It was once branded derisively as bikini cricket, the game’s most frivolous version. It was more about atmospherics than skills, towering sixes and shimmying cheer girls than brains, and about entertainment than about anything else. How T20 cricket has evolved in all these years! It is a serious mind game now, a bit like chess. Entertainment is still at its core, but covered by multiple layers of processes, cerebral and practical, right from the auction table to bowling in the 20th over.
On the 22-yard plot in the middle play out many sub-plots, developing ball by ball, mini session by mini session across 40 overs. Some of them are scripted at team strategy meetings and some improvised on the go. Take away the razzmatazz, T20 cricket is now a thinking man’s game. Not that cricket never was, but the shortest format has added great intensity to the process, packing more grey cells into every tiny unit of the game.
Mind game is at work as the bowler, whether a pacer or a spinner, runs in ball after ball at the batsman, a moving target these days, and the many options he weighs before releasing the five-and-half ounces of payload. It can be a bouncer, a slower version of it, one into the rib cage, a wider one off the stumps or anything else as anticipation suggests. The batsman must confuse the bowler about his intention before chosing the right option to score. Options indeed are many these days, from creating space for the swing of the bat with backward, forward and sideways to unleash any shot from a considerable repertoire. In a format where every ball must count, reading the mind of the opponent is critical to success.
When Jos Buttler paddle scoops a 150-plus km thunderbolt from Anrich Nortje for six and makes it look routine, you realise the new format has changed something about the game. The same when AB de Villiers plays an array of unconventional shots to earn the reputation of a 360-degree batsman. T20 has injected a lot of creativity into cricket besides breaking the barrier of inhibition. The coaching manual of earlier days would scoff at such display of recklessness, but the fact is these are a thinking man’s shots. They appear reckless only when they fail. Serious rehearsal at the nets precede their execution during actual matches. The scope for failure shrinks with practice.
The coaching manual of yesteryear is in no way redundant yet; it won’t ever be. It still produces Virat Kohlis, Lokesh Rahuls and David Warners of the world. Power-hitters such as Keiron Pollard, Chris Gyale and Andre Russell may appear a novelty but they still play the game the old way. The manual would continue to attune aspiring cricketers to the grammar of the game, creating a base from which creativity can take off but it needs updation to accommodate more imagination in all aspects of the game introduced by the shortest format.
Not long ago, when Tilakaratne Dilshan started playing the scoop over the wicket-keeper’s head, it was considered bizarre. Now, it’s a regular shot in every young batsman’s book. As are reverse sweep, paddle scoop, and the ramp shot. The bowlers have added many variations to their craft. The pacers have the knuckle ball to cut down speed with no variation in action and the slow bouncer to unsettle the batsman ready for the big hit. All bowlers use angles to make scoring difficult. Spinners keep adding variations to deliveries to nullify predictability. Bowling close to the wide mark to keep the ball out of reach of the batsman is another trick in the bag that is being used often in this version of the IPL. Coaches now need to teach wards to focus on balls that are far away from the bat but not far enough to be illegal. Earlier, they insisted the latter make the batsman play every delivery.
One-dayer, the other short format, has been around far longer, but with much lesser impact on the DNA of the game than Twenty20. For much of its existence close to half a century, 50-50 cricket had been Test cricket in the fast forward mode. Innovation, though continuous, was much less dramatic, and approach more or less the same. Batting styles took time to shift from the Sunil Gavaskar phase to Sachin Tendulkar phase to that of Virender Sehwag. We won’t be far off the mark if we place the three in a continuum in the growth of the 50:50 format. The churn of aggressive players such as Sehwag is much faster in Twenty20. It has to do with the nature of the format itself. But the point remains that the shortest one has impacted the game in far deeper ways. It has redefined skill, prompted deep research into the game to place cricket on a new trajectory.
The purists may not like it much, but the T20 is likely to change the way Test cricket is played too. Performance in Tests will remain the gold standard of achievement but performance itself will undergo qualitative transformation.