October 3, 2012

Not so bad for the bowlers after all

The World Twenty20 has shown that the shortest format need not be all a batsman's game

The Man-of-the-Match tally may say otherwise but quite remarkably this has been another World Twenty20 dominated by bowlers, and the tournament has been better off for it. Senseless bashing only appeals to fans of the World Wrestling Federation.

There have been no 200-plus scores, and there has been only one individual hundred, but none of the matches featuring the top sides has been without action and drama. From the moment Ajantha Mendis burst one through the bat and pad of Vusi Sibanda - only his third ball of the tournament - bowlers of all kinds have brought varying skills into play. Thanks must also be given to the curators, who either by design or accident have produced three different kinds of pitches.

The quick men have had the ball fizzing through in Hambantota, the spinners have enjoyed the grip, turn and sluggishness of the Premadasa, and Pallekele has had carry and bounce enough to encourage both seamers and spinners. Run-making hasn't been a hazard - in fact both Hambantota and Pallekele have made for fluent stroke-making, but they have also tested batsmen's skills against top bowlers. Colombo has been the toughest for run-making, but 150-run matches are often far more absorbing than outright slugfests.

Shane Watson has been the impact player of the tournament, but while his runs may have been his more spectacular contribution, half of his impact has come with the ball. Sensationally, he is both the leading run scorer and leading wicket-taker in the tournament. In a sense, Watson the bowler has made it easier for Watson the batsman. Both his half-centuries in the Super Eights came in matches in which the Australian bowlers had restricted their opponents to under 150. Even against Pakistan, it wasn't the bowlers who failed them.

The demise of bowlers has been predicted from time to time, especially with the introduction of new formats and regulations designed to facilitate quick scoring, but bowlers, like all species whose existence is threatened, are a canny and hardy lot: the true survivors among their tribe, they have historically met every new challenge by evolving their craft and adding new tools.

Reverse swing was a response to dry, barren pitches in the subcontinent; the doosra came about to counter big bats and hits to cow corner; the slow bouncer was developed to con the batsman who was armoured enough to brazenly take on the short ball.

T20 has brought the full-length ball, bowled kissing the tramline outside off; the yorker from round the wicket; the loopy bouncer; offspinners creating three different angles from round the wicket; and it has produced a completely original bowlers like Sunil Narine and R Ashwin, who have managed to transfer their skills - if not with the same degree of success yet - to the longer forms.

T20 has brought the full-length ball, bowled kissing the tramline outside off; the yorker from round the wicket; the loopy bouncer; offspinners creating three different angles from round the wicket

This has been said before. Unlike the one-day game, where the batsman has the time and space to build a base and can afford to manipulate singles and even play out a quiet over or two, T20 affords no such latitude. Every dot ball brings dread, and three successive ones a sense of doom. Not all batsmen can hit sixes for fun, as Chris Gayle does. Each dot ball preys on their mind, and crafty bowlers know how to exploit it.

Saeed Ajmal, in particular, revels in this knowledge, and batsmen who can't pick his variations become his puppets. He bowls quicker in T20 but never at the cost of subtlety. From round the wicket, he can drift it away with the arm, bring it back in with spin, and turn it the other way. Ashwin and Narine are wonderful to watch too, and along with Mendis, who pioneered the art of finger-flicking at the international level, they have created a new syntax of slow bowling that finds its most eloquent expression in the shortest form. Countless batsmen have been driven to desperately wild flailing after a few fumbling gropes.

Of course, it's not merely about the mid-innings choke. If it is swinging or zipping off the pitch, the new ball presents the perfect opportunity for wickets. Australia have based their attack on pace, and the combination of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Shane Watson has rarely failed to provide them a breakthrough in the first five overs.

Starc has been the best of the lot, and in his short career, he has managed to do what Mitchell Johnson struggled to achieve over years: swing it back in. He bowls with pace, his height gets him bounce off a length, and apart from the occasional wide down leg, he rarely bowls an outright poor ball. To hit him for a boundary involves risk, and though Watson has managed more wickets in the tournament, he has undoubtedly benefited from Starc's hostile parsimony at the other end.

It would be naïve, even outrageous, to suggest that T20 furthers the cause of bowling or helps the development of bowlers. In fact, because it is fundamentally rooted in denying runs rather than attack, it can blunt wicket-taking skills. But in the hands of skilful operators, it creates a different kind of contest between the bat and the ball, which can be compelling.

It is no surprise that three out of the four semi-finalists possess the most skillful and varied bowling attacks in the tournament. Sri Lanka perhaps have the most balanced team, with a variety of batsmen to complement a variety of bowlers. Australia have the strongest pace attack, with three bowlers of contrasting styles, and Brad Hogg adds the required touch of mystery. But Pakistan provide the best example of a team being carried far on the back of their bowlers. They have all kinds: a right-arm quick who can bowl fast yorkers and slow cutters; a left-arm new-ball bowler with a tricky action; an offspinner who has mastered the doosra, and another who can bowl flat and tight with the new ball; a legspinner who can skid and fizz it; and a young left-arm spinner with a wonderful temperament.

Can we say may the best bowlers win?

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo