October 22, 2009

Method to the Twenty20 madness

It's not all wham, bam, thank you ma'am; there's a science to batting successfully in the shortest format

We've heard it ad nauseam: the Twenty20 format belongs to batsmen. Bowlers are more than bowling machines, serving up balls to be hit to all parts of the ground. If you go by the number of runs being scored in Twenty20, and the economy-rates of bowlers, you'd side with that opinion as well. But let's look at this game from a batsman's perspective as well. This is the first part of a mini-series on batting, bowling and team strategy in the shortest format of cricket. I shall be writing about bowling in the next article.

Does the quality of the bowling deteriorate in Twenty20?
No, it doesn't. But good and great bowlers still go for plenty because getting out, which scares the batsmen in other formats, is considered insignificant in Twenty20. In an ODI the top six or seven batsmen are supposed to bat 50 overs, so we see a conservative approach to batting, even in the Powerplay overs, but there's no such responsibility in Twenty20. In any case one decent partnership is enough to consume the major part of 20 overs, and then the rest of the batsmen can go completely berserk. It's astonishing to see the kind of shots batsmen - and in some cases even bowlers - pull off when they do not have the fear of getting out.

More time than it seems
Let's look at how batsmen prepare for and look at this format. David Hussey, a successful Twenty20 player, says that there's more time in a Twenty20 game than one thinks. When a batsman walks in to bat and knows that his team needs nine an over, the natural tendency is to become adventurous from the first ball. But it's not often that he can hit the first ball for a four or a six. Besides, attempting a big shot before he can see the ball properly would mean a greater risk of getting out and hence putting the team in further trouble. That's where Hussey's advice comes handy.

You should give yourself at least a couple of balls before exploding. You can always take a couple of singles to rotate strike, and get the blood flowing in the veins. This, in turn, might also ease the pressure and help you assess the situation objectively. There are 120 legal deliveries to be bowled in every game, and if you can reduce the number of dot balls, the pressure that comes from thinking you've been holding up the strike and need to hit a big shot is drastically reduced.

Balls at a premium
In Test cricket the batsman gets a few overs to get his eye in, in a 50-overs match he gets a few deliveries, but in Twenty20 it is only the matter of a couple of balls. That's the reason why batsmen in the dugout are always padded up and glued to the game. Information is vital in a Twenty20 game, and hence a batsman, after getting out, informs the remaining players how the track is behaving and what the par score would be. Most batsmen, while waiting for their turn to bat, also make a mental sketch of the areas they would target while facing certain bowlers.

Twelve runs an over from the last three might sound extremely difficult, but 36 off 18 scoring opportunities doesn't sound that ominous. If you can manage six hits to the fence in those 18 deliveries, you need only singles from the remaining balls

Since balls are at a premium, players who can hit boundary shots are valuable. You can only go so far with just rotating strike; ultimately you should be able to clear the fence.

Calculated risk
While it is good to consume a couple of balls before going big, there are certain situations that demand a different strategy. For example, if your team is chasing over 160 runs, it's imperative to go after the bowling in the first six overs. In such cases the strategy of the fielding team is to form a ring and bowl on one side of the wicket, which makes piercing the field along the ground extremely difficult. That's why players like Brendon McCullum, Matthew Hayden and Virender Sehwag, who aren't scared of taking the aerial route, are more successful in the Powerplay overs.

It's not easy to take singles when seven fielders are inside the circle; it's either a boundary or a dot ball. Batsmen who manage to play with the bowler's mind are also more successful than the rest. Gautam Gambhir does that effectively. He walks down the track regularly to get the bowler thinking, and then waits on the back foot for the short ball.

Identifying the weakest and strongest links in the opposition bowling is important. For example, if it can be avoided, you wouldn't want to go after Muralitharan or Daniel Vettori in subcontinental conditions. And in seamer-friendly conditions you'd like to play it a little safe against quick bowlers while targeting spinners.

A stable base, and staying away from the ball
Keeping a stable base is extremely important when hitting a long ball. Kieron Pollard, Andrew Symonds and Rohit Sharma are good examples of keeping a stable base and head while hitting the ball in the air. Most batsmen, including myself, are guilty of losing the shape of the shot when we try to manufacture shots or slog, which eventually end up looking ugly.

Unlike Test cricket, where the batsman is supposed to use his feet to get close to the ball, the batsman is better placed if he stays away from the ball in Twenty20 cricket. Staying away from the ball allows him to free his arms and also get under the ball to get elevation.

Go-to areas
Every batsman must identify his "go-to" areas and shots, at least one each on both sides of the wicket. Once you have mastered these strokes, which could be over covers on the off and over midwicket on the on side, you either wait for the ball that can be hit in those areas or make room or walk inside the line to create that shot. Hussey says that one should back oneself, especially when it comes to hitting balls in his go-to areas. The idea is that if the first ball is bowled in your area you shouldn't be afraid to go for it.

Thinking in balls, not overs
Another thing that batsmen agree on is thinking in terms of the balls remaining, not overs. One must try to break it down even further. For example, 12 runs an over from the last three might sound extremely difficult, but 36 off 18 scoring opportunities doesn't sound that ominous. If you can manage six hits to the fence in those 18 deliveries, you'll only need singles from the remaining balls. Putting it that way makes it sound easier, yet we all know it isn't; but it surely is slightly less difficult than thinking in terms of scoring two runs per ball.

Twenty20 has also taught the batsmen to never give up. Even if the asking rate is 15 runs an over in the last five overs, batsmen have started to believe that it can be achieved.

There can be a number of theories when it comes to batting in Twenty20 format, but it boils down to how an individual reacts to the situation when he walks in to bat.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Beyond the Blues, an account of the 2007-08 Ranji Trophy season. His website is here