When India started playing One-Day Internationals, they saw the format as a contraction of five-day cricket. “We played one-day cricket like we did Tests,” admitted their first captain Ajit Wadekar years later.
To be fair, there was not too much to go by – the data revolution accompanying T20 cricket was many decades away. In any case, India looked at ODI with disdain, and little effort was made to understand its specific needs.
History repeated itself when T20 was evolving. India won the first World Cup, but team selection and tactics were redolent of the 50-over game.
The emphasis was on keeping wickets in hand for the final assault, for instance, and batsmen still had the luxury of getting their eye in. This latter is anathema to T20 cricket where, with just 120 balls to negotiate, batsmen could not be allowed such indulgence (unless you were Chris Gayle, but he is an exception).
Attack is key
T20 is a different sport from either of the other two formats of the game. It took India a while to realize this. For long they were happy to pick players based on “white ball” performances in formats that were distinct from each other.
Now there is an acknowledgment of its main elements: attack is the platform on which batsmen build their innings, while bowlers think in terms of single deliveries (which is just over four percent of their quota) rather than overall plans. The batsman attacks, the bowler defends in an inversion of the traditional.
Before the start of the current T20 series, India skipper Virat Kohli set down a mission statement: “We want to be a side that plays free cricket,” he said, “you will see guys more expressive and being much more positive (from now on). ”
He thus pointed to an essential truth: what is good for the individual player – playing himself in and getting a decent score – is often not good for the team as a whole. Success has to be measured in terms of attempts made and context, not necessarily runs scored. A 30 in 12 balls is more valuable than 50 in 50. Averages and strike rates paint incomplete pictures.
The captain is, in effect, telling his players to attack early and not hold back for fear of lack of depth in the batting. A few things had to come together before Kohli could make the promise implied in that.
Accent on younger, fitter batsmen
One, the accent had to be on younger, fitter batsmen suitably trained by exposure to international trends in the IPL. Players like Rishabh Pant and now Ishan Kishan bat with a confidence and a healthy disregard for personal glory that is a departure from the old way. This in turn comes from the clear message from the management: you will occasionally be dismissed cheaply doing the right thing for the team, but that will not be held against you.
Two, the conscious moving away from over-reliance on one or two players at the top and a better spread of batting skills. This allows the early batsmen to play without worry while giving the lower order opportunities to contribute and gain confidence. Few teams get dismissed in 120 balls anyway. A team could lose a wicket every 12 balls and still play out the 20 overs.
Three, the jettisoning of many features of the traditional game in the pursuit of the one thing that matters – victory. When Kohli tried to play Ben Stokes down the leg side in the second T20I, he managed only to edge him for a six over third-man. There are no marks for aesthetics in T20 cricket. A badly struck boundary trumps an elegant shot for a single every time.
Four, the emergence of the six-hitters. India are still six-shy relative to the other teams, but the likes of Pant, Kishan, Hardik Pandya, and lower down the order Shardul Thakur hold out promise.
As tactics get more sophisticated, there could be a nominated six-hitter at No. 7 or 8. Fielders won’t matter because the batsmen are aiming to clear everything and everybody. Practicing six-hitting is already part of a batsman’s drill. The technique will mature.
When India lost in the semifinals of the 2016 World T20, they had made 192 batting first. The West Indies won in the 20th over, losing just three wickets. The winners struck nearly thrice as many sixes (11 to 4), and that was an important difference. Hitting the ball into the crowd is, to many, the essence of T20 cricket, and the more players in the team who can do that, the better off it is.
Five, and possibly the most important, the introduction of big data which decides everything from player selection to match strategies. Coaches have got better at interpreting the data, and players at understanding them. Kohli’s message acknowledges this.