Welcome to the era of the total batsman
Though pure power had its influential say - Ben Cutting's brutal blows, Chris Gayle's clean strikes - the 2016 IPL, all taken together, pointed towards the supremacy of total batsmanship. The most valuable run scorers in T20 are also masters of all forms of the game.
Batsmanship is evolving, almost with every game. The technical and strategic potential of T20, present from the beginning, has turned into reality. Anyone who wants to see where batsmanship is going should study every innings played this season by David Warner, Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers.
There is good news and there is better news. The good news, for cricket's purists, is that all three players use a classical stance, grip, pick-up and address to the ball. They start sideways-on, eyes level; shoulders, hips, knees all forming straight lines back to the bowler. When they are forced to defend (though rare) it looks natural and easy. That is because their intent is to attack, but they have sufficient control to avoid over-commitment - just as it should be, in every form of the game.
The better news, for thrill seekers, is that they have used this technically sound platform as a starting point rather than the destination. Having mastered the essentials, they have elevated expectations.
There have been a handful of turning points in the history of batsmanship. WG Grace, it is said, was the first batsman to blur the coaching manual distinction between defence and attack. "When you block," WG advised cricketers, "infuse a little power into what you do, and do not be content to stop the ball by simply putting the bat in its way - anyone can do that - but try and score off it too."
Bradman accepted the premise but advanced the idea in practice. He brought a scientific rigour to the art of batsmanship, dominating an amateurish era with the relentlessness of the ultimate professional.
It is another sport, however, that provides an even better analogy with what is happening in cricket: football. In the 1970s, Johan Cruyff, combining exceptional technique with an irreverent mindset, reconsidered how football should be played. He wanted a game of rapid one-touch passing, with players endlessly exchanging positions in search of space. In English, it became known as "total football".
Instead of seeking a different balance among existing compromises - attack v defence, agility v robustness, speed v strength - total football redrafted the whole equation. Everyone in the team should be able to "play" (with skill, confidence, imagination and attacking intent); Cruyff's Ajax team pursued and achieved victory by staying close to that philosophy. It was, in a phrase that often is misapplied, a genuine paradigm shift - and the beginning of football as we now know it.
During this IPL, Kohli, de Villiers and Warner have done something similar to batsmanship. They have not accepted the old compromises. They have valued their wicket dearly while simultaneously proving almost impossible to contain. They have stayed close to the basics, while stretching the game's potential. Cruyff's advice, incidentally, was to remember the simple things, especially if you were having a bad game - after a few neat but unflashy passes, confidence floods back. In the same way, Kohli, in particular, always likes to get himself in playing "normally." First get set, then take the game away from bowlers. In the final, Warner scored 69 at a strike rate of 181, but there was nothing reckless about the way he played.
Kohli, de Villiers and Warner have not accepted the old assumption that scoring at a very high run rate relies on equivalent devil-may-care risk-taking. In 2016, they all scored at between 150 and 200 runs per hundred balls, averaging between 50 and 100 runs per dismissal. How can that be done?
If the technical foundations are strong enough, and the match awareness is clear enough, then even shots once considered wildly risky can be played with measured precision. Kohli's go-to shot under pressure has often been the six over extra, executed with the purest classical bat swing. The demands on his skill, judgement and self-belief are admittedly enormous. But risk? If a player keeps doing something without failing, then the risk has obviously been tamed.
T20 has not become a slogfest exclusively dominated by giants. All three total batsmen are closer in shape and athleticism to elite tennis players than to baseball sluggers or muscle-bound rugby players. Pure power still has its role to play, of course it does. But the most valued batsmen in T20 are also among the most prolific performers in Tests and ODIs.
T20 has not splintered into two separate camps - "technicians" versus "white-ball players" - but enabled the emergence of a more complete player: the total batsman. Joe Root, Kane Williamson and Steven Smith are part of that elite group.
Various theories have been proposed to underplay the revolution in batting: big bats, small grounds, average bowlers. Each should be warranted some, but not disproportionate, weight. The bats I picked up at this year's IPL weren't much different from the ones I used in my last season in 2008. Some grounds are too small, but this may disproportionately benefit power-hitters' mishits; bigger grounds would probably help the "total batsmen". The bowling? When leading batsmen apply so much 360-degree pressure on bowlers, no wonder bowlers make mistakes.
The theories that counter the brilliance of today's batsmen miss a deeper truth. For decades, conventional wisdom - steady on, you can't do that; don't take on a boundary fielder; having three shots in the locker is enough - suppressed batting's potential.
The imagination, athleticism and technical mastery of today's total batsmen have pushed back the outer wall of cricket's potential.