October 1, 2012

'There's more depth to T20 than hitting out at every ball'

Brendon McCullum, one of the most skilled batsmen in the shortest format, talks about its evolution and how its pressures are different from ODIs and Tests

Close to a decade after the format was first played in England, T20 continues to concern purists, but what about the players, who have had to adjust their skills to fit its extremely condensed nature? Seven years after he played in the first T20 international, Brendon McCullum, one of the format's best known faces and its leading international run-getter, spoke to ESPNcricinfo in Kandy on how batting has evolved in the form.

You have five hundreds (in all T20s) in the format. How much of it is down to being in the zone and it being your day and how much of it to planning and execution?
It has an element of being in the zone and having those days where the conditions suit you and you have a good read on the bowlers, and the circumstance allows you to put the foot down. You also look at the amount of starts you give yourself. You keep giving yourself lots of starts and look to turn those into hundreds, but for me, it is not about the hundreds. It is about the contributions you make. What is more pleasing for me is that those hundreds I have made, we have won each of those games. So, yes, there are elements of being in the zone, and there are elements of structuring your innings according to the situation.

I think it has flowed on in ODI cricket as well - people's ability to read a situation. In the last ten overs now, you can get any amount of runs, because of the introduction of T20.

You spoke about getting starts. You have a higher proportion of 50-plus scores in T20Is compared to ODIs. Does this format free you up? Do you have a better chance of posting a big score once you get your eye in?
This format suits my style of play a bit more. I like to be pretty aggressive. In 20 overs, you have to continue to do so. It suits my temperament more - being able to make those quick decisions while you have got the bat in your hand. If you do keep giving yourself those starts, turning them into match-winning scores is that much easier. Also, in T20, when you give yourself a start, the bridge between a start and a match-winning score is not as great as it can be in the other forms. That is probably why the conversion rate is slightly high.

T20 batting is one-dimensional in the sense that you have got to hit consistently. Is that a positive? Or can that get overwhelming at times - say, when you play out dot balls?
You are not always going to perform. There is the understanding that while you may have the right game plan or the right frame of mind when you go out to bat, it might not always work out. I think it is more than just hitting. The tactical sense of targeting short boundaries, targeting specific bowlers, looking to hit them in specific areas and expose certain areas of the field, as well as the balance between attacking early in the over as against late in the over. While on the surface it appears that you are just consistently trying to hit out at every ball, I think there is more depth to it than that.

Guys like Eoin Morgan and Kevin Pietersen… Chris Gayle probably has the ability to hit out more than most, but the other guys, Suresh Raina and the like, have the ability to read the situation too. If you really dive into the depths of the game, the ability to read the situation and adapt their game accordingly is why they are successful. That is what you are constantly chasing. It does not always happen, but that is what you are chasing as a batsman in T20.

As the highest run-getter in T20 internationals, how do you think batting in the format has evolved in the seven years you have played it?
It's been a fairly quick evolution of the game and people have been very quick to adjust to it. During the first T20I [in 2005], it was about doing the dress-up and people growing beards and the like, and you were trying to swing at every ball. There is a lot more seriousness about it now. People's understanding of how to play the game has definitely developed. Overall, it has been a very rapid development and one that has been great for the game.

Can it be said that T20 batting has become some a separate art, or do players still perceive it as being mostly a hit-or-miss variety?
I think you need to have the mentality that you may miss every now and then. You are probably going to miss more often than you succeed in T20. It's just the nature of having to be as aggressive as you need to be. With that high risk, you are going to come unstuck. There is an understanding that it can be a bit of a hit or miss, but when it is your day, there is also the understanding that you have to still craft an innings and how you go about doing that, reading the situation very quickly and adapting accordingly. I think some of the best players in T20 know that, and it is no mistake that they give performances more often than not.

"Dot balls are okay. Sometimes the situation is such that you just cannot afford to lose a wicket. So you'd rather take a dot than try to force the issue to pick up some runs"

A few days ago, Brad Hodge said T20 batting had evolved from wild slogging to cultured slogging. He spoke about the likes of Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers. He said there were two aspects - timing the ball into the gaps, and hitting it so hard that it beats, say midwicket, and long-on as well. What is your take on that?
I do agree with him. Those guys he has mentioned there - two of the world's premier T20 players. I think they go about it differently compared to some of the other guys, especially those that bat at the top of the order. There is more cultured slogging or cultured hitting at times.

