There is little doubt that Twenty20 has caught the fancy of the cricket following public - even among traditionalists. The inaugural World Cup in South Africa in 2007 received a lot of praise for both the manner in which it was conducted and the fare provided out there in the middle. With each World Cup thereafter the following has grown, the TRP ratings have been high and the game itself has evolved.
As I mentioned in my last column, the game's newest and shortest format is no more slam-bang cricket; there is a place for strategy and tactics, for planning and counter planning. The ongoing fourth edition in Sri Lanka has confirmed this and it can only be good for the future of Twenty20.
Good cricket is all about an even contest between bat and ball. And whereas it was initially thought that Twenty20 would be all about a batsman hitting sixes and fours galore against bowlers who would be reduced to willing slaves it has not always been the case. If there is pressure on the bowler then there is pressure on the batsman too. A couple of sixes in an over can change the complexion of a match but a couple of wickets too can alter the course of the game completely.
It need not have to be even the loss of wickets. Two or three dot balls at a crucial juncture can see the fielding side turn the tables and eventually emerge victorious. A small error like a dropped catch, a misfield, a miscued stroke or a couple of bad deliveries can be magnified and cost a team dearly. With the format being short and the tempo doubly quick there is hardly any room for error.
In the ongoing World Cup for example there have been three totals exceeding 190. On the other hand three teams have been restricted to totals of 93 or less. There has been one century, one ninety and one eighty but there has also been a bowler who has taken six wickets and three others with four wicket hauls. If batsmen while running up sizeable scores have been able to maintain a strike rate of around 200 there have been bowlers who while sending down the maximum four overs have been able to maintain an economy rate of anything between three and four while Ajantha Mendis has been quite unique in having a strike rate of just two an over on his way to picking up six wickets for eight runs for Sri Lanka against Zimbabwe - the best figures by any bowler in a T20 international.
It is not just the batsman and the bowler who have to do the planning and thinking. In a way the job of the captain is perhaps the most crucial. As Adam Gilchrist said in an interview a couple of years ago the demands on the captain in the Twenty20 format are "extreme to say the least. The mind is racing to try and think an over ahead while still trying to control the current over. As we all know the entire course of a game can be changed in one over. It is demanding and you have to be aware of situations."
In short the shorter the format the more important the role of the captain. In Test cricket there are times when the flow of the game will dictate what happens and what decisions are to be taken. Things just flow along in its natural way. Yes, at crucial times the captain’s tactical knowledge of pitches and situations will come in handy. But in Twenty20 decisions have to be made almost every delivery. The captain has to be alert and aware virtually every single ball. He can’t wait for things to happen; he has to make things happen.
In a way it is a good thing that the captain has a bigger role to play, where he can dictate terms and he has a lot more to do in changing the flow of the game. He plays around with his resources a bit more and goes with his hunches a lot more than he would in the longer version and this adds considerable interest to an already immensely popular format. Certainly the skill and conviction of the captain is one area where even traditionalists may be able to get some enjoyment out of Twenty20 by watching the tactics and even the hunches that may or may not come off. Such decisions can make or break games. In this format one needs to be able to roll with the punches and be creative as it is happening.
So as the Super Eight stage of the T20 World Cup gets underway remember to follow not only the tactics of the batsmen and the bowlers but also the intuitive decisions of the captains. With matches involving the top eight teams in the competition it could be this hunch that decides the winner of the title let alone the winner of a match. Don't believe it? Just cast your mind back to five years ago - Johannesburg 2007 and the final of the inaugural World Cup. Dhoni plumped for rookie seamer Joginder Sharma to bowl the last over even as the more experienced Harbhajan Singh had one over left and we all know what happened.