T20 cricket - Expect the unexpected
There wasn't an individual moment when it happened, a single event, epoch or epiphany; it was more a gradual realization, leading up to what we know now - to never turn a Twenty20 match off before it is finished, and finished means finished. Stumps out of the ground. Covers on the pitch. Presentations done and well-and-truly dusted.
No total is big enough, no target is high enough, no asking-rate is steep enough for the batsman of the modern era. There are no dead matches, there are no foregone conclusions. In this world, this new age, nothing is impossible. David Miller's jaw-dropping century in the IPL was one of a growing collection of innings that have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Miller himself went from 27 off 18 balls to 101 off 38; his team went from needing 94 from 40 balls, to victory with 12 balls to spare. It was, making no apologies for perceived hyperbole, mind-blowing. Like Gayle's innings earlier in the season it was laugh-out-loud ridiculous.
The normal parameters of cricket have been shifted by the T20 format and there are a multitude of reasons why this has happened - greater physical power, improved techniques, and bigger bats. But most importantly there has been a significant mental change amongst elite batsman, engendering self-belief on a scale cricket has never seen before.
Chasing a total in cricket is scary. Chasing a total in T20 cricket is even scarier. The importance of every ball is multiplied. The margins between victory and defeat are slimmer, both runs-wise and situation-wise. Once you've faced a handful of deliveries you are in the chase - if you get out, you've wasted precious balls playing yourself in and haven't kicked on, and once you're 'in' you're expected to take full advantage of that.
Chasing is lonely and a chaser never falls halfway. T20 chasing places the batsman in the rare situation when almost everything rests on the him. Not the team. Him. You as an individual either lose or you win, and that's hard. But modern batsman have learnt to deal with this pressure, and now seemingly nothing phases them.
The knack of perfecting a T20 chase is rooted in the batsman placing himself in a bubble. A perfect bubble of isolation - disconnected from the reality and immersed in the imagined. Seeing what one wishes to see, hearing what one wishes to hear, feeling what one wishes to feel. One journalist last week referred to it as "the art of staying in the present."
Chasing requires the strange contrast of zen-like disconnection as well as a heightened sense of awareness; another kind of awake. The chaser needs to always be on the look-out for the next scoring gap, working out the calculations, and considering all the options. A spark of genius that is the ramp shot over the keeper's head for six is not a moment to be cherished, at least not for the chaser - he must not reflect but react, so immediately thoughts turn to the next delivery, the next gap in the field, the next shot. A bubble of intensity. It is this disconnection, this ability to remain unaffected by the pressure of the situation or the carnage that the batsman himself is enacting that has ensured the impossible has become possible. Skills alone are not enough because pressure will corrupt even the finest of techniques.
The isolation players can create for themselves is best demonstrated by MS Dhoni, the master of the chase. All his energy is focussed on winning cricket matches, he doesn't fuss about his image or the celebration photos that would surely be all over the back pages the next day. Instead he remains separated and disconnected, even after the action itself is over. It is as if the calculations and strategic fluidity of chase must take time to leave his system, he is too wired into the match to show anything. He is in that sense the extreme example of the chaser.
It is important to remember too that it isn't just with the bat that parameters are shifting. Fielding has improved: more catches are taken and more run-outs made, and bowlers, with all their variations, pick up wickets regularly. Dramatic collapses were alarmingly common in the early part of the IPL this season, as much because of bowling and fielding excellence as batting ineptitude.
Matches are increasingly changing hands multiple times. The first six overs may be dominated by the ball before the set batsmen begin to accelerate, until middle-order wickets fall and the bowling side is on top again, and then all it takes is a handful of boundaries in the final over or two to wrestle the momentum back to the batting side. The twists and turns in T20 are obvious in the sense that they are often a handful of boundaries or wickets.
As T20 nears it's tenth birthday and new skills are truly and justifiably appreciated, fans are beginning to understand the still-developing format better. The die-hards now know that rule No. 1 is to never, ever turn a T20 match off before it is finished.
And finished means finished.
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