England oscillates between a middle-order stabiliser and a finisher.
In fact, before IPL 2020, Stokes had opened only five times in T20 cricket, scoring 188 runs at a strike rate of 139.25. But those came over two years ago. With him batting out of position and teams bowling their best bowlers in the powerplay hasn't helped his cause.
He has been short of match practice too. Unlike most players, who had arrived in the UAE well in advance and had the time to acclimatise to the conditions, Stokes had to jump into the competition as soon as he finished his mandatory quarantine following his arrival from New Zealand, where he was on compassionate leave to be with his ailing father.
By the time Stokes played his first game of IPL 2020, the tournament was already approaching the second half. While he didn't get the time to get used to the conditions, the slowing pitches meant he is yet to find the timing. Like Shankar on Thursday, other bowlers too have consistently denied him room by targeting the stumps, or by bowling just outside off, on a good or short-of-good length.
While promoting Stokes to open the innings, the Royals would have expected him to take advantage of a hard, new ball as his numbers against spin are not very flattering. Since 2018, he averages 18.76 against spin while striking at 114.55.
But with Stokes as an opener doing more harm than good, there is a case for Jos Buttler to swap positions with him. Buttler performs the best at the top of the order, while Stokes' numbers are much better in the middle order. It's time the Royals revisited their decision, or is it already too late?