I think the time has come for even the connoisseur of cricket to take the T-20 format seriously. It is no more just slam bang cricket but there is a lot of thinking and planning that goes into every match. The ongoing IPL-6 has underlined this.
Setting aside the hype associated with the popular annual event and the inane interviews and the glamour quotient if one just takes the format as it is played on the field one can see that T-20 has evolved in matters of strategy and tactics.
As a bit of an old timer who grew up on a generous dose of Test cricket I admit I was a bit slow in taking to first Fifty50 and now Twenty20. But now I find the analysis by experts in newspaper columns and TV shows quite acceptable – as long as the hyperbole is cut out.
Just as the game’s followers embraced ODIs complete with night cricket, white balls, coloured clothing and black sight screens after initially dismissing it as pyjama cricket the time has come to embrace T-20 and not just because it is fast paced and entertaining most of the time. Let’s admit that it is no longer "tamasha" or "masala" cricket but deserves an honoured place in the game alongside the two other formats.
I concede I did not initially watch T-20 matches closely and took them as "time pass" events just as one went for a three hour Indian commercial film. There was a certain reluctance on my part to take them seriously but being a professional cricket writer I could not ignore such games. I admit now that I am hooked on T-20 almost as much as I am hooked on Tests or ODIs.
And as I said it has nothing to do with the game’s compact format or entertainment value or fast paced, non-stop action. These days I view it closely and besides the frequent twists and turns and fluctuating fortunes there is much to admire by way of methodical planning, strategy and tactics.
The batsmen trying to innovate with shots that are not in any text book, the bowlers countering by delivering the ball on the pads giving him little room to manoeuvre, the captain marshalling his resources admirably with quick bowling changes, the undoubted rise in fielding and catching standards.
And these days it even involves pitch preparation. So one day you have a surface on which 190 need not be a winning total and other days you have a track on which 130 is defendable. As it is the nature of the format is so unpredictable and then when the pitch makes the result even more so it adds spice to the flavor.
Also it would be incorrect to assume that T-20 is only for the batsman who can clear the ground effortlessly and repeatedly. Sure, big hits and sixes are very much the core of the format but batsman like Rahul Dravid, Mahela Jayawardene and Rohit Sharma have shown that runs can be obtained at a healthy rate through fours and by keeping the ball on the ground.
They are as essential to any side as the Chris Gayles, the Virender Sehwags and the David Warners. These are the Test match specialists, the text book batsmen who have made good in the game’s quickest and shortest format.
Similarly it is a misnomer to think that spin bowlers have no place in T-20 as was the purported theory a few years ago. For starters, Sunil Narine, Amit Mishra and Harbhajan Singh have more than held their own in the ongoing IPL sharing honours with the likes of RP Singh, Vinay Kumar, Dwayne Bravo and James Faulkner.
And in the all-too-brief history of T-20 internationals three of the top four wicket takers are