By Crispin Andrews
Since the first T20 matches were played in England in June 2003, the game has taken off all over the world. The ICC World T20 in India is the sixth such tournament since 2007. Six days after the final, the ninth Indian Premier League season begins.
Many cricket fans, particularly the connoisseurs, fear the proliferation of international and domestic T20 tournaments will encourage future generations of young players to perfect their dynamic skills at the expense of the more considered attributes needed for Test and first class cricket. But cricket has not survived this long without embracing change.
On the surface, the colourful cricketing carnival that is T20 bears little resemblance to the sport of yesteryear that valued chess-like attrition. Unpredictable bowling keeps batters guessing. Spinners sometimes open the bowling. Opening batsmen, used to facing fast bowling first up, have to hit the ball rather than use its pace.
There’s less time, so batsmen take more risks. They can’t wait for the bad ball, so they smash good length ones. West Indies batsman Chris Gayle is someone who’ll step forward and strike the ball at the top of the bounce or move back into his crease and launch it over the boundary.
The best fielders are placed on the boundary to save fours and sixes, not in the slips to take catches, particularly at the end of an innings when batsmen swing at every ball.
It seems like a different world to the one the likes of Jack Hobbs, Garry Sobers and David Gower graced. Look more closely, however, and the key to cricket’s enduring appeal is still there, albeit condensed into a compact and more instantly accessible package.
The sport has always been a contest between highly skilled batters and bowlers, but T20 encourages the ordinary player to think and act like the game’s greats.
Entertainers like Viv Richards, Ian Botham, Keith Miller and the legendary SF Barnes, who took 189 wickets in 27 Tests between 1901 and the outbreak of the First World War, never wasted any time imposing themselves on the opposition. It was only those lesser, or less secure, mortals who sat back and waited for a mistake before pressing home their advantage.
In a T20 match, with only 120 balls per innings, a batter can’t wait for a bad ball to unleash an attacking shot. Neither can a bowler, if they’ve only got four overs to make their mark, plug away in the hope of inducing a mistake. Like Botham and other top players, they have to try something. And if it doesn’t work, they have to try something else.
West Indies T20 specialist Krishmar Santokie says: “In Test cricket, fast bowlers have the advantage, with slips, gullies, new balls and helpful surfaces. In T20, it’s the slower and medium bowlers who are taking all the wickets.
“If you can take the pace off, you have the edge. On a good wicket, when the batsman is set and things are tough, you need to have options. Batsmen will premeditate their shots, sweep, reverse sweep, come down the wicket. If you don’t have the pace, you need the variety.”
Santokie adds: “Accuracy is important. You’re trying to deceive the batsman into making a mistake. So pitch the ball on a good length, straight or just outside off stump and they will more likely have a go at it than if it’s too full. Too short gives the batsman too much time to adjust to the slower pace.”
Bowlers moan it’s a batsman’s game, but if a bowler gets it wrong and is hit for six or bowls a wide, they get another go. If a batsman makes a mistake, they’re on their way back to the pavilion. Not that this stops young batsmen trying to emulate their batting heroes.
ECB coach Rupes Kitzinger says: “Kids love to replicate the scoops and other shots they see on TV. And most kids played 20-overs-a-side cricket long before anyone ever heard of T20. Rarely do they play anything longer.”
Kitzinger, who used to run the Andrew Flintoff Cricket Academy for Activate Sport, adds: “Kids should try what we might call risky shots, so that in the future they can play them as well as the basic, traditional cuts and drives.”
He doubts whether children copying the way the professionals play T20 will damage cricket’s ability to produce future Test players: “The reverse sweep was criticised when Mike Gatting played it and got out in the 1987 world cup final, but it’s regularly seen now in Test cricket. Joe Root got a Test hundred at Lord’s and was out to a reverse scoop off a seamer, caught at third man.
“The longer these ‘new’ shots are around, the more likely they are to be played in the future. It does help to have the basics of batting in place first, but why shouldn’t kids try these shots? If it helps their enjoyment and they learn from playing them, why shouldn’t they experiment?
“I think it’s exciting for coaches. It gives us the chance to try new things and add to the experiences kids can enjoy in cricket.”
Tim Hancock, Gloucestershire county cricket club’s performance coach, believes today’s young players want to play a wider range of shots and that coaches should try and encourage that.
He says: “Someone might want to play like AB de Villiers, doing the things he does on TV, but even AB couldn’t do those things when he was 11. It takes a high level of skill to play like that and even for the best it takes a while to learn those skills. It’s the same with bowling. The core skill is still being able to control line and length.”
As players at the top level push their skills to the limit, standards in all forms of the game will improve. And this will gradually filter down the cricketing pyramid. With a more attacking mindset, Test teams now regularly score 300 or more in a single day, while 350 is often just a par score in 50-over contests. In T20, teams rattle up 180-plus.
Today, fielders do things on a daily basis that portly chaps who used to trudge out after a nice lunch and a little rest could only dream of. Brilliant catches have always won matches, but shorter games mean tighter finishes, so athletic, energetic fielding can be the difference between winning and losing.
There have always been great fielders - Garry Sobers, Derek Randall, Colin Bland, Neil Harvey - but more often than not they were surrounded by mediocre teammates. Today, as England all-rounder Samit Patel will testify, if you’re not fit and you can’t field, you won’t get picked.
Picture courtesy of Gray-Nicolls.