West Indies: perfectly built for T20
What do we know about the respective run-scoring abilities of the two XIs that faced each other in the World T20 final?
In the table below, INNS is innings batted in, AGG is aggregate, SR is strike rate per 100 balls faced, BFPD is balls faced per dismissal, BFP4 is balls faced per four, BFP6 is balls faced per six. This record takes into account every T20 game played by the players in the final for any T20 side for which a scorecard is available.
The West Indies side was older, slower, worse in the field and worse between the wickets than England. Both sides had modest bowling. The West Indies XI had played a combined 1703 T20 matches coming into the final, England had 1136. The West Indian advantage in terms of experience amounted to nearly 50 games per match.
Not that England fielded T20 neophytes. The average English player had played 103 T20 games. Their best batsman, Joe Root, had played only 48, but he also had a wider range of international experience, which the other players could not boast of.
England seemingly had every conventional advantage bar one. Among all teams in the World Cup, West Indies had the deepest, most lethal six-hitting capacity. Add to this their significant experience of playing T20 games. An especially perceptive cricket commentator for the BBC observed to me at one point during the World Cup that "the West Indies seem to know exactly what they are doing".
Much has been made, both of Mark Nicholas' original observation that West Indies were "short of brains", and of his essay the day after they won. In it, he described the original observation as a throwaway line. Much of what passes for analysis of the T20 game by the many reviewers and commentators could be described in the same way. Nicholas' mistake was that he seemed to think that performance and reputation in the more conventional formats are of relevance in T20. Despite all their personnel problems, West Indies still had a winning record in T20 in the two years leading up to the 2016 World T20.
T20 is a terse contest. There are not many options available to either side. When the asking rate is ten runs per over, the ball has to be hit hard and long, and if a team is capable of hitting sixes, then it will stop attempting to do so only if it is truly short of brains. The best way to think about a six is that two of them are equivalent to three fours. In other words, hitting two sixes means that the batsman can afford an extra scoreless delivery and not score any fewer runs than another batsman who can hit fours but not sixes.
That has been West Indies' strategy. Twenty-eight of their 43 sixes came in the last ten overs of their chases. Additionally, they also hit 30 fours. Of a possible 300 deliveries in the last ten overs of five run chases, West Indies hit one in ten balls for six, and one in ten for four. If you break down the last ten overs of West Indies' chases into groups of ten balls each, two out of each ten, on average, accounted for ten runs. Even if they scored five runs off the other eight balls, they still averaged nine runs per over. In reality, teams rarely have more than four fielders saving a single, and even the fielders inside the circle often stay at the edge of the circle and concede the single. Add the occasional wide and no-ball and scoring eight runs off those eight balls is not all that difficult. That's 108 runs in ten overs.
Other teams have struggled to match West Indies in the sheer number of players who have the power to clear the boundary with similar ease. West Indies had Carlos Braithwaite, Darren Sammy, Andre Russell, Chris Gayle and Dwayne Bravo, all looking for balls they could swing at and hit over the boundary line. That is what gave West Indies their edge. But what does it say about T20 as a form of cricket? Ed Smith sees this as an argument between philosophies of batting. He poses the choice as being one between batsmen and hitters. I think it is a mistake to see the intellectual challenge of T20 as being about styles or methods of batting.
It is the bowler who begins each play. Teams seem to have worked out that good bowlers are wasted in this format. Imagine that you have an exquisite pace bowler who is genuinely quick, skilful and accurate. Mohammad Amir conceded 118 in his 15 overs in the tournament, just under eight runs per over. Amir cannot bat too well. Imagine a team is faced with a choice between picking Amir and picking a lesser bowler who might concede, say, 135 in 15 overs, but who can also hit the odd long ball. Who would you pick?
In a Test match, the choice is obvious. Wickets are paramount, and batsmen with very good techniques and the skill to play long innings are potentially so potent that a lesser bowler is unlikely to dismiss them. If the choice is between a high-quality specialist bowler who can dismiss top batsmen on good pitches, and a journeyman trundler who can also contribute a few runs with the bat, the better bowler is the rational option.
In ODI cricket, the choice is less obvious. The matter rests on who the other bowlers in the side are. If a side has two bowlers who are good enough to dismiss top-quality batsmen on good wickets, then for the third, fourth and fifth bowling spots, it makes sense to select bowlers who can bat a bit. Since each bowler can only bowl ten overs, the extra ten to 15 runs that a slightly lesser bowler might concede can be more than compensated for by the tail-end runs this player will provide.
In T20, given that a bowler can bowl only four overs, the choice between Amir and, say, Hardik Pandya does not much depend on who the other bowlers might be. This is a matter of central consequence to the question posed by Smith. Because the choice is often made against the more potent bowler, the challenge to the opposing batsmen is commensurately more modest.
In other words, just as the enormous ability of Dale Steyn or Amir is probably wasted in T20 cricket, so is the enormous ability of Virat Kohli or Root. It is much harder to develop into a well-rounded batsman like Kohli or Root than it is to train oneself in a narrower batting skill set in the manner of, say, Russell. Producing six Kohlis is much harder than producing six Andre Russells. A line-up of six Kohlis or six Roots would, over a large enough number of games in a variety of pitch conditions, probably outperform a line-up of six power-hitters against the same bowling. But it is also much harder to find six Kohlis.
For all these reasons, the struggle that Smith outlines is unlikely to be a struggle at all, unless the size of the ground is increased to make 90-yard boundaries standard, placing a premium on classical batsmen with the skill to place the ball a little bit stronger. Power-hitters will probably become commonplace in the T20 game. They already are.
In summary, as a sporting proposition, T20 turns cricket upside down. Whereas in cricket, wicket-taking is paramount, and as a consequence, having the technique and the temperament to withstand an examination from bowlers who are extremely skilled at taking wickets is of immense value, in T20, wicket-taking is of marginal value, since the batting side has so many to play with. As a result, wicket-taking bowlers are not as valuable, so the overall quality of bowling that batsmen face is lowered. And so, being as skillful as Kohli is probably a waste. Having narrower batting skills but more impressive power (like, say, Russell) is probably more effective.
West Indies have demonstrated this in the T20 World Cup. Their triumph is not only the triumph of the power-hitters, it ought to be seen as proof positive of the inherently greater value of having power-hitting depth. West Indies were not short of brains. They knew exactly what it took to win a T20 game, and they had the players who fit this understanding perfectly. West Indies won because they understood that it was a mistake to think about T20 the way one might think about cricket.