There is a craft involved. When things are going good for you, you are able to put pressure on the bowler early in the over and that can lead to a big over. When things are not going so well for you, you still need to be able to pick up some boundaries. So you look at, maybe, accumulating through the first part of the over and pick up your boundaries at the end of the over to try and minimise your risk. Those are the things you try to work out during a game. Again, it does not always work.

Everyone is going to have specific areas they are strong in. AB de Villiers is very strong with his reverse sweep, hitting over cover and long-on, his ability to lap as well. Virat Kohli is a bit more orthodox but plays shots all around the ground. Gayle is very strong hitting straight or over cow corner. David Warner is another one. You are always going to have areas where you are strong as a batsman and where you can try and target your boundary options. So I think there is a craft in it, being able to work out what is required of your game at that point of time.

I was speaking to Saqlain Mushtaq a few days back. Only half in jest, he said bowling a maiden in a T20, for a spinner, is like taking a ten-for. It is that rare. From a batsman's point of view, how much does playing out a maiden play on your mind? Even a dot ball, for that matter.
Dot balls are okay. You do try to minimise the number of dot balls you face in an innings. Sometimes the situation is such that you just cannot afford to lose a wicket. So you'd rather take a dot than try to force the issue to pick up some runs. If you are facing continuous dot balls or slow overs, it definitely plays on your mind. You need to get your team to a score which is competitive or above par.

That is another skill that has come into the game - the ability of some bowlers, especially spinners, to identify when they are on top of the game and bowl very fast overs. The other night, Mohammad Hafeez bowled overs inside 45 seconds to a minute. That is a skill in itself - identifying when is the right time to go fast or slow. Same thing for a batsman.

Speaking about strokes, during that century against Australia in 2010, you scooped Shaun Tait over short fine leg. How much courage does that take? How much of it is down to pure instinct?
To me, I had to play that shot because I didn't believe I was capable of hitting them in front of square [smiles]. The pitch was very good, the boundaries reasonably short, and he was bowling pretty quick. We had to score in excess of 190 and had to hit their best bowlers for fours and sixes. I honestly did not believe it was possible to do so in front of the wicket. I had to take an educated risk and guessed that was the best way to do it. I could have been knocked over but those are the risks and gambles you have to take during a game, based on what is required. I was lucky those ones came off that day.

All the focus is on the fours and sixes in this format. How important do you think is the single?
Especially if there is a left-hand right-hand combination, singles are of huge importance. Again, it is about structuring the over when you need the singles. If you get a boundary and are able to follow it up with some sort of scoring next ball, it makes the over more sizeable. Rotating strike and running hard helps your ability to construct your innings. You can't go out and make a huge score where it's all boundaries. Otherwise it gives the bowlers an opportunity to wear you down.

After your century against Bangladesh, you said that, having played the format so much, you had now developed a pattern in your mind. Do you think batsmen are learning more and more on how to build a T20 innings?
I am learning the pattern. I would not say I have developed the pattern. It is going to take a long time to learn. I definitely have more information now than I did seven years ago on how to play this game. You try to include that in your style of play and the need to play for your team at that point of time. A pattern does start to emerge in people's games. I am sure Gayle has got his own pattern in mind. There are different players who have different patterns. From what suits my style of play and my role in this team, there is a pattern starting to emerge. Then you can prepare for that mentally and assess a situation and work out where that pattern needs to raise its risk or reduce its risk.

Finally, a question about your batting style. You move around so much in the crease, you charge fast bowlers, yet you manage to retain a lot of control over your bat-swings. How do you do that?
I don't know. [smiles] While you are moving a lot prior to the point of impact, you try and keep the key fundamentals of staying still at impact. As long as my head is still, my hands are back and ready to hit the ball, and my eyes are on the ball - the three fundamentals - what goes on before that is irrelevant. It is more to try and mess with the bowler's head a little bit. Again, it does not always come off but sometimes, it is required.

Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo