Sunday, September 16, 2012

T20 (and ODI) is a separate sport and needs to be seen as such

Warm up matches for the ICC World T20 Championships are being played this week in Sri Lanka. The format has taken the game by storm. It has attracted large amounts of capital to the game and for the first time, franchise based cricket has become an end in itself rather than a feeder for the international game. Some of the game’s finest contemporary players like Kevin Pietersen and Chris Gayle have found themselves in trouble with their respective Cricket Boards due to their understandable desire to participate in lucrative franchise based tournaments where their particular talents are in high demand. It is reasonable to argue that at the start of the 21st century, two simultaneous upheavals have changed the face of cricket in ways that could not have been imagined in the 20th – the first is the advent of the Decision Review System and its rule allowing players to dispute umpiring decisions, and the second is the T20 format which is more lucrative per minute than longer forms and is tailor made for growing prime time television audiences with disposable incomes.

The form first emerged in England in the County game in 2003. At the time, the BCCI ignored it. Indeed, India was a latecomer to the T20 table. Even today, India has played the fewest International T20 games among the top 8 Test playing nations. They have won a T20 World Cup, and host the most lucrative tournament in the history of the game.

But what game is it? Is it cricket? This is, to some extent a much more basic question about the consequences of limited-overs to the contest between bat and ball. Whenever this question comes up, a counter point is usually immediately raised. What constitutes “limited overs”? Is a Test Match also not limited to 5 days – 30 hours in 15 sessions of 2 hours length in which a minimum of 90 overs have to be delivered per day? Is that not also an implicit limit on the number of overs? Why is this limit any different in principle from a limit of 50 overs per innings or 20 overs per innings?

The limit is introduced by human beings. Given the rules of cricket – the rules for dismissal and on the number of fielders (9 plus the wicket keeper), the effort required to produce the quality of bowling good enough to dismiss sides can be sustained for periods of time that are by now very well established. Fast bowlers bowl spells of 6-8 overs, while spinners typically bowl spells of 12-14 overs if they are successful. It is only the very elite fast bowlers and spinners who can do this consistently. The difference, for example, between S Sreesanth and Dale Steyn is not so much that Steyn’s best bowling is better than Sreesanth’s best bowling – it is that Steyn bowls near his best day in and day out, while Sreesanth did it only sporadically. It is the rare fast bowler who can bowl that hard spell at the end of a hot day on a good pitch (as most Test pitches tend to be). This human limit – that of the bowling spells, is a limit that makes 5 days a finely balanced length of contest given the rules of cricket. It is no surprise that when batting teams can survive into the 125th – 150th over period in their innings, run scoring becomes much easier, and it is typically the lesser bowlers who are on show. When VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid had their epic triple century stand at Eden Gardens in 2001, 11 of the 31 overs of their innings, post-Tea on Day 4 (134 – 165 in India’s 2nd Innings) were bowled by Matthew Hayden, Michael Slater, Mark Waugh and Justin Langer.

The 50 over game, with its quota of 10 overs per bowler, still permits the fast bowler, in theory, to deliver at least one full spell. In the early days of ODI cricket, this tended to be the opening spell with the new ball. The spinners haven’t been so lucky. Their roles have been restrictive and the greatest spinners, even though they built superb records, were used as much in absentia as they were at the bowling crease. Sri Lanka mastered this with Muralitharan, holding him back often well past the 20th over (in a 50 over game), forcing batting sides to take more risks than they normally would against lesser (often part time bowlers). When they did bowl, they rarely did so to fields designed to take wickets. The specialist spinner in the ODI side became the captain’s key run restrictor – Harbhajan Singh and Daniel Vettori would be prime examples of this.

The 20 over game, with its quota of 4 overs per bowler, permits no bowler to deliver a spell. While the 50 over game allowed bowlers windows in which batsmen might care about their wickets enough to not take risks, the 20 over game offers no such luxury. Courtney Walsh, arguably the worst batsman of his generation, was dismissed once every 17 balls in Test Cricket (the comparable figure for Tendulkar is 103, for Dravid 123). In a T20 game, the batting side has 10 wickets to play with over 120 deliveries. Even a hat-trick off the first three balls of the match would leave the batting side with 7 wickets over the remaining 117 deliveries – or just under 17 balls per dismissal. Even Walsh survived that!

Given that the rules of dismissal and the rules for counting runs are the same in 20 over, 50 over and Test Cricket, the balance between bat and ball, so finely achieved in the 5 day contest, is skewed severely in favor of the batsman. In a recent instance, a T20 game between South Africa and England was played over 11 overs – or 7 deliveries per wicket.

