October 19, 2012

T20 is for the thinking cricketer

Bowlers have adapted to the format, which means batsmen can't rely on mindless slogging anymore

Something beautiful is happening to T20 cricket. Both in Sri Lanka, and now in South Africa, bowlers are making a strong comeback. They are saying they never went away, that they were just forced by pitches and boundary distances to take a little detour. Fast bowlers and spinners are back in demand, and those that do just a bit of this and a little bit of that are getting the sporting equivalent of pink slips.

It is my hypothesis, and it is worth a debate, that bowlers have become more versatile. Like with all aspects of civilisation, adversity has forced them to become more inventive. So fast bowlers have the yorker aimed at the base of leg stump, but they also have the one that kisses the tramline on the off side; they have the back-of-the-hand slower ball and the fastish offbreak; they have the sharp bouncer and the loopy one. With the batsmen coming hard, the bowlers have had to innovate, and as a result, the thinking bowlers are surviving.

Bowlers who can only ping the ball at the base of leg stump are getting paddle-swept. If they show their hand early, they are getting reverse-swept. If they don't turn the ball, they are being hit through the line, and when facing modern bats, if you don't beat the batsman in the air, the ball is going 90 metres away. T20 is forcing bowlers to acquire many variations. The format might seem like a brash young kid, bred on modern lifestyles, but it is rewarding old virtues again.

As a result, batsmen have a challenge on their hands. The mindless sloggers are looking a bit stupid. Playing yourself in, even if by a T20 definition, is proving to be a good investment. Mahela Jayawardene is one of the world's top batsmen in this genre, and Neil McKenzie showed how a cultured chase is possible when the Lions played the Mumbai Indians. Yes, you still need to have quaint flicks, you should still be able to clear the boundary from time to time, but the bullies with the big bats who threatened to hijack cricket are discovering there is fight left in the old game. Even Chris Gayle is giving the first two overs to the bowler. Why, that's 10% of the innings, not too different from when Sunil Gavaskar used to say "Give the first hour to the bowlers", for that was only a little more than 15% of the day.

It means thinking cricketers will be increasingly rewarded; that even T20 will not only be about knowing how to bat or bowl but about being aware of what to do in specific situations, and about finding solutions - which is what good cricketers in Test cricket have always had to do.

While in Colombo a couple of weeks ago, I found myself at the same breakfast table as Graham Gooch (and luckily neither of us needed to rush away somewhere). Gooch said, among other interesting things, that his job as batting coach was not to teach players to bat but to show them how to score runs. It is a fine and welcome difference, for conditions might change (Colombo and Johannesburg have demanded different things, even over 20 overs) and bowlers might too but you still have to score runs against them. You can't unless you are thinking and adapting all the time.

The increasing importance of bowling, even in T20 cricket, has implications for Indian cricket and for its batting. If domestic cricket doesn't produce quality thinking bowlers, it cannot produce quality thinking batsmen, because it is the intensity of the contest that sharpens skills. In a sense, if Indian batsmen are found out overseas, it is because they are not being found out earlier by Indian bowlers. MS Dhoni doesn't need to play seven batsmen in T20 cricket, but he does because he doesn't trust his five bowlers.

It has long been my thesis that Indian coaches have let Indian cricket down by not challenging their wards to think, by merely telling them what to do. With 27 teams, even 15 in the elite group of the Ranji Trophy, India should, by a conservative estimate, routinely produce seven to eight spinners and an equal number of seamers. The selectors should have a mighty headache caused by the overwhelming choice available. Good systems produce those choices. India are currently producing cricketers who are hitting road blocks, even in T20. By contrast, Australia had 11 fast bowlers at the Champions League, and they still had Peter Siddle, James Pattinson and Ryan Harris back home. The Titans - without AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis and the Morkel brothers - still put a very competitive team on the park.

For India to become a T20 power - and the message from Sri Lanka and South Africa is that it isn't at the moment - it needs to produce many more skilled, thinking cricketers (rather than merely rich ones) than it does now. It means coaching has to adapt, conditions have to vary and the contests have to be tighter.

That may happen or it may not, but the message from T20 cricket is clear. The game is demanding versatile, thinking, athletic cricketers.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here