October 22, 2013

The declining value of the single

We wondered how T20 would affect the 50-over game. It appears that answers might be at hand

Virat Kohli: informed by T20 cricket, but not overwhelmed by it © BCCI

Around the time that Andy Flower was building the team that would bring England's first global white-ball title back from the West Indies, he spoke, in his usual guarded fashion, about the increased role that the black-ops analysis unit at Loughborough was playing in his thinking about the game.

On being pushed, he offered only one seemingly bland stat to illustrate his point. The team scoring the most singles usually won a 50-over game. The team scoring the most singles in a T20 match generally lost.

What was becoming apparent at the time was that T20 cricket would push the boundaries of the possible by its simple constraint of resources. The fewer balls faced, the further you had to try to hit each one. An inarguable consequence of that logic has been that the art and science of batsmanship has evolved more in the last decade than at any time since its origins. The impact on the Test game has been clear: more results, more quickly than ever before.

What was less certain was how it would affect the 50-over game. At last an answer is beginning to suggest itself here too. It is only a hint at the moment, but it feels true and it feels as though it is coming.

As Ian Chappell pointed out, in the extraordinary second ODI between India and Australia, 64% of the runs scored in the game came from boundaries, singles accounting for just 28%. Being a simple blogger rather than a stats man, I haven't counted who scored more of them, because what's evident is that it doesn't matter. The singles - the bulk of which would be scored during the "dead" 30-over period in the middle of an innings - have begun to lose their significance. The horizons have changed and the view is different now.

It's not the only illustration offered by this remarkable series. In Jaipur, India chased down 359, not with sudden surges but instead with a sustained and symphonic period of batting of the very highest class. The play of Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli has been informed by T20 cricket, but not overwhelmed by it. What they had accepted into their game was that sense of the possible, and with the knowledge deep in their bones, they bore down upon their target unrelentingly.

The jolting counter offered by MS Dhoni and James Faulkner in Mohali shaped a further argument. Here was another way in which scores could be set and chased, with shocking onslaughts in a very concentrated and calculated space at the end of an innings.

What remains a conundrum is that overall, totals in 50-over cricket do not seem to be getting higher in the way that T20 cricket at first suggested they might. Three hundred remains a general benchmark. Instead it is the way that teams are getting there that is changing fast.

The argument that the domination of bat over ball is somehow "not cricket" or that it's spoiling the game is harder to agree with, because it is a short-term one. The wider patterns of batting and bowling are an ongoing conversation had over decades, in which one responds to changes in the other, sometimes slowly, sometimes less so. It's generational too: there will be another era of great bowlers along soon, and batsmen in turn will have to respond.

Before that happens, Kohli is emerging as some kind of prototype; a batsman finely attuned to these shifting patterns. His is a glorious talent, a wonder of the age as well as a product of its thinking. He seems to have absorbed both Tendulkar and Sehwag into his soul, and offered both a futuristic twist. In that, there is something magical.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here