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Ed Smith

The World T20 and the battle for cricket's future

Who will win the war of techniques: the batsmen or the power hitters? Will timing triumph over muscle?

Ed Smith
Ed Smith
Virat Kohli drives off the back foot, India v West Indies, World T20 2016, semi-final, Mumbai, March 31, 2016

Deft touches and timing remain relevant in batting regardless of the format  •  Getty Images

Four balls, four sixes, game over. But the story of the tournament was much more complex than that. For while pure power and daring had the last, wondrous laugh in this World Cup, finesse and technique proved their worth over and over again.
We will all remember Carlos Brathwaite's decisive hits in the final - arms extended, hips rotated, bat unfurled, his swings as long and fierce as those of a champion baseball slugger. But we should not forget the recurrent influence of players like Joe Root and Virat Kohli, who proved that touch and timing will always have a central role in cricket, whatever the duration or format of the fixture.
What a finale! Cricket has a new star, but will it keep him? Given that the former West Indies batsman Kieran Powell tried out for the New York Mets in January, Major League Baseball's scouts will surely be aware of a serious power hitter by the name of Brathwaite. Okay, the first six of his four would have been a "foul ball" but the next three were fair home runs. Never before have I felt the relationship between cricket and baseball, those old cousins who insist on arbitrary estrangement, to be so close and converging. The only tip Babe Ruth might have given Brathwaite, a finishing touch to confer ultimate flair, is that he points to the spot in the crowd where he's going to hit the next one.
The beauty of this sparkling World Cup, however, lies in the breadth of skills on display. On the one hand, no one can doubt the advance of power. There were more than 300 sixes all told. Brathwaite himself didn't just win the final, he also hit the crucial six to beat South Africa in the Super 10s, another handsome blow way over leftfield - sorry, wide mid-on. On the other hand, the two leading batsmen in the final stages of the tournament were Root and Kohli, with 249 and 273 runs respectively, at an identical strike rate of 146.
Both men are slightly built and unlikely to pile on kilos of muscle. Their method is both modern yet timeless. They play with an urgency and positivity that is dazzling. But technical mastery courses through their game, with the vast majority of their runs accumulated through touch and timing rather than brutal power.
Taken in isolation, the shots that Kohli played in his match-winning innings against Australia could have belonged in classical Test match innings. Under the highest pressure, the shot he trusted above all others was the off drive. He played five of the highest quality, one into the crowd over long-off, two deftly timed along the ground behind square cover. As a sequence, it was a series of perfect cricket shots. When Kohli walked off the field victorious, cover-driving India to victory, it showed the enduring influence of silken hands rather than bulging biceps. It was cricket as Johan Cruyff would have interpreted it.
Excepting the odd modern flick here and here, Root and Kohli have elevated and built on the classical tradition. The right elbow is tucked in, the front leg is seldom cleared away, the instinct is still to wait and adapt to the ball rather than always to pre-meditate. They are batsmen not hitters, yet they have out-scored (and mostly out-paced) the strong men. Something similar could be said about Hashim Amla and Kane Williamson, though they have been less eye-catching in this tournament.
Technique, then, remains misunderstood. Technique is about having answers to problems. When batsmen must answer many different technical challenges in quick succession and at dizzying speed (the definition of T20), then brilliant technicians take a huge advantage out to the middle.
None of which takes anything away from the emotional thrill of Brathwaite's astonishing hitting in the final. Nor its skill. Brathwaite, too, does some things technically better than others. He does not choke the bat when he searches for sixes, closing the face as many people do. He retains a free, loose swing - even when he is swinging seriously hard. And he set up his innings with a deft fine sweep over the keeper - incredibly difficult for someone of his size. The game finished, however, with an exclamation mark of power and size, the ball disappearing into the stands, propelled by Brathwaite's vast shoulders and arms, the stature of a champion emerging under the Kolkata floodlights.
So this tournament ends with cricket on a high and a thrilling conversation developing. How will batsmanship develop next? Will the Roots and Kohlis continue to move ahead of the field, their touch more secure, their options more complete? Or will Brathwaite and his type eventually gain the upper hand, and, as in the final, finally dominate the conversation?
Not every argument needs to be resolved in a hurry. In the chatter and to and fro, the quest for the next winning quip, the game grows and develops.
Sport is at its most intellectually intriguing when it presents a battle of ideas and philosophies. In recent years, football has witnessed a conflict between two rival schools of thought. Advocates of relentless passing, positive intent and technical mastery, especially Pep Guardiola's teams, have taken possession and attack to new levels of completeness. And yet they have never quite snuffed out their counterpoint, those disciplined and opportunistic teams (José Mourinho's being the extreme case study) who look to counter-punch on the break against opponents who are temporarily defensively disorganised after long spells of possession.
Sport at its best is not just a contest between different teams, but between different ideas and approaches. During this brilliant, irresistible tournament, I saw the outline of a long and sustaining struggle for cricket's future. How nice it is to write those words in the context of technique rather than governance.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. @edsmithwriter