[Warning: long post]
With the month-long IPL coming to a conclusion, if not a climax (and some would say many days too late) it is time to take a look back at the weeks gone by and ask ourselves: “Have we learnt anything about the mechanics of this newest incarnation of cricket after so many “Citi moments of success” and Arun Lalisms? Or are we as clueless as we were before?
Claim 1: Technically solid Test batsmen will adapt the best to T20
Dravid definitely believed in the above statement, staked his reputation on selecting a team consisting of some of the world’s best Test batsmen, and ended up being the subject of ridicule and scorn, mostly from his team owner, as the Bangalore franchise went under.
But was Dravid wrong?
On the face of it and looking at the performance of the Bangalore team, it seems that he was.
After all, it can be argued that having solid cricketing abilities in the longer form of the game counts for little in T20. T20 is a very different form of game than “cricket” as it is understood today, a fact that explains both the hostility of cricket purists to the concept of T20 as well as its rapidly growing popularity. Sharing only all the laws with “cricket”, the skill sets needed for success over here are very different from what they are in the conventional game.
Taking a step back, let us ponder the question “what is it that makes a great Test batsman”? For one, the ability to bat on different kinds of pitches and make technical adjustments based on the condition of the surface, the time of day and the state of the match. The beauty of Test cricket is that the conditions, under the feet and overhead keep changing throughout the day and the batsman’s shot selection, feet movement and other batting parameters change with it. Much of a good Test batsman’s skill lies in batting out sessions, defending dourly when the bowlers are on top, taking advantage of anything loose on offer and attacking only when a measure of conditions and the bowling is attained, sustaining over five days a game of cat and mouse that requires amazing powers of concentration, mental discipline and stamina.
The compressed form of the T20 game takes the subtle nuances of Test cricket out of the equation. Conditions now remain the same throughout the game and batsmen no longer can afford to give even an over even if the bowler is on top of the game. Deliveries, for the most part, can no longer be judged on merit and shots have to be manufactured and sometimes pre-determined. As any student of the game would tell, these are precisely some of the most cardinal sins of batting. And yet they are the most basic skills needed to survive in T20 as batsmen.
A question that naturally needs to be answered is : given the fact that many great Test batsmen have made successful transitions to the One Day game —what is it that makes T20 so different? For one, one day internationals have a passage of play somewhat similar to Test matches. Namely the “middle overs” where one requires a subset of the skills needed for Tests (namely patience and judicious shot-selection).[Chandrapaul, Kallis, Dravid, Laxman and the rest of the Test gang, all middle order bats, have made most of their runs in this part of a one day international] However it is precisely this part of a one day match that has been sought to be eliminated in the T20 paradigm —the audience no longer wants the “boring” middle part.
This still does not explain why a good Test batsman is unable to “dumb down their talents” to meet the challenges of T20.
The short answer: instinct.
Sunil Gavaskar in “Sunny Days” talked about his devastating 36 runs in 60 overs and how everytime the ball was bowled, he instinctively crawled into a defensive position and how even when he was desperately trying to get out, he found he was unable to even do that. While this may be an extreme case, it does throw light on the basic malaise of Test batsmen—their conditioning holds them back in the split second in which the shot is selected so that once the bat is swung and an improvisation is attempted, it lacks conviction. And the results show.
But then Sunil Gavaskar, the archetypal Test batsman did learn to adapt to the one day game. In his penultimate ODI, he blasted a quickfire century against New Zealand, whose ferocity would not be out of place in a T20 game today. Similarly, the Dravids and the Kallises would also be able to condition themselves to this new paradigm. But for that they need time. With a four-foreign-player limit and the pressure to drop them for T20 “experts”, Kallis and Chandrapaul never got the chance to learn on the job that for instance captain and icon player Dravid got.
And the results showed. As the tournament ended, Dravid might not have become a Sangakkara or a McCullum. But he still had pretty decent batting numbers to show for himself: 360 runs at an average of 30.00 with a strike rate of 127.65. In comparison, Ganguly, a specialist One day player who was the Kolkata Knight Rider’s star performer throughout, scored 349 runs at an average of 29.0 with a strike rate of 113 (As an aside: the fact that such batting statistics made Sourav KKR’s stand-out performer speaks volumes for the rest of the batting lineup of the King’s Servants sorry Men. As a double aside: Despite Dada having weaker numbers than Dravid, Dada can claim rightfully to have been one of the “successes” of the T20 tournament because unlike Rahul Dravid, Dada has finished games for his team).
As Dravid himself said, perhaps if he was 21 years old (i.e. still not had his instincts ossified), he could have been more of a success. Even then, he did not do too badly for himself. And perhaps the other Test specialists, given sufficient number of opportunities, would also be able to make at least moderate successes out of themselves.
So in conclusion, we may weaken Dravid’s assertion and conclude that— yes technically sound Test batsmen can, given sufficient time, adapt themselves to the T20 game. But with the primary requirement of the format for batsmen who can power-up right out of the box, Bangalore Challenger’s decision to go in with a team-full of Test batsmen all at varying stages of the learning curve was doomed to failure.
