September 18, 2007

Two runs a ball, please

Batsmen are under pressure to score fast in twenty20



Two per: Justin Kemp and Herschelle Gibbs careened along at 12 an over all through their century partnership against West Indies © Getty Images

International cricket has entered a new age this month. For 35 years batsmen have felt pretty pleased with themselves if they were scoring at a run a ball. That gets you to 300 in a 50-over match, which is usually a winning total. But in a 20-over match, it only gets you to 120, which has "losers" written all over it. The target now has to be two runs a ball.

Think of the best innings played so far in the World Twenty20. Chris Gayle smashed 117 off 57 balls against South Africa. Mohammad Ashraful biffed 61 off 27 to knock out West Indies. Albie Morkel slugged 43 off 20 to see off England. Kevin Pietersen carved 79 off 37 to bring Zimbabwe down to earth.

The point applies to partnerships too. Craig McMillan and Jacob Oram added 73 off 5.2 overs against India; Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir thumped 76 off 5.5 overs at the start of India's reply. Last night Younis Khan and Shoaib Malik almost managed two runs a ball all through a majestic century partnership against Sri Lanka, adding 101 off 9.1 overs. Before this tournament there had only ever been two century partnerships in Twenty20 internationals; now there have been eight, including one, by Herschelle Gibbs and Justin Kemp against West Indies, that achieved the holy grail - rattling along at 12 an over.

Some players have decided that even two runs a ball is not enough. Shahid Afridi belted 22 off seven balls against Scotland. Jetan Mubarak of Sri Lanka walloped 46 off 13 against Kenya. Dwayne Smith of West Indies blasted 29 off seven against Bangladesh, so he was averaging four runs a ball.

When you think about it, even two runs a ball is phenomenal. It means that every dot has to be balanced by a four. It probably means hitting more sixes than fours. It means if you play yourself in, you have to pick up singles while doing so, and then you have to go at three runs per ball to make up for it. It means a typical over might go like this: one dot, two singles, one two and two fours. Hit a six and it becomes slightly easier: you can collect your 12 with one six, one four, two singles and two dots.

The myth that Twenty20 is a batsman's game has surely been exploded now. The batsmen are under intense pressure all the time. The bowlers are only under pressure when they are halfway through an over that has already gone for plenty. They can concede seven an over without anyone noticing, let alone minding. They only have to bowl four overs. And they can turn a match in the space of a couple of balls, whereas batsmen - as ever - have to keep it up for longer. The bowlers' strike-rates have changed even more dramatically than the batters': Daniel Vettori has taken a wicket every nine balls, and Elton Chigumbura went home with as many wickets under his belt as overs - seven in seven.

As always, a batsman who can score fast while staying in is a match-winner. Mahela Jayawardene and Matthew Hayden both scored at pace in the early games without taking big risks, making 100 and 144 respectively for once out each. Sanath Jayasuriya hammered 88 and 61 in his first two knocks. You don't have to be old to be this good, but it helps.

The myth that Twenty20 is a batsman's game has surely been exploded now. The batters are under intense pressure all the time. The bowlers are only under pressure when they are halfway through an over that has already gone for plenty

Steaming along at two per ball doesn't guarantee victory, as Sehwag and Gambhir, among others, have discovered. But if you can stop your opponents doing so, you'll probably beat them. These are liberties that are fiendishly hard to take against Australia. The fastest partnership of more than 20 against them so far has been by Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff of England, who added 24 off 16 balls. The only pair to add 50 against the Aussies has been Zimbabwe's Brendan Taylor and Hamilton Masakadza, with 53 off 46 balls - sedate, but effective, because the Aussie batting had suffered a rare collapse.

In this new world, 15 off eight is a good innings, and 15 off 20 is a bad one. One consequence of this is that the fans need to know the number of balls faced all the time. Television is good at sharing this information with us; websites like this one are superb at it; radio is not great, and newspapers, at least here in the UK, are hopeless. The three morning papers I get are all covering the tournament with their usual flair, but their scorecards are straight from the 19th century.

Another consequence is that fielding captains need to think harder about whether they really want a wicket. England had no chance at all against South Africa while poor Jeremy Snape was playing air shots at No 7. By taking the catch he eventually offered, AB de Villiers gave England a sniff of getting off a hook of their own making. Snape, whose strike-rate was 63, gave way to Dimitri Mascarenhas, who, despite being under even heavier pressure, managed 166.

Sometimes the fielding side amuse themselves by telling a batsman they're better off not getting him out. In Twenty20 it may well be true.

Tim de Lisle is a former editor of Wisden. His book Young Wisden: A New Fan's Guide to Cricket is published on October 1 by A&C Black. His website is timdelisle.com

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