The IPL Orange Cap might have been relevant in its early days, but in 2023, it might have run its course based on current evidence, writes Abhishek Mukherjee.

On April 25, 2008, a week into the first edition of the IPL, the tournament organisers introduced the Orange Cap to reward the leading run-scorer. It was an innovation even in cricket, a sport that has celebrated its statistical aggregators since time immemorial.

Earlier, such rewards used to be announced only after the tournament. If the runs chart had a new leader, the change would be restricted to a television graphic. Now, the organisers make a small show to reward the new leader with an actual orange cap that the cricketer dons until it is relinquished to a new wearer.

At the end of every season, the leading run-scorer wins the Orange Cap and a cash prize. It did not take long for the award to find a separate sponsor, just like the Purple Cap for the leading wicket-taker.

The two colours were chosen because they did not feature in any of the initial jerseys of the eight franchises of IPL 2008. Of course, that factor lost relevance after Kolkata Knight Riders swapped black for purple in 2010, and Sunrisers Hyderabad arrived clad in orange in 2013.

The colour of the cap, however, is not what this piece is about. Nearly a decade and a half since it made its first appearance, is the Orange Cap – or the statistic it measures – still relevant?

The perils of inheritance

Not just in cricket statistical periodicals but almost every tour diary or magazine lists series records, often in the appendix. Flip through the records and you will find them sorted either by runs or by batting average.

Aggregate runs are easy to explain and need not be explained. The batting average, directly proportional to runs and inversely to dismissals, is a reasonable indicator of batting superiority as well, though it has sometimes led to hilarious instances of contradiction.

For example, Bill Johnston, a rank tail-ender got out only once in 16 innings on the 1953 tour of England to top the first-class batting averages for Australians with an average of 102, something he was always proud of.

But runs and averages worked well as indicators of how good the batters had been in long-form cricket. When ODIs arrived the strike rate began to feature, first in scorecards, then in series and career charts, but almost always as a footnote. Runs and batting averages still dominated the lists.

That changed with Twenty20 cricket. A big individual score is not necessarily an indicator of a great innings in the format, given how quickly resources are used up while batting.

If seven batters are capable of hitting in an XI, a team can afford to lose a wicket every 17 balls. If there are eight such batters, that count drops to 15.

A 25-ball innings – the same as an opening batter would wait out patiently in Test cricket or nudge for singles while picking up the odd boundary in ODIs – can be ‘long’ in the format. Thirty balls is a quarter of a team innings.

To remain in the hunt for the Orange Cap, a batter has to score consistently throughout an IPL season in a format that demands risk-taking.

The above argument is not without exception, of course. In IPL 2021, Jos Buttler not only won the Orange Cap but scored 41 percent more runs than anyone else, and finished with the second-most runs in a single season (863) – while scoring quicker than anyone else in the top ten.

In 2011, Chris Gayle amassed 608 runs, 51 more than anyone else, at 183, the best strike rate of the season. It was a performance so ridiculous that it makes one want to rummage through the scorecards to double-check.

But Buttler’s and Gayle’s phenomenal seasons are the exceptions, not the rule. The futility of the exercise came into forefront in 2013, when Gayle (708 runs at 156) lost out to Michael Hussey (733 at 130).

Hussey made a 43 runs off 33-balls per average outing to the crease that season. Gayle, 44 in 28. Hussey won the Orange Cap despite using up five more balls per season than Gayle.

Similarly, in 2020, KL Rahul (129) had the seventh-best strike rate in the top ten. He pipped Shikhar Dhawan, but while Rahul’s average outing was a 37-ball 48, Dhawan’s read a 25-ball 36. Rahul faced 12 balls per innings – a tenth of a team innings – more than Dhawan while scoring at a run a ball.

Conventional wisdom suggests that there should be some strike rate leeway for ‘anchors’, but that definition need not apply in this case, for even Dhawan was playing ‘long’ innings on an average.

Buttler (2022) and Gayle (2011) deserve to be rewarded by any definition. However, the same accolades need not apply to Rahul (2021) and Hussey (2013).

If not most runs, then what?

Let us return to the above-mentioned example of Johnston. Or Andy Ganteaume (Test average 112) and Kurtis Patterson (144). All three averages are boosted by the fact that they had been dismissed only once, and there is little doubt these would have dropped, had the sample size been larger.

To counter such anomalies, we often use cut-offs to eliminate small samples. We adopt the same practice to compare the best strike rates to keep out those pesky entries where a batter faces two balls in the tournament and scores five runs.

If one can put restrictions on aggregate runs to compare strike rates, why not do it the other way round as well? Let the Orange Cap be competed only by batters who strike at above 130 or 135, or 140 (why does it have to be divisible by five anyway)?

The number need not arbitrarily chosen – or fixed. It can depend on the combined strike rate of the previous edition, or a rolling strike rate of the three or five previous editions. However, a batter should be eligible only for the Orange Cap if and only if he scores at a rate quicker than that cut-off.

Alternately, there can be a simpler system, based on points. The IPL uses has a points system for the Most Valuable Player award, where the batters get points for runs and bonus points for fours and sixes.

Rewarding bonus points for batting strike rate (the fours and sixes may or may not be added to the mix) will provide a solution.

In both cases, aggregate runs will still be rewarded, but they will not be the only factor.

Rewarding the batter with most runs seemed relevant in 2008, when everyone was trying to figure out what indicated batting supremacy and backed the tried-and-tested parameters from the longer formats.

Fifteen years down the line, it probably requires a tweak or two, especially in a season where the batters, bolstered by the Impact Player, are scoring quicker than ever.