Like with the evolution of science where hypotheses,even if flawed,were necessary for superior ones to emerge,T20 cricket,still so young,has begun to question and refine theories on how it should be played. It is a wonderful opportunity for us,no more than bystanders,to see our game present another facet of its greatness. And that is why I worry about people who shut their minds to this evolution. Sometimes,as with my reluctance to embrace smartphones,we try too hard to limit the world because it is uncomfortable for us to keep pace.
This is not a long article so let us limit ourselves to three hypotheses we had about T20 cricket as recently as six years ago. And let us look at those through the eyes of the Rajasthan Royals,the most sorted (theres a modern usage of an old word!) of all the Indian franchises.
We thought bowlers would have no role to play in T20 cricket,that they would be no more than bearers of gifts to batsmen,that they would prostrate themselves before the batting masters and accept their fate. But we forgot that bowlers,like good entrepreneurs,always emerge stronger in the face of adversity. So many innovations have emerged; the slow bouncer and the wide yorker for example,and from the Caribbean,a part of the world that produced terrifying fast bowlers,two bowlers with a bagful of tricks have arrived. Sunil Narine is the better known and more successful but Kevon Cooper with myriad slower balls and yorkers has become an integral part of the Royals.
Cooper has played a mere two first class matches but his style,like Narines,is designed to thwart attack. If batsmen sit on him and nudge the ball around like they would in cricket as we knew it,he would be ineffective. And so he is a bowler that nature has thrown up for a specific form of cricket. Will he take five wickets in a test match? Maybe never. Will he win you a game when the opposition needs ten an over? Most days. So what do you measure him by? The scales you use will determine how you look at the modern game; whether you look at what players are or what they arent. Measure Cooper the traditional way and he will fail,check his utility in specific situations and you want him in the side.
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We thought T20 cricket would be a slog fest. It is,on some boring days when cricket descends from being bat vs ball to being bat vs bat. But increasingly,it acquires its own ebb and flow,there is a rhythm to playing this game. For the Royals Ajinkya Rahane scores at a strike rate of 110-115 but he plays as important a role as Stuart Binny who strikes at 140. There are different stages of a game now and Binny facing the new ball would be as ineffective as Rahane in the last five. But place them where they now play and each is a match winner. Ashok Menaria slips in an over at the start when the batsmans feet are still a bit sluggish,at a later stage the batsmen would welcome him. There is still a foundation built and keeping wickets (and therefore taking them for a bowler) is still paramount.
And we thought it would be a young mans game; that as fielders sprinted and dived and batsmen plucked singles from thin air,the thirties would be the new forties and the forties,well,they would just be extinct. The Royals have demolished that myth with three key players in that bracket. Just look at Pravin Tambe who is almost the antithesis of what we thought a T20 player should be. He is 42,plucked out of obscurity,is tubby,isnt the quickest on the field and could have spent the rest of his life thinking of who he isnt. But he is an attacking leg spinner and every day for him is an opportunity,a day to rejoice. And so he tries harder,brings that extra desperation maybe and because he has to showcase his skills only for about half an hour,his age is not the disqualification it might have been.
And Tambe is calm,as is Brad Hodge,one of the most destructive finishers in modern cricket at the age of 38. A year ago he had to re-invent himself from being a top order player to a finisher,meaning he would,most days,bat for five overs. Some days he wouldnt bat at all. But he is now a situational player,like Tambe and Cooper are and so he can become very good at a small part of the game. He is fit enough to be sharp in the field for an hour and a half and with his experience he finishes calmly. Both words are important there. T20 is about the here and now and if Australia have a better player,they have done a fine job of concealing him.
Rahul Dravid is closer to 41 now and,like the student he is,he took time to study and understand T20. And he now leads the side with flair and with insight on the field but as the head of a family off it. Each player is given his role,remember T20 is about short term situational play,and the captain backs him all the way. Being understated and humble as a person,he is able to give freely and the climate that creates allows everyone to flower. Again,he is not the quickest,his batting is a tad rusty,but because it is a shorter game,his weaknesses get overcome and his other strengths,like tactical acumen,come to the fore. That leadership in T20 is now accepted to be critical is another myth busted. And so in the format he was deemed least likely to succeed in,Rahul Dravid has enriched the game once again.
And so we are learning that you dont have to be a side full of stars. You dont need to have the biggest internationals who can play well over five days or seven hours. You need people to fit into certain situations for a certain period of time and so a T20 captain is now veering towards the role a football manager plays. Also,like in football,it might lead to a situation where franchise teams,or clubs,are stronger than national sides because everyone plays a role rather than himself.
In course of time,as the game moves on,we might discover that these hypotheses are imperfect too. We might have a new set of ideas but this evolution will take place in front of our eyes. It is a thrilling time to be watching T20 cricket and while people are perfectly entitled to watch the form they like the best,I do wish they allow themselves to see the new facets our game is throwing up.