September 19, 2012

'There's no wild slogging now'

In the decade or so that it has been around, how have players adapted to the rhythms of the shortest format? We asked a batsman, a spinner and a fast bowler for their views

The batsman

Brad Hodge
The main difference from 2003 to now is learning what the game is all about. Back then it felt like T20 was extremely quick and you did not really have the time to think about where the match was headed. You just played on instinct.

You know now that the game has definite structures: you know there is a Powerplay period in the first six overs, then you have the middle overs, where you can slow down a little bit, before the hectic pace of the final overs. Back when I started playing T20, you did not really know a great deal about it and you would think you needed to score ten runs every over - lots of people lost their wickets trying to score at the perceived rate. It was about seeing how far you could hit it. To me, T20 now does not seem as quick-paced as when it was first started. For me, it is just like a shorter version of one-day cricket.

You know you need to get your eye in, and the quicker you get your eye in, the more likely you are to score. The big change is, people now have more knowledge about what is a good score. Also, bowlers have become better equipped to defend those scores.

Pick your windows
There are periods in a match where you can do damage, and you've just got to try and find those throughout the game. There are little fluctuations throughout the match. There are going to be times when the bowler is going to be on top, but you know that he has got only four overs, so if you can attack another guy while a good bowler is in a good spell, you nullify the damage.

In the 2012 IPL I came late down the order when we [Rajasthan Royals] were chasing 197 to win against Deccan Chargers, who had Dale Steyn. Generally when you chase 15 an over, ten years ago you would have thought there was no chance of doing that. Now the bar has been raised. My game has not changed but the knowledge about how to achieve the target has got a lot better. When I came in, there was a spinner on, but I waited for Steyn to come on. I knew I was going to attack him. You'd rather win the contest there and then or not. You have to wait for the person you think you can attack. You need to pick your bowler. That is another change in T20.

Thoughtful slogging
There is no wild slogging now, as in earlier years. There is a technical side to it now. When T20 first came, batsmen slogged across the line, over the midwicket fence, and they got out by hitting cross-batted strokes over midwicket. Now there are different methods, where batsmen look to hit sixes in different areas - going inside-out over extra cover or just presenting a straight bat.

People are dangerous due to their cultured slogging. Take Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers, to name two: they are not huge hitters of the ball, but they are just as dangerous. Remember that the ball has to only get over the fence; it does not need to clear it by 50 metres.

Using the pace of the ball, cut shots, little dabs past the keeper - those are useful. There are two sides: the art of being delicate and finding the gaps, and then using brutal force that beats the guy by a metre. You know if you beat the guy at short cover or short midwicket with enough power, you can beat the guy on the boundary. If you hit the spinner with 80% power, you know you can clear the ropes. So definitely the percentages are in favour of batsmen.

"I had to think and learn things I had never done before, do dirty things, bowl quick, bowl from different angles, pitch at different lengths"
Murali Kartik

The spinner

Murali Kartik
When T20 started, spinners were an easy target. They started bowling with the mindset of one-day bowlers, which did not help. They were happy bowling balls in good areas. Batsmen would only run you down the odd ball in ODIs, but that is not the case in T20, where they will punish you every ball.

In this format everything is loaded against the spinner. Everybody wants to see only sixes and fours, and the pitches are mostly dry. The ropes are pulled in to 65 yards. So spinners have realised that to stay in the game, you have to experiment.

In my first-ever T20, in 2007, a domestic match in England, I went for 39 runs off my four overs. I realised then that I could not be thinking like a four-day or a one-day bowler. I had to think and learn things I had never done before, do dirty things, bowl quick, bowl from different angles, pitch at different lengths. I learned to think even more about what the batsman might do at any given time. For me, as a spinner in T20 cricket, it is the art of bowling the right ball to the right batsman at the right time.

Spin as a weapon
When T20 started, the strategy was to have seamers bowl in the Powerplay overs. Now you see about three to four overs of spin in the first six. Another big change is, spinners play a more prominent role in the end overs, where you see someone like a Sunil Narine successfully putting on the brakes and taking wickets. It is not just the slower pace of the ball - for a batsman to do something against spin, he has to leave the crease, and that is a risk.

You would not normally think of a left-arm spinner bowling from round the wicket to a left-hand batsman, or an offspinner coming from round the wicket against a right-hander. Spinners now vary the areas, angles, speed. Some stop and bowl, hurl it in more round-arm, some deliver with a side-arm action. It is not necessary to try and spin every ball. You need to mix it up with a quick one, a yorker, bowl it wide if somebody is charging you - do all those things to distract the batsman. Every ball has to be different, and you need to keep thinking on your feet.

The mental game
If I am bowling the first over, I can try to flight the first two balls, but you cannot allow the batsman to line you up. You have to know what shot he might play, what his go-to shots are, what he is capable of, what he has done to you in the past, what you have done to him - it is a mental game and you need to be on top of that because that helps minimise the damage.

The fast bowler

Shane Bond
When I first started playing first-class cricket, we had Max Cricket, with two innings of ten overs each. It was similar to T20 in that it was all about run preservation and bowling yorkers early in the innings to try and stop getting hit. In the early years of T20 cricket, I figured not a lot had changed with regard to fast bowling. If there was a change, it was in the mindset: you knew the batsman was going to attack you, so for a fast bowler it was about maintaining an attacking mindset and not a defensive one.

During my time with the Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL, I had good chats with our bowling consultant, Wasim Akram. We spoke a lot about mindset. He said: you are playing on flat wickets and you are under constant attack, but you still have to take an aggressive, attacking attitude into your bowling. By bowling a slower ball, it does not necessarily mean you are being defensive.

It is very easy to back off if a good batsman comes hard at you. During such a time, I find it enjoyable to see guys like Dale Steyn and Brett Lee steaming in fast and trying to swing and attack - there's still space for that in T20, because if you get wickets early on, you can capitalise.

Mix it up
Straight pace is one thing but you really need to have variations. You have to move away from the traditional method of running in quick and trying to get six deliveries in the blockhole. Back when I started, it was about landing a yorker, but now it is about where you land that yorker. Now the fast bowler needs to create an armoury of different deliveries for different situations. He needs to have more than one slower ball, bowl wide yorkers, leg-stump yorkers, straight yorkers, the slow bouncer...

The importance of being slow
On flat pitches, with shorter boundaries and big, meaty bats, pace can be an enemy. Fast men now have more than one slower delivery. The back-of-the-hand ball, the legcutter, the offcutter, the split-finger ball and the knuckle ball are types of slower delivery that fast bowlers deploy.

I remember a league match during the 2010 IPL. The Knight Riders were playing Deccan Chargers. It was a very slow wicket at Eden Gardens. Andrew Symonds was looking strong in the chase, but I remember, we were bowling six slower balls in a row at times, and it frustrated him. That is the big change: you can run in and bowl as fast as you can and try and swing the ball at quick pace, and then almost do the opposite, where you run in and bowl slow with different variations.

The pull and the hook shots are instinctive, and you want the batsman to commit early to them. I tried two slower balls: one that was fairly easy to see but was used as a set-up for the one that was not as easy to pick. That was the element of surprise.

Getting the length right
This is an area where bowlers have needed to quickly adapt. In the past, a yorker was used to try to stop the batsman from scoring. But batsmen started countering it cleverly by moving around in the crease. The yorker is a very hard ball to land consistently, and the margin for error is minimal. Bowling length or short of length is the norm now in T20 cricket. That allows the bowler not only variation in length, he can also vary the bounce. This forces the batsman, at times, to take a chance. Sometimes it looks bad if the length goes wrong and the bowler gets smashed, but it more often than not works out well. What I coach bowlers to do is to try out a combination of deliveries to double-bluff the batsman and keep him on his toes. You have to mix your lengths and bowl in areas that he is not good at responding to.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo