April 2, 2016

What's worked in this World T20?

Yorkers made a comeback, pure batsmen largely trumped hitters, and the myth of the par score was busted
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Batsmen like Kane Williamson were successful in this World T20 even when the ball didn't come on to the bat © AFP

Cricket is a simple game. Of course, unlike other simple games like American football, cricket couldn't even attempt a playbook of its tactics. If it had, that playbook would have been switch-hit out of relevance a few years ago. Now it would need to be updated minute by minute by a team of analysts and be too long to read without correct meta-tagging.

Coming into the tournament it was thought that the yorker was not the ball it used to be. And that's right. Ryan Campbell decided years ago, after hearing in bowling meetings about constant yorkers, that flicking the ball over his head while batting was a good way to go. Douglas Marillier and Tillakaratne Dilshan probably had the same thoughts when they started playing their shots. If the ball is full and straight, you find new ways to score off it.

Then there is the development of bats and batsmen. Bats used to have a high, small middle. Bats now have a lower larger middle. That is why shots like the helicopter exist.

Then there is range-hitting, which Lance Klusener was perhaps the first to bring into international cricket. Batsmen now practise having no fear, they know how far they can hit the ball, and it's a long way. And batsmen are stronger, they can muscle the ball now. Remember the time when a team sent in a big broad-shouldered bowler when they wanted a few sixes quickly hit? Pat Symcox, Craig McDermott, strong men with no fear. Now batsmen are the brawny ones. Chris Gayle, Corey Anderson, Johnson Charles and Brendon McCullum are the muscle men.

Much of cricket lore is from ex-players, and ex-players have often stopped evolving. They have their theories, they aren't changing. But the game does. Joel Garner would be a great bowler now, as he was then, but his yorker wouldn't be the thunderbolt sent down from the clouds that you couldn't play. It would still be a great ball, but the batsmen would be down the wicket, turning it into a low full toss. They would be back in their crease facing a half-volley. They would muscle it to the boundary with their big bats and big biceps, and they would flick it over their head.

But this World T20 has been different. The incredible slowness of so many pitches, and the even slower nature of the bowlers and their cutters, has meant that the ramps and scoops are not as useful. So the yorker has had a renaissance, and it was that ball that England used against New Zealand. It was that ball that took them to the final of this tournament.

In many ways England v West Indies is a contest between a team of McCullum devotees and a team of Chris Gayles, the believers of BMac v universe-bossing

Two men at the forefront of the new batting movement are Trent Woodhill and Julian Wood. Both are cricket men, in some ways right down to their surnames. But they are also part of a growing band of cricket coaches who are using techniques beyond cricket coaching manuals, and even beyond cricket, to change the game.

Woodhill uses baseball and golf power techniques while preaching to players playing their natural, unorthodox methods. His star pupils are Steve Smith and David Warner, two very different players.

Wood is probably too early in his career to claim ownership over certain players but he has worked with many county sides, and also with Alex Hales. His methods are very baseball-oriented as he studied with the Texas Rangers. Woodhill has had success, Wood is still working at it, but they are far from the only bat-swing doctors in world cricket.

They preach things like the power position, core, hitting the ball next to your body instead of out in front, and transference force. Front elbow up be damned.

The problem for this World T20, and cricket in general, is that cricket doesn't play by the rules of men, it plays by the rules of turf. The pitch has such a big say. So the men who are hitters, almost baseball-like, have struggled in this tournament as the ball has just refused to come on.

If we break down the three types of modern T20 batting, we have batsmen, strikers and hitters, with obvious overlapping in some cases.

The batsmen are pretty easy to spot: Kane Williamson, Smith, Joe Root and Virat Kohli are the best of them. They can play all the shots, they find ways to score on all the pitches, they hustle between the wickets, make the bowlers all but irrelevant, and generally don't come out all guns blazing. They prospered in this tournament, because they always prosper. Only form or a meteor can truly stop Hashim Amla from making runs.

West Indies are a team full of hitters, which has worked to their advantage on the slow pitches, because they back themselves to hit their way back after a string of dot balls © Getty Images

The strikers are players like Yuvraj Singh, Martin Guptill, Sharjeel Khan, Soumya Sarkar and Angelo Mathews. They can hit clean and long, but they usually don't slog, or don't try to hit; it is part of their natural batting style. They probably can't hit all the bowlers everywhere, but when the ball is in their area, against the bowlers they can hit, it disappears.