Maybe by next season, some of the worthies may have a batter handle on things. Maybe.
Claim 2: Twenty20 is a game exclusively for batsmen.
The second “take-home” from the season is that bowlers aren’t just backup dancers in a T20 game. Deccan Chargers made the season-breaking decision of investing in a line-up of big-hitting sloggers while leaving the bowling in the hands of relative lightweights.
Despite having two batsmen with over 400 runs in the series with averages over 35 and eye-popping strike rates (139 and 147), Deccan Chargers were singularly unable to defend any score that their amazing line-up managed to cobble up—so bad their bowling line up was. (All their main bowling options had economy rates above 8.5)
In many ways, T20 is far more lenient to bowlers than Test matches or for that matter even one days.
With batsmen going for the big shots, bowlers have many ways of getting wickets—through a good ball, a bad shot or through a dot ball. Successive dot balls, even three back-to-back ones vastly increase the chances of the fourth ball being a wicket one. Contrast this to a Test match where virtually every batsman has to be prised out over the course of many days or even contrast this to a one day match where a number of good overs are needed in succession to get the batsmen to try something desperate and one begins to realize that a T20 is not the nightmare for bowlers we thought it would be.
Successful bowling in Twenty20 has not been just about yorkers, low full tosses, back-of-the-hand slow balls, bouncers or the length ball but in effectively varying between all the kinds. Predictability has been the bane of bowlers—-Subhash Gupte who could legendarily land the ball on a coin over after over and could bowl 20 maidens in succession would possibly be dead meat in a Twenty20. The reason why variations count for so much in this form of the game is because most of the shots that are played are pre-determined. Varying continuously the line, length and delivery type simply introduces three independently varying parameters in the batsman’s “guessing” function.
Yes. Variety is the spice of the T20. Not just variety in bowling, but also variety in bowlers. Shane Warne, T20’s reigning strategy king, shows how effective continuous bowling changes can be. And one of the myriad places where Kolkata Knight Riders suffered was in not having a quality slow bowler (Murali Kartik being a big disappointment along with Ishant Sharma) which to an extent negated the effect of its otherwise strong, but overtly pace-dependent, bowling line-up.
Claim 3: It’s a young man’s game.
For anyone following the tournament, this hypothesis has been torn to shreds. The reason is simple: the compressed version, though definitely frentic, needs you to be out on the field for only 40 overs at the maximum, most of which is after the sun has set.
Of course just like a team full of Test batsmen has been a disaster, so would have been a team full (or comprised mostly) of old men. Fortunately, none of the franchisees have made that mistake.
Claim 4: It’s all a lottery.
Sure. A lot of cricket is luck and T20 perhaps even more so. Who could foresee Chris Gayle not playing a single match? Or Misbah-ul-Haq, Cameron White, Shahid Afridi, Herschelle Gibbs and Brad Hodge coming a cropper? Or that Shawn Marsh’s buy price would provide the most amazing ROI for any $50,000 spent in the IPL?
However once you accept the fact that there is always an element of luck in any of life’s endeavors, you realize that fortune has consistently favored the brave. Or in this case, the well-prepared and well-managed.
For instance, no matter how much Dada points to Gayle’s absence and two rain results that went against the Kolkata Knight Riders as reasons for KKR’s loss, the fact remains that with the team they fielded for most of the tournament, they did not deserve to make it to the final four. The seeds for the debacle had been sown the day the KKR team was announced with bizarre selections in the batting department with investments being made in people like Tatendra Taibu, Akash Chopra and Mohammed Hafeez to the exclusion of talented Indian T20 batsmen, decisions which led to KKR having the worst batting line-up, on paper, among all the teams once McCullum left. A stunning vote of no-confidence in his own team was made by John Buchanan when almost a third of the side were kicked out of the franchise.
Because “they did not have the skills to be in the team“. [This included a certain Cheteshwara Pujara, considered by many to be a future Indian prospect], a team whose skill levels allow for the continual presence of a Taibu and a Chopra.
A bit ironic considering that the team selection was a management decision of which I presume he too was a part.
Contrast this kind of high-handed arrogance with Shane Warne’s avuncular captaincy style, whose hands-on-ness, warmth, tactical astuteness and capacity to inspire has contrasted starkly with Buchanan’s note-taking coldness. Can we then ascribe to mere luck the fact that virtually every player for the Rajasthan Royals have delivered, often above their “price tag” (Sohail Tanveer , Asnodkar and Yousuf Pathan for example) while all of KKR’s assets, including David Hussey and Ishant Sharma, have underperformed? Similarly is there something more than chance in the fact that Punjab Kings XI have done so well, given that two of the best cricketing brains (Sangakkara and Jayawardhene ) are in its ranks?
So yes luck does and will play a big part in T20 but if you have a well-balanced team with a judicious mix of solid batsmen, sloggers, tactical brains and bowlers of various types who can bowl to their fields, then you will find, more often than not, things falling into place.