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Cricket has always had its slots, and specialists who defined them. The fast bowlers took the new ball, the spinners came into the game as the surface got worn out, the openers took the shine off the ball and played themselves in … it was all very organised and largely predictable. Only occasionally did a middle-order man walk out first, the spinner always had to bide his time and getting first use of the new ball was a sign of your importance in the side (unless of course you were India in the 60s and drew lots overnight for who took the new ball next morning!).
The specialists were widely respected, you looked for people of certain character to fill slots (you aspired to be No. 3 for example!) and it never crossed anyone’s mind that specialisation could also be a limitation!
And apart from the odd adventurous captain, 50 overs cricket didn’t deviate from an accepted format too much either. Yes, Sanath Jayasuriya redefined opening batting and greats like Tendulkar, Ganguly, Gilchrist and Mark Waugh batted at different positions in Tests and one-dayers.
Occasionally a spinner would get the new ball, sometimes a batsman would be forced to don wicket keeping gloves but you hardly ever ran the risk of being expelled from the flock for doing something blasphemous. Yes, the loopy bouncer came along, the paddle shot was played occasionally but that was mildly deviant behaviour.
Then T20 came along and challenged everything. It seemed anyone was batting anywhere, bowlers were bowling an over here, an over there, balls were being hit in strange corners, the boundary ropes were a little stretch away, the bends in actions grew more pronounced (and everyone looked the other way!). For the lover of Test cricket this was like his suprabhatam interrupted with hard rock. T20 was guerrilla warfare and you had to surprise from time to time.
And yet, without realising it, the game drifted into slots and specialists; especially about who batted and bowled at the end of the innings. You had designated finishers, big fellows with big bats who came in at the end and smoked the ball out of the ground! And bowlers, who apparently bowled different deliveries and tried to trick the big guys into playing wild shots. But in the little we have seen at IPL 7 and at the World T20, at least one of those slots is being challenged. And I can already see people saying: why didn’t we do that before.
The men in question are George Bailey and Glenn Maxwell. When Maxwell first walked out at number 4 for Australia in Dhaka, I thought, still bound by old thinking somewhat, that we would see another side to him; that he would play himself in and accelerate in the last 5 overs.
After all, he was batting in the top order and often when early wickets had fallen. But to my great surprise, and dare I say joy, he batted in the middle overs like a designated end overs batsman. That has continued at the Kings XI Punjab where he has dominated from start to finish.
Clearly Bailey has done something interesting here. Both for Australia, and at Kings XI, he has picked six batsmen and has given Maxwell the licence to go for it on the understanding that the five others are good enough to manage 20 overs if he falls early. Most teams have tended to play their Maxwell equivalents at numbers 6 or 7, they have made 25 from 10-12 balls at the end for example.
But here is a captain who says: if someone can make 25 from 12, why not give him the time to make 75 from 35, or even 95 from 43! If he comes off, he wins you the game, if he doesn’t, there are five others anyway. And suddenly the strategy of playing Kieran Pollard and David Miller (who moves up the order here too!) and Albie Morkel down the order seems so limiting. Bailey has just given T20 cricket its very definition back again: freedom!
And it has caused me to think of whether some other teams are still stuck in slots. South Africa, for example, play AB de Villiers, one of the modern greats, as if they are afraid of him failing at the top. Miller hardly batted for them, as did Dhoni for India. Should Dhoni and de Villiers then be batting at number 3?
Should bowlers too be stuck in slots then? I remember Rusty Theron and Jade Dernbach as fine, pacy bowlers who could bowl yorkers and swing the ball. Then they acquired variations and we imprisoned them in those, forced them into slots that limited them. Now, James Faulker runs the risk of doing so many different things because that is his slot. I can see Jimmy Neesham so young in his career going there too. Why, the excellent Junaid Khan seems a fraction of the bowler he was because he has been put into a slot.
I am looking forward to more fresh thought at the IPL. In T20, a thought, a plan, loses its fragrance quickly; what was fresh yesterday is stale today.
And I think we need more captains who look out of the box, far far out into a world beyond, a world that is not bound by conventional thought.
Then in July, I will go to England and enjoy once again, cricket in whites with players, specialists, in pre-determined slots. I will savour conventional warfare in much the way I look forward to the new guerrilla move in T20.