And then the hitters. Cricket's cavemen. They clear front legs and hack at the ball like it's done them a mischief. Corey Anderson and Colin Munro are batting at three and four for New Zealand, both are hitters. Munro is more likely to improvise, but they are not batsmen in the purest form. Warner and Glenn Maxwell at three and five for Australia was a similar line-up. In fact, many of these teams had hitters at the top of the order in this tournament, Shahid Afridi for Pakistan, Mohammad Shahzad for Afghanistan, and Chamara Kapugedera for Sri Lanka. On these slower pitches, by and large, it hasn't worked.

On quicker, flatter T20 batting pitches, it works. Against England, Munro got a short ball from Moeen Ali. On some of the slower surfaces in this tournament, this ball would have gripped and ripped. This time it slipped through quickly and Munro flat-batted the hell out of it a few feet from long-off, who never had a chance. It was the kind of ball Munro and his ilk have mistimed for one run, or none, for most of the World T20. It has turned the Munro set of players into guys who have eaten up balls in the middle of the innings, looking frustratingly out of touch, like they are trying to hit the ball too hard, and facing dot balls that more skilful batsmen could work out how to score from and put pressure back on the bowlers.

West Indies have a team of these hitters. Perhaps more hitters per capita than any line-up in cricket history. They have Denesh Ramdin and Lendl Simmons as strikers, and Marlon Samuels as their proper batsman. The rest hit. Gayle, Johnson Charles, Dwayne Bravo, Andre Russell, Darren Sammy and Carlos Brathwaite are all monster hitters of cricket balls. That should have cost them more in this tournament.

What is a par total? Does it factor in the opposition batting line-up? Does it factor in your bowling line-up in these conditions? Does it factor in dew? Does it actually mean anything at all? Does it even exist?

Because they have so many hitters they also have an advantage. They can face dot balls. West Indies have faced 49% dot balls in some matches. They failed to score off nearly twice as many balls as India did. Other teams feel like dot balls are their enemies. They take more risks per ball than West Indies, whether it be in trying to hit singles off good balls, or stealing extra runs when they bat.

West Indies take more risks from the balls they go for. They seem to back themselves to hit two boundaries in an over when they need to, a good proportion of which are sixes. They take pressure off themselves by just waiting for those options to come along. They simply have to hit boundaries, and they do hit boundaries. And with non-specialist bowlers, dew, and bowlers facing men who can hit the ball a long way, those opportunities come along. England have a quicker overall run rate and have hit more boundaries than West Indies. But that includes easy-to-score-on pitches in their five games. West Indies have had two, and they have won the boundary count in every match they have won.

The one time it didn't work, albeit without Gayle, albeit in a dead rubber, was in a low chase on a slow pitch. A hitter-killer pitch, and Afghanistan playing like it was their right to win. Yet the same pitch was prepared against Sri Lanka, West Indies they had one batsman come off, and that was enough. They would probably rightfully expect that the pitch wouldn't be like that for the final, as it certainly wasn't for the semi.

The West Indies plan is very similar to the Pakistan plan of batting, the only key difference is that West Indies can and do hit boundaries all the way through their innings and Pakistan don't. West Indies won't improvise much. They will barely deviate at all. They will know that two dot balls and a six is a strike rate of 200. And while the grounds looked too big for Pakistan, they look too small for West Indies.

England have a mixed bag. Jason Roy, Hales, Ali and even Adil Rashid are their strikers. Eoin Morgan, Jos Buttler and Root are proper batsmen. And Ben Stokes, Chris Jordan and David Willey are their hitters. It's a better mix than West Indies. There should be no situation when the opposition is on top of them. Against West Indies, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and South Africa, that mix worked.

West Indies are one-dimensional - that dimension is hitting a Santa sack of boundaries. England have many facets to their batting, but one clear mission statement from Trevor Bayliss is: forget the bowler, back yourself. England have turned themselves from a team that obsesses over how bowlers will bowl to each batsman in each spell in each specific set of conditions, to one in which batsmen see ball, hit ball. They have gone the full McCullum. In many ways this is a contest between a team of McCullum devotees and a team of Chris Gayles, the believers of BMac v universe- bossing.

England's fielding plans have a geometrical feel to them, while West Indies are athletic but random © Getty Images/ICC

If anything, England are still new to their "what would BMac do?" creed, and it is when batting first that you see them stumble a bit. It is cricket's favourite intangible buzzword - the par total - that seems to have a slight hold on them. And they aren't the only side.

