What’s the first thing that strikes your mind when you hear “T20 cricket”? Humongous Sixes? Super Overs? Franchise tournaments? Lavish auctions? Or maybe the Cheerleaders? People can literally associate various things when they hear about this format. It’s a kind of cricket that was introduced as an entertainment and to expand the game. While traditional test matches and ODI tournaments meant business, T20 was slowly sowing its seeds to bring in more audience for the game. It’s more than 15 years since T20 was launched and the format has received a mixed response from the viewers. The optimistic ones say the game has evolved, giving opportunities to new teams and power hitting adding a new dimension. Some even loved the batsman hitting sixes with ease to an extent that the length of the sixes became a mouth-watering stat. Critics questioned the unnecessary need of a shorter format, the way in which bowlers were treated and the impact it had on player’s performance in the longer formats. The skills of a player were doubted. Some even associated the lack of defensive technique to the T20 format. Franchise tournaments were blamed for a batsman’s inability to handle swing on a green top.
While the negative sentiment is inevitable, one can’t deny the impact that T20 had in this game. Firstly, the number of countries playing cricket did increase though their popularity is low and there exists a skill gap between the teams that play regularly and the teams whose matches are rarely telecasted. There are 104 countries that have T20I status compared to 20 nations in ODI and 12 nations in Tests. In a fast paced world, shorter formats meant new audience liking the game and people willing to spend 3 hours, instead of 8 hours for an ODI or an entire day for a test match (which they had to continue for the next 4-5 days, depending on the game’s progress). Franchise based tournaments made owners to rethink their strategies making them to invest more on statisticians and data analysts. Slowly, a player’s strength and weakness came into the radar which made them to upgrade their skills. Now T20Is have become a priority and is played as a separate series in tours, with World Cups scheduled regularly.
Although bowlers have had their fair share of success in this format, T20 has predominantly been a batsman’s game considering the fact that 200+ totals are chased with ease. And those games have become a common occurrence rather than exceptions. Teams are more likely to win chasing 190 rather than defending 120. Despite the need of a higher strike rate and ability to clear boundaries, there is one aspect of the game that never changed but it was least talked about – “The ability to run between the wickets”.
Let’s rewind back to the 4th T20I between India and New Zealand that happened in Wellington earlier this year. The match ended in a tie with the result decided by a Super Over – the 2nd such instance in that series. India comes in with KL Rahul and Virat Kohli to chase 14 runs in the Super Over, bowled by Tim Southee. India was cruising towards yet another victory with Rahul scoring 10 runs from the first two balls. In the third ball, he gets caught in mid-wicket when trying to pull a short ball for six. With Rahul back to pavilion, it’s a 50-50 chance since one more wicket in the super over would mean, New Zealand would seal the game. Still 4 runs required for India with 3 balls remaining and Kohli on strike. What does the Indian captain do in the 4th ball? He simply glances it towards mid-on and comfortably runs a 2, thanks to Sanju Samson who was also quick to react. The ball hardly crossed the bowler’s crease and didn’t even reach the inner circle. It was the bowler himself who fielded it. 9 out of 10 times, batsmen wouldn’t run a 2 for that and won’t even think of sneaking runs that way in a T20 game, let alone a Super Over. Kohli then pulls the penultimate delivery for a boundary to win the game. But the way he handled the 4th delivery showed how running has its own significance even in the shorter format.
Not the first time Virat Kohli had won a T20 match for India using his fitness. Who can forget his 82*(51) against Australia during the virtual quarter final in Mohali? With required run rate climbing to more than 12 an over and a pitch that was not very conducive to batting, Kohli made sure to rotate strike wherever possible. With Dhoni coming in at the later stage of the innings, the duo, known for their fitness, were simply converting the ones into twos. They were taking on fielders like Warner, Smith and Maxwell who are known for their sharp fielding and direct hits. Even Michael Slater in the commentary box mentioned “You can’t run two for that”. Their constant running just added more pressure on Australia before Kohli started hitting boundaries in the penultimate over, taking India home. But Kohli’s emphasis on running made sure India was always in the game in an otherwise difficult run chase.
David Warner is also known for his swift running between wickets. If the stump mic is on, most of the time you can hear the Australian opener shouting “No!” or a “Run” to his partner (literally every ball). The southpaw recently scored a century against Sri Lanka in a T20I match, with a strike rate of 170 plus. After the game, Warner mentioned that he has a strong emphasis in rotating the strike. “The World Cup in 2020 is scheduled in Australia where the grounds are big, so if you want to win the World Cup next year, you’ve got to run really hard between the wickets”. When Warner made his debut for Australia in 2009, he was known for his explosive batting at the top and was mainly hailed as a T20 player. His hard-hitting abilities combined with his running meant he was successful in all 3 formats.
Michael Bevan is also a notable player who focused more on rotating strikes. He was one of the greatest finishers in white ball cricket. While he had a wide range of shots, Bevan always took a calculative approach when chasing totals. He constructs his innings well before going for the big shots. Unfortunately, except for a handful of domestic games, we haven’t seen much of Bevan’s performance in T20s. It would have been interesting to see his approach in the shorter format.
Of course, T20 games will mostly be a run feast with bat dominating the ball on most occasions. Fans love it when big totals are chased and admire the huge shots. That’s the whole point of a shorter format. Successful players in T20s like Chris Gayle and Andre Russell have a reputation of being power hitters. But with games dragging till the final ball, with victories getting decided by super overs, those additional runs sneaked by the batsman could make a difference.