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Essay

T20s might be the future, but they won't thrive without bilateral cricket and its ecosystem

A look back at 2022: how Stokes and Co redefined Test cricket, the continuing rise of the shortest format, and more

Sambit Bal
Sambit Bal
02-Jan-2023
Boult from the blue: cricket's quiet capitulation to Boult's - and later James Neesham's and Martin Guptill's - decision to prioritise franchise over country signalled a paradigm shift  •  ICC via Getty Images

Boult from the blue: cricket's quiet capitulation to Boult's - and later James Neesham's and Martin Guptill's - decision to prioritise franchise over country signalled a paradigm shift  •  ICC via Getty Images

Cricket's reckoning didn't arrive to drumbeats in 2022. It came innocuously, via an email. Trent Boult, the left-hand half of the most prolific fast-bowling duo in New Zealand's history, had chosen to walk away from a national central contract to pursue a freelance career. It wouldn't rule him out of playing in national colours - he did, in fact, go on the play in the T20 World Cup - but it would allow him to choose when not to.
In choosing cash over country, Boult was hardly a trailblazer. Kerry Packer managed to lure almost the entire Australia team and many leading cricketers of the world away to his private league in the late 1970s; English, Australian and West Indian cricketers chose bans and risked ostracism by accepting money to tour South Africa in the apartheid years; South Africans have chosen the security of county contracts over their ambitions of representing their national team; and many Caribbean cricketers have prioritised club cricket in recent years.
And yet, something was new. There were no howls of horror. No one called Boult a traitor. Of course it helped that despite having a high-performing cricket team, New Zealand cricket fans are not the effigy-burning type. There was no rancour to speak of. The cricket board made the announcement and released Boult's statement. The chief executive spoke. There was acknowledgment and understanding of the circumstances, and in that quiet, if resigned, acceptance, it was easy to see how much cricket has changed on this subject.
For all the glory and glitz, the life of elite sportspersons can be cruel and lonely. You close off most other options really early in order to have a chance at your sport. The chances of reaching the highest levels are miniscule, and even if you make it, success is dependent on the vagaries of form and injury, and in team sports like cricket, the whims of selectors. And after all that, your shelf life is short - 10 to 15 years for most, 20 for the truly exceptional. The honour of wearing the national cap is incomparable, but can we, in our right senses, grudge cricketers their pursuit of a better-paying future in league cricket?
Soon after Boult made his choice, two of his team-mates followed in his footsteps: Jimmy Neesham too declined a contract, and Martin Guptill was released from his after he lost his place in the white-ball sides. They will not be the last.
The future cannot be built on a T20 foundation alone
For a sport that charted its unique course by staying steadfastly true to its bilateral traditions for well over a century, cricket has been unsettled by the winds of change over the last 15 years, but a clearer path is now emerging. That T20, and by extension, leagues, franchise-based or otherwise, will carry cricket into the future is now undeniable. For over a decade, tensions rose over finding windows for T20 leagues in the bilateral calendar; over the next decade, that is likely to be flipped on its head: bilateral cricket will have to be squeezed into whatever windows are left vacant by leagues.
T20 is still evolving, and contrary to the mindless slugfest it was originally imagined it would be, it is turning out to be a game full of intricate tactics and calculation. Tests remain the pinnacle for traditional cricket skills, but in demanding peak performance every ball, T20 challenges the mental and physical prowess of cricketers in an extreme way. In Tests, or even ODIs, there is space to breathe, play yourself in, work your way into a spell, pace your performance, to recoup and to recover. In T20, one blink can cost you a match.
That the format represents the zeitgeist hardly needs belabouring. It brings families to grounds, and it commands TV prime-time attention. Unsurprisingly, every cricket board envisions its own league as being a pot of gold, or at least sees it lighting a path to self-sufficiency.
But to imagine a paradise built primarily on franchise T20 would be a lazy and self-defeating assumption, lacking both vision and comprehension about the game's development. Cricket's fundamentals are developed at the grassroots and skills are harnessed and sharpened, block by block, in competitive cricket through the age groups, in domestic cricket, on A tours and in international cricket. There are exceptions but players who come up through this grind are invariably more versatile, battle-hardened and better equipped to deal with varied conditions and different match situations.
Franchise cricket reaps the benefits of what is sown at the grassroots and nurtured by the global ecosystem. The IPL, or any other successful league, will not have been what it is without the global talent pool, and a global talent pool wouldn't have, and will not in future, emerge without a robust global system that feeds off bilateral cricket. To not grasp the dynamics of this essential interdependence would be an arrogant folly. Put in the language of business that cricket administrators are conversant with, all good businesspeople know how to take care of their supply chains.
Cricket fans are blessed that their game scales across three formats, with different rhythms and textures that can cater to different kinds of fans and moods. Apart from the compelling fact that vast numbers of fans are still keen on watching it, bilateral cricket is also vital for the upkeep of many smaller boards. All leagues will never be equal, and besides the revenues distributed from ICC events, which will continue to be hugely popular, smaller boards will continue to depend heavily on bilateral tours (primarily those by India) to remain financially viable. Such tours must not be seen as charity but as a minimum requirement to keep the sport healthy. If cricket, already a small sport, shrinks, everyone suffers.
Bilateral cricket: how much is too much?
That said, not everything feels right with bilateral cricket now. A lot of it feels too random, too scattered, without narrative or purpose. Matches these days blur into one another, leaving no time to savour wins or mope over losses. Instead of returning home triumphant from the T20 World Cup win, England stayed back in Australia to play an ODI series that started four days later. Just before the World Cup, Australia played T20Is against England and West Indies with a gap of just one day between the two series, requiring them to play two different bowling attacks; and through the course of the year, various Indian senior men's teams played in 11 different countries, under seven different captains.
And there is too much bilateral cricket: 2022, was by some distance, cricket's busiest year ever. If you were to take top-flight men's cricket for illustration, there were 1021 days of bilateral cricket between the top 12 countries, featuring 246 matches. Add 413 matches from various leagues and it made for 1434 days of cricket for men alone, up from 1218 in 2019. And with at least two more leagues in the calendar, the number is likely to increase in 2023. Surfeit has already brought spectator fatigue; lack of relevance and context are bound to breed indifference.
Some fixes are so obvious that they present themselves. Partly, the overcrowding of the schedule is due to the Covid backlogs, and things ought to ease up a bit once the boards manage to clear their pending obligations. But going forward, boards that have lucrative leagues need to be pragmatic and sensible about the revenue they should expect from bilateral engagements.
Two, tying the schedules of white-ball cricket to world events will not only help in creating a sense of occasion, both for the event and the format in question, it will also help teams identify squads and practise their skills.
ODIs sometimes feel like the forgotten format, but it is indisputable that the 50-over World Cup is still the biggest event in the international calendar, and there is no reason why 2023 shouldn't have been the year of the ODI, with T20 cricket staying limited to the leagues. This, of course, is in hindsight, but there future schedules must be planned with these aspects in mind.
Sport would lose its unique and essential appeal if it were to be positioned as mere entertainment. Sport tugs at ours hearts and brings tears as well as joy because it is part of a wider tapestry: it arouses our tribal instincts and it keeps us invested in a larger story. Wins and losses need to matter to bring joy or tears. If fans care less and less, broadcasters will notice, and even in a single-sport market like India, the returns will eventually reflect that lack of interest.
Stokes and McCullum: lighting a fire under Test cricket
Test matches cater to a niche and are followed by fans who savour the winding narrative and the purity of the contest between bat and ball. The World Test Championship has imbued the format with additional meaning. South Africa are currently fighting to stay in the race, and for India, the outcome of each of their recent Tests in Bangladesh meant as much as their upcoming Tests against Australia will.
England have drawn a path for Test cricket in a manner few others would have dared imagine, let alone set forth on themselves. The role of the captain is sometimes overstated, but Ben Stokes, with Brendon McCullum by his side, has turned the adage "the captain is only as good as his team" on its head by making his team as audacious as its captain.
Few turnarounds in the history of cricket have been as spectacular as England's when they went from one win in 17 Tests to nine wins in ten, and it is gobsmacking that Stokes and McCullum achieved it with almost the same sets of personnel, with just one simple change: by freeing their minds to go where Test batting has never gone.
Test batting benchmarks in the modern era were set by the Australian teams of Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, and in their combined golden era between 1999 to 2007, those sides scored at an average of 3.65 an over. If we drill it down to the best ten-Test streak of the greatest Test team of the modern era at its very peak, we get to a a run rate of 4.12. England smashed that mark by over half a point, scoring at 4.77 an over.
But if that was sensational, they laid down their true marker by how they chomped down fourth-innings targets, Test cricket's age-old bogey. The record for most fourth-innings chases of over 250 in a calendar year belonged to Australia, who did it three times in 2006. England did it in four consecutive Tests in 2022, with breathtaking swagger and relish, against the finalists of last year's Test Championship. They chased down 299 at nearly six runs an over, 378 against India just under five against India, and at one stage of their chase of 167 against Pakistan they were rollicking away at ten an over. The average scoring rate in six of their chases in 2022 was 4.99. Shock and awe redefined.
Ten is a small sample size (Australia's reign lasted over 100 Tests) and England's method must pass sterner tests - the Ashes at home in 2023, and India away in the future, but what Stokes' team have achieved is significant: an astonishing expansion of batting's possibilities in Tests by removing the fear of consequences. It is the founding principle of batting in T20, where batting resources are disproportionately abundant, but to take that to Test cricket, where the loss of a wicket could be match-changing, takes a courage that is liable to be ridiculed when the tactic fails.
Stokes' genius has been his conviction.
Women's cricket: India are awakening to its potential
The possibilities also look limitless for women's cricket, which is poised for explosive growth. The T20 World Cup is round the corner, but it is the women's IPL that is likely to be the tipping point.
The last two ICC events have been memorable despite one-sided finals, both dominated by Australia. The 2020 T20 World Cup felt like an epochal event, when over 80,000 fans gathered at the Melbourne Cricket Ground to watch India and Australia in what would turn out to be last major multi-team cricket event for 18 months. Two years later, the 50-over World Cup in New Zealand became the most watched women's tournament ever, with a total of 215.2 million viewing hours on television, and an additional 1.64 billion video views on the ICC's channels. If the crowd enthusiasm for India's recent home games against Australia is any indicator, the women's IPL could comfortably surpass all these numbers.
The tournament should have come sooner - the Women's Big Bash League completed eight seasons in 2022 - but it has come at a time when India's cricketers couldn't have been primed any better. Australia, winners of 12 world titles, have been a league above, and England have been their closest competitors. But India have been inching ahead, making it to two finals in the last five years, and their batters have been catching up with the power game.
In their contrasting styles Smriti Mandhana and Harmanpreet Kaur have been devastating over the years, but as a collective, 2022 was India's fastest scoring year in T20Is at 7.71 per over, behind only Australia. Though consistency eludes her still, Shafali Verma can smash it upfront, Deepti Sharma is beginning to find her range, and Richa Ghosh has reinvented herself as a six-on-demand batter.
The women's IPL will give them, and the world's best players, their biggest stage yet, and history knows what happens when a form of cricket catches on in India.
Five random thoughts to end
The 2022 T20 World Cup was the best in recent memory because it broke the template. Big grounds and bowling-friendly conditions meant there were fewer sixes but more tension. And no dew meant matches weren't decided by the toss. The best batting team still won, but because bowlers were always in the game it meant better contests.
It's time for cricket to consider playing under roofs. Not Tests, but white-ball cricket, where the vagaries of the pitch are not so much a factor. The calendar doesn't leave room for rain days at big events and teams being knocked out because of weather or finals being decided by a five-over shootout will rankle. And watching it rain is no fun at a ground or on TV.
The ICC ought to review its protocol for granting recognition to leagues. Otherwise anyone with a chest of cash could start a league with the support of an obliging member board, and it could all quickly spin out of control. Cricket doesn't have a player pool or fan base to sustain any more leagues, and the ICC certainly doesn't have enough eyes and ears to keep tabs on the illegal betting syndicates that are lurking to corrupt players.
The underwhelming year for India's men's team must be viewed in some perspective: it's a team in transition; the lead batters are in decline; they have missed key players to injuries; they have had seven captains; they are now operating in an environment of uncertainty, and things could get worse before they get better. What Indian cricket needs now is not panic and knee-jerk reactions but clearheaded leadership.
One law cricket could do without: The penalty for fake fielding. One of the golden principles of batting is to watch the ball, even while running.
Person of the year: Why bother looking beyond Ben Stokes?
More in our look back at 2022

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo @sambitbal