What is a par total? How does someone come up with a par total? Does it factor in the opposition batting line-up? Does it factor in your bowling line-up in these conditions? Does it factor in dew? Does it actually mean anything at all? Does it even exist? Or is the whole thing a construct of cricket minds looking for answers?

According to MS Dhoni the Indian players were working out what they thought was par in their semi-final every couple of overs. They thought perhaps on that pitch over 200 was possible, but that going for it could result in them ending up at 160, which was well short. But what if they were wrong? What if it was a pitch on which you could score 230, and in settling for the lower total, they left potentially 30-40 runs unscored? All because their minds saw a par total, that, in actual fact, did not exist.

They had wickets in hand, two sloggers in Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja, and the quick-scoring batting of Suresh Raina. At the crease were two great limited-overs players. And instead of trying to put a total beyond West Indies, they scored just 13 over what their own revised-down estimates were. Now think of India, on that pitch against that attack, if they were chasing. You would have backed Virat Kohli and Dhoni to score 220, if that was what they needed. Maybe more because of Kohli.

Australia thought they were above par against India, and they were, they just weren't above Kohli. England would have thought they had a par total against West Indies, and then Gayle batted. Par totals are cricketers struggling to make sense of something that doesn't make sense. There are too many variables, too many things that can go wrong, but T20 sides are trying to work out the best way to bat first. Batting second gives you a script, batting first gives you a pen.

For teams like India and England, it seems they would prefer to be told what to do and then do it. West Indies, much like the way they bat in general, just do it their way.

There is also a difference in the field between the two. It was a Root catch that booked England into the semi-finals. It came from one of limited-overs cricket's new fads - the multiple fielders in the ring blocking off an area. It has been used before, but never have so many fielders fielded so close together so often. At times in this tournament four have been in the ring behind the batsman. At other times teams have used three of them behind point on the off side like some warped slip cordon. The time you really notice it is when sides don't use this tactic - their inner ring looks like it is from 2005: four men in four different zones.

Cricket doesn't play by the rules of men, it plays by the rules of turf. The pitch has such a big say

When Root took that catch, had he dived any further he would have crashed into extra cover. The two of them were blocking off a hitting region. Which worked. England's fielding plans have an almost geometrical feel to them. It was one of the delights of watching Amla dissect them like they were dead frogs in a science class.

West Indies have the athletes to be a great fielding side, but not always the endeavour to match it. They are still fielding with their feet. And while the English fielding maps seem to come straight from an analytics matrix, West Indies still have an air of the random, loose and unexplained in their field.

Where they are similar is that both teams bat down, West Indies to nine, England to ten. The recent trend of specialist players with bat or ball has been ignored by these two teams, partly because they can. England and West Indies have a treasure trove of allrounders. Players who can or will be factors with bat or ball in this game include Gayle, Simmons, Bravo, Russell, Sammy, Brathwaite, Root, Stokes, Ali, Rashid, Jordan and Willey. That is a huge list. It gives both teams flexibility in their batting or bowling line-ups if they need them.

Also, both teams are light on strike bowlers. Liam Plunkett and Rashid, with occasional assistance from Stokes, make up England's, while West Indies have Russell and Sulieman Benn, with Bravo as a proven wicket-taker. West Indies also have Samuel Badree, who will, unless something amazing happens, be hard to hit, and will finish three of his overs in the first Powerplay and the fourth before the tenth over. England hope the swing from Willey gets them early wickets. In the middle England rely on spin and Plunkett's pace. West Indies mix and match a bit more depending on the conditions.

The bowling line-up actually looks better for England. They have selected a team of the best options for T20 cricket. A legspinner, a fingerspinner, a proper fast bowler, a left-arm swing bowler, a yorker bowler, and Stokes' savage surprises.

The most common kind of successful bowler in this tournament has been the slower-ball bowler. Bravo is the king of that. While Mustafizur Rahman is rightly the flavour of the month for his modern interpretation of Sydney Barnes' bowling, Bravo has been bowling this way for years. And when even Dhoni and Kohli can't hit you, form is on your side. Sammy didn't even bowl in the last match, and Brathwaite is a similar kind of bowler, just a bit quicker. They need Russell to have a better night than he did against India.

England's death-bowling plan seems well set. Jordan will bowl full and straight and full and wide. Stokes will bowl two great balls, two full tosses by accident, and two short balls. Russell and Bravo will try anything and everything they can. A bit like Australia and Bangladesh, the chances are neither team will try spinners at the death unless something has gone very, very wrong. And then one of the captains might have to make a big call.

These are not big-call captains. Sammy is a leader more than a tactician. West Indies seem to float around plans, Badree aside. Bravo, Samuels and Gayle are probably more tactically astute, but none has Sammy's leadership, and it is on them that Sammy leans. Sammy smiles more on his worst day than Morgan does on his best. Morgan is more a lead-from-the-front type. He's a steely-eyed serious guy. Despite the obvious McCullum influence on England's style of play, it doesn't seem to have followed through to Morgan's leadership. His captaincy, like many modern English captains, is as much a backroom-staff effort as it is on-the-fly decisions. Had New Zealand and India made the final, it would have been a tactical bake-off, but with Sammy and Morgan, other than perhaps pre-formed plans, it simply won't be.

This, of course, doesn't even mention the individual battles between each bowler and batsman. Will they try for full and straight to Gayle, like India did, or will they try to get him reaching for a wide one? How will Hales and Roy go after Badree? Will Sammy try spin straight away against Morgan? Will Plunkett try the short ball with West Indies' middle order? It also doesn't include how the pitch will play, how much of an advantage batting second will turn out to be, whether the dew will come in, and if there will be any last-minute changes.

And, of course, what is par on this Eden Gardens pitch?

The good news is, even if there are endless strategies they can use in this game, when it comes down to a final, par is one more run than the opposition. It's that simple.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • DhimanDas on April 3, 2016, 23:13 GMT

    People are being unnecessarily being harsh on Rahane. He is a very technically correct batsman with strike rate above 110, an excellent fielder and should used more regularly in the T20 format. His contribution against WI was the reason why India got to 192 in the first place. He played a very important sheet anchor role with quick singles and provided strike to Rohit. If shown enough faith by the management, he will be an asset to Indian cricket and who knows may even captain India one day. People forget that his first class record is as good as if not better than Kohli's.

  • Jose...P on April 3, 2016, 8:53 GMT

    "...two dot balls and a six is a strike rate of 200...."

    That is 240! Give away, 20-40. Even then it is MORE than 200. That is good, no?

    That, sums up the West Indies batting approach!

  • mamboman on April 3, 2016, 7:17 GMT

    I cant believe this tournament is still going on..... for an entertainment designed for crickets shorter attention spans, it sure has lingered for a long time.

  • Pradish Haridas on April 3, 2016, 6:41 GMT

    What did not work is the undue advantage of dew .. Cricket world needs to do something about that

  • Egok on April 3, 2016, 6:25 GMT

    You can make all kinds of theories about what a par total is and what it should be. But it is something that comes from practicality. If the ball is seaming or swinging around vigorously and you simply go for 200 in 20 overs, you'd probably get bowled out for 80. Instead you can accept that 140 is a far more realistic target than 200, score it and defend it, like NZ did against both India and Australia. That is a par total - whatever is both practical and reasonable.

  •   Kaushik Jaganathan on April 3, 2016, 5:40 GMT

    Excellent article ! Loved it .

  • Rahul_78 on April 3, 2016, 4:50 GMT

    Pitch and Toss will play a big role along with the dew if it occurs. Both the teams are almost on the even tilt. Thats why toss will be crucial as it gives a clear advantage to the team batting second. If the pitch offers little turn England has WI cryptonite in Adel Rashid. If there is one thing WI struggle then it is decent leg spin bowling. India were the only top side that did not picked a leg spinner and it hurt them big time in semis as their finger spinners were taken to the cleaners. It it too close to call but England have a better balance in their bowling attack. Still feel whoever chases will win tonight.

  • Hrolf on April 3, 2016, 4:30 GMT

    With this tournament I think T20I has come of age and has demonstrated what a specialist format it is. Those teams with a T20I focus have done the best - WI is made of a team of T20 mercenaries, England completely embraced the T20I focus. And those teams that still hang onto a balance with Test cricket did the worst - Aus, SA, SL, and Pak. The challenge for cricket boards going forwards will be the ability to manage two completely different teams in two different formats if any country wants to compete at both the Test and T20I level.

  • landl47 on April 3, 2016, 3:48 GMT

    Liam Plunkett, with a T20 average of 16.9 and a strike rate of 127, will be disappointed to learn that not only is he not a batsman, striker or hitter, but apparently he can't bat at all.

    However, as for par scores, the only time you can believe you have a par score is when the opposition needs 37 to win off the last 6 balls. Then, even if they hit 6 sixes (and you know they are going to try) the best they can do is tie.