But this skewed contest is not the only reason why T20 and ODI should be seen as a different sport compared to Test Cricket. Test Cricket includes the most logically brilliant result – the Draw. The Draw is commonly misunderstood (including by the ICC’s official rankings methodology for Tests) as a claim of parity. This is far from the case. The Draw result points to a much more subtle claim – that the contest was inconclusive. This, if you think about it, is one of those results which any reasonable contest must be able to end in. Yet it has become something of a truism in sport that there must be a conclusive winner (and a conclusive loser). The possibility of an inconclusive result creates a space for a defense and an offense. In Test Cricket, the batsmen are the defensive players, while the bowlers are the offensive players. Batsmen could score all the runs they want, but unless their bowlers can then bowl out the opposition twice, those runs won’t result in victories. As I have shown elsewhere, individual centuries in Test Cricket are as likely to occur in draws as they are in wins, but 5 wicket hauls or 10 wicket hauls by a player dramatically improve a team’s chances of outright victory. Could there be an episodic bat and ball sport in which the bowling is the defense, while the batting is the offense? There already is – baseball.

Limited Overs Cricket, by taking away the possibility of a draw, makes batsmen match-winners as much as bowlers. This is a fundamental shift in the game which has far reaching consequences for tactics, team composition and technique. To be a bowler in a limited overs game is not the same as being a bowler in a Test-like format. Similarly, to be a batsman in a limited overs game is not the same as being a bowler in a Test-like format either. And so, while Suresh Raina’s patented lofted slog to mid-wicket is one of his biggest weapons in ODI cricket, when he plays it in a Test Match, it must be something completely different, and the merit of playing it must be quite different too.

To say that Limited Overs Cricket and Test Cricket are different forms of the same sport is a bit like saying that Rugby Football and American Football are different forms of the same sport. The simple rule change of allowing a forward pass to be made from behind the line of scrimmage makes American Football a very different sport. Similarly, the rule change of eliminating the possibility of the draw, and changing the balance of resources available of bowling and batting sides, makes Limited Overs Cricket a very different sport from Test Cricket.

So far, the coattails of Test Cricket have been enthusiastically used by the BCCI and the ICC for promoting the T20 form. When promoting the IPL, every effort was made to submerge difference between the formats. All the major commentators and all the major Indian Test stars were signed up even though many of these were not, on their merits, suited to the 20 over game. For example, the commentary celebrated Anil Kumble’s five wicket hauls like it would have done for his Test Match hauls. People wrote that he foxed Adam Gilchrist when he had him stumped, in the same sense that they would in a Test, even though Gilchrist jumped out to him second ball and missed in the T20 game – an act which, in a Test would have been considered silly.

But now that T20 has matured and is seen as a specialized sport by the teams themselves, perhaps it is time writers and commentators also read these games on their own terms, and not through the borrowed language of Test Cricket. Perhaps commentary about the T20 game should acknowledge the peculiarly skewed nature of the (im)balance of resources between bat and ball, the fact that it is not in the interests of batsmen to not take risks, and pay close attention to the reasons why specific players are picked for this form of the game.

As the new sport matures, its writers must mature along with it. T20, and increasingly even ODI cricket with its powerplay rules and declining role for bowlers, now commands its own new grammar. Risk and reward cannot be assessed through the lens of the Test Match contest between bat and ball. Guile, courage, wisdom and inexperience must be seen with new eyes in the new sport.

Will it happen? Eventually, it must.


  1. Very true. Compare an over where a batsman hits 5 x 6s and then goes out. In normal test match circumstances, that is a win to the bowler. In a T20, it's a win to the batsman.

  2. Sure, they are different in terms of thinking/strategy/quality and maybe preparation. But, different sport, come on!! It is still about bowlers trying to minimize runs and take wickets, batsmen still trying to score runs (1 more than the opposition). The context and risk/reward, timeline maybe different, but the method is the same.
    Think about all the different ways we played cricket when we were kids. Rubber ball, tennis ball, taped ball, leather ball; 12 overs, 16 overs, 3 day games.. It was still always cricket. I see no difference even now. Change the lens with which you are watching and thinking about the game, it is still the same.
    If we go by your analogy, it should be different sport when played in turning tracks versus seaming tracks; played with Kookaburra ball vs Duke ball.. The inherent changes is what makes the sport so compelling and amazing. Name another sport which has so many variety and combinations within one sport.
    BTW, i am not a T20 apologist, i can barely watch it; and would prefer a intriguing Test session to a nailbiter T20. But, it is still cricket.

  3. While we are all getting so worked up over T20, I think there are going to be T10 an T5 matches in the future. You might think of the idea of a T5 as too silly right now but it is bound to happen. Someone will probably then even have the gall to say, "T20 is the real thing"!!

  4. Yep! 20/20 is to "Cricket" as Sevens is to "Rugby Union"!
    I think the game will eventually be looked at as entertainment rather than sport. Nothing wrong with that - Some players will choose to become entertainers and some will choose to become cricketers.
    Some will be able to do both. Chris Gayle is maybe the first cricketer to really face the dilemma of having to make a choice between showbiz and sport.
    Interesting times ahead! The big dilemma is facing the sports administrators who want to promote (and profit!) from 20/20 series and competitions while trying to maintain the integrity and reputation of Test Cricket.
    Good luck with that!!

  5. t20 and odi's are a lot different. Not only in terms of strategy but in terms of fans liking. t20 has attracted lot of fans all over the world. You can watch a cricket match now in about 4 hours or so instead of that 1 day or 5 day matches which get boring...

  6. T20 is full entertainer and short form of game just finishes in 4 hours.That's reason people are getting addicted to it