May 5, 2013

The arms race between batsmen and bowlers

T20 cricket has encouraged an arms race of sorts between the batsmen and bowlers, in which one side try to one-up one another in a bid to dominate

There has been an increasing number of close finishes in this year's IPL and despite the points table being slightly top heavy, it has been a very competitive tournament. Initially this format was thought to be all about the batsmen with the bowlers being ancillary components to feed the audience's lust for big hitting. Although batters win more Man-of-the-Match awards than bowlers, a skilful bowling unit is an absolute necessity to achieving consistency in results.

One of the notable evolutions of Twenty20 cricket has been the punching and counter-punching battle between bat and ball. It is a never ending fight to out think, out plan and then execute the skills that can place either discipline above the other. Hitting yorkers for boundaries is an essential skill for any middle-order batsmen and the reason that they are not as popular as many commentators wish is because batsmen have become incredibly adept at whacking them out the park. The lap sweep (and reverse if you fancy) are also regularly employed to combat a good yorker.

And so the bowling army looked to expand its artillery. The slower ball is the most basic of weapons that a seam bowler can have. It has been refined and many variations have been developed: off and leg cutter, split finger, single finger, and the latest being the slower ball bumper. It initially had batsmen perplexed in the final overs of an innings. It is still a very effective delivery, but in an attempt to get on top of it we see it getting dispatched over square leg and extra cover with increasing regularity. Batsmen have learned to anticipate it and sit deep in their crease.

AB de Villiers is probably the most consistently innovative player at the moment. Basic attack mode, in the style of Chris Gayle, or the more measured attack of a Jacques Kallis are less innovative, but as effective.

At Kolkata Knight Riders, Morgs [Eoin Morgan] and Bis [Manvinder Bisla] are the least conventional guys to bowl to. As an opening batsman Bis likes to get the ball in the air and uses both forward and sideways movements to get into a position to do this. Morgs is the modern day 360-degree batsman. You can sit in the dugout and anticipate how he will react to a field change and what areas he will target.

His innings' against Rajasthan Royals and Kings XI Punjab this year have been great examples of precision execution and reacting to the opposition's planning. With only five fielders allowed outside the ring, there will always be gaps. If you can manoeuvre the ball to all parts of the ground, you have a distinct advantage. These skills are well practised, and as you can imagine, there is a lot of danger in trying to teach yourself to go down on one knee and paddle a ball at 140 kph from in front of your face.

Field placings, tactical positioning of fielders (it is no coincidence that Kieron Pollard plucks so many balls out of the air at long-off and deep midwicket), and increased fielding standards are a secondary component in the battle. Chennai Super Kings have been a great example of how exceptional fielding can be as vital as a strike bowler. Within this subset is bluffing and double-bluffing. A certain field setting may lead a batsman to expect one type of delivery, only to receive the most unlikely one for that field.

The command structure (coaches, captain and team analyst) has also become a very important strategic component of T20 cricket. Precision planning is essential in getting the balance of attack right. How you nurdle your way through the Powerplay overs in Kolkata can be as challenging as getting 60 off the first six overs in Bangalore.

From its early stages of hand-to-hand combat, the T20 battle ground has now entered the nuclear arms race phase. Attack and defence systems need to be evaluated, updated and refined on a regular basis to stay on pace with cricket's arms race.

Ryan ten Doeschate is an allrounder for the Netherlands and for Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL