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The post-pandemic T20 rise of Johnson Charles
How Johnson Charles' West Indies career was revitalized after six years
If there’s one player whose international career you likely didn’t expect to get a reboot this decade, odds were it was Johnson Charles, especially given he’s currently 34.
But the West Indies selectors saw fit to give Charles’ international career a second installment after six years, and for good reason at that.
The bulk of Charles’ T20 career before the COVID-19 global pandemic struck was played in the Caribbean Premier League (CPL), in which his season-by-season numbers were very erratic:
Johnson Charles’ CPL seasons breakdown prior to the pandemic (courtesy: Cricmetric)
One season he’d be striking in excess of 140+ in a 400+ run season, and the following season he’s suddenly struggling to score above a run-a-ball the entire season.
But things changed for Charles in post-pandemic cricket, with the forced break helping him to reinvent and stay relevant in the ever-expanding T20 stratosphere.
The renaissance began in the 2020 Lanka Premier League (LPL) for the Jaffna Stallions, where following a dormant display with the bat in the group stage, he played clutch cricket in the knockout stages.
Opening the innings in the 2nd semi-final against Dambulla Viiking, Charles played a calm and composed hand of 76 off 56 deliveries striking at 135.71 with the Stallions losing three wickets in quick succession during the middle overs, followed by a 15-ball 26 in the final against Galle Gladiators which enabled them to score at nearly 10 runs an over in the powerplay, eventually going on to lift the trophy.
Charles was then signed up as a replacement for fellow West Indian Shimron Hetmyer in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) leg of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) 2021 season by the Multan Sultans. He made an instant impact in spite of only playing five matches, and that too in the middle order.
He scored 217 runs averaging 23.4 striking at 164.78, notably he smashed a 24-ball 47 against the Quetta Gladiators in his first match, followed by a 21-ball 41 striking at 195.23 against Islamabad United in the Qualifier 1 to help them directly qualify for the finals that the Sultans went on to lose.
But in the midst of all this, his performances back home in the CPL continued to be lackluster, as though Charles had caught a horrible case of stage fright in his home conditions.
This was overcome, however, with a move from the Barbados Royals to the Saint Lucia Kings last season ultimately culminating in Charles’ return to the West Indies T20 team.
He was the tournament’s third highest run scorer and overall the highest for the Kings, scoring 345 runs across 9 matches averaging 43.12 striking at 133.20, playing a pivotal role in their playoffs qualification.
A big part of his success was dropping anchor for his fellow opening partner and skipper Faf du Plessis to enable him to consistently maximize the powerplay without worrying about the other end.
But Charles also exploded every now and then during this phase, a prime example being his 22-ball 45 against the Guyana Amazon Warriors in the powerplay before eventually reaching his season-best score of 87* off 59 deliveries.
Charles’ return to the Maroon came in the three match T20I series against Australia played right before the 2022 T20 World Cup. Yet it was a inauspicious return with scores of 3 and 29 off 30 deliveries.
In the World Cup itself West Indies failed to qualify for the Super 12 but Charles proved to be one of the very small saving graces.
Charles paid back the selectors faith in dividends five months later on the tour of South Africa during the 2nd T20I match at SuperSport Park bludgeoning 118 runs off 46 deliveries striking at 256.52 against a near full-strength Proteas bowling attack which propelled the Windies to 258/5 in the first innings.
The century included 10 fours and 11 sixes and though the West Indies went on to lose the game, Charles’ performance was a testament to his post-pandemic improvement.
Hewas further rewarded with a replacement player gig with the Kolkata Knight Riders this Indian Premier League (IPL) season to replace Liton Das, albeit he did not get a game.
Yet what changes has Johnson Charles employed to allow him to experience this career rebirth?
Charles neutral position against pace (left) and spin (right)
It is important to note that Charles has no trigger movement against both pace and spin, he is a “stand and deliver” type batter.
Aside from the crouch and being completely side-on in his spin-neutral position, all other elements stay constant across, namely that the upper body-lower body combination is closed entirely, which allows for a higher X-Factor Stretch since energy is conserved in such a position, but he does run the risk of creating an imbalance at the crease with how close his feet are.
The X-Factor Stretch is the difference between the hip-shoulder separations at the point of downswing initiation and the point of bat-ball contact, a quantity which is positively correlated with range achieved.
And being closed kneed may also help Charles with playing not just inswing movement, but also outswing movement.
Charles’ complete side-on position against spin helps in this aspect, while the crouch is also a good quality to have against away spin.
Though Charles has a relatively modest backlift in both neutral positions, it appears that he changes it depending on the surface. Pictured above is from a CPL match, and having such backlift is particularly useful given the typical slow nature of Caribbean pitches, with the ball often skidding through and staying low.
Charles has also shown the proclivity to score boundaries with a planted side-on backfoot, a power hitting attribute that appears to be growing in popularity with prominent batters such as Jos Buttler, Alex Hales, and Sanju Samson frequently hitting in this position.
Charles’ scoring a boundary with a planted side-on backfoot
This is also another very useful trait to have when batting in the Caribbean since rather than reaching for the ball, Charles lets the ball come to him so he can hit without losing shape and power.
It also significantly reduces the chance of slicing the ball, which Charles doesn’t appear to have a consistent issue with.
So what should we look to expect from Charles going into the 2023 CPL and as West Indies prepare for the 2024 T20 World Cup?
His role clarity remains the same for Saint Lucia: dropping anchor for Faf in the powerplay and when needed, taking on the charge against pace, which is his strong suit by a big margin in post-pandemic T20s:
Medium pace: 52.50 | 159.09
Fast pace: 38.5 | 197.43
Away-spin (RWS and SLA): 37 | 89.15
In-spin (OB and LWS): - | 168.65 *(small sample size of 6 off 10 against LWS)
Both Charles and Faf especially struggle against spin, and though Faf has looked to cover this weakness with far better intent since this year’s IPL, the same cannot be said for Charles, who evidently can be choked by spin with ease, an aspect of his game he will have to work on given this makes the duo a negative complement opening pair that smarter teams will look to exploit otherwise.
It is also the same case in the Maroon. His typical opening partner would be Kyle Mayers who shares the same struggles as Faf, except like Charles he struggles to cloak it with intent, dismissed by spin in seven of his 13 IPL matches this season, making them an even more problematic opening duo on paper heading into next year’s T20 World Cup.
As shown in the series vs India, Charles can also been used by the West Indies at number three but his entry point should ideally be where he’ll get to face as much pace as possible.
Despite his failures in the India series, there is no doubt that Charles has what it takes to drop that clutch performance when you least expect it.
Thank you to Aries for the guest article
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