The latest format of the game took flight, internationally, only in 2005, but it's safe to say that T20 cricket is here to stay
It’s been seven and a half years since New Zealand and Australia played the first Twenty20 International, in February 2005. More than 250 games later, it is safe to say that cricket’s newest format has come on by leaps and bounds.
Initially designed in England to return interest in cricket among teenagers and attract newer audiences through a mix of sport and entertainment, Twenty20 cricket has today carved a niche for itself. It’s no longer viewed as a hit-and-giggle version; Twenty20 cricket has evolved into a demanding format of extreme intensity, given that all the action is compressed within 40 overs and three hours of relentless sparring.
There was a great deal of interest, and a little bit of apprehension, when South Africa hosted the first ICC World Twenty20, in 2007. While most teams had played a few internationals, few could claim at that point to have mastered the format. As if to buttress that point, India pulled off a major coup by going all the way under Mahendra Singh Dhoni, despite having played just one Twenty20 international going into the tournament.
Since then, most players have had huge exposure to Twenty20 cricket. Franchise-based domestic Twenty20 leagues with an international flavour have spawned across the cricket landscape, and with greater experience of the format, the manner in which teams are approaching Twenty20 cricket has inevitably changed.
One of the offshoots of the mushrooming of Twenty20 leagues has been the approach of batsmen the world over. Increasingly, more and more Test matches are ending decisively, as batsmen play more strokes, aren’t averse to taking risks even in the five-day game and bat as much with an eye on the scoreboard as on time.
Strokes that weren’t thought of a few years back are played on a reasonably regular basis, even in time-driven cricket. The ‘Dilscoop’, patented by Tillakaratne Dilshan walking across his stumps, putting his head down and literally scooping the ball over the wicketkeeper’s head, is a stroke that will be found in no coaching manual, but it’s one that has caught the imagination of young and old alike for the its audacity, especially when the ball is fired in at 150 km/hr or more.
The switch-hit is another by-product of Twenty20 cricket, which has found its way into Test cricket too. When it comes off, it is as exhilarating to watch as the Dilscoop; when it doesn’t, especially in Test cricket, it makes its purveyor look a bit silly but that’s exactly where its charm lies.
Batting, understandably, has seen the most innovation, but bowlers have gotten smarter too. Test cricket demands repetitiveness. That same quality translates itself to predictability in the 120-ball game, meaning that bowlers have had to unearth weapons more in self-defence than anything else. Numerous variations of the slower delivery, including a slower bouncer, are the most obvious contributions of the Twenty20 version, where the impact of reverse swing is minimal.
Paradoxical as it might sound, Twenty20 cricket has brought the spinner back in focus. In the early stages, spinners focused on darting the ball in and adopted a defensive mien. Gradually, they have slipped into more aggressive, attacking roles despite shorter boundaries and meatier bats. Several spinners revel bowling in the Power Play these days, and quite a few captains are happy tossing the new ball to the spinner straightaway.
Captains are also wary of bowling a majority of their bowlers for longer than two-over spells, thereby making sure that batsmen don’t line up certain bowlers. Mixing and matching is more of a modern trend, and it isn’t unusual for bowlers such as Lasith Malinga, Sunil Narine and Dwayne Bravo to bowl one-over spells at different stages of an innings.
Spin may play a significant part in Sri Lanka at the ICC World Twenty20 2012. Tactically, that will test captains, because they need to find the right balance between packing the playing XI with spinners, and being mindful of the slower bowlers being despatched over the boundary ropes. Twenty20 cricket has progressed enormously in terms of strategy. Sri Lanka will pose its own unique challenges, necessitating captains to think quickly on their feet if they are to stay ahead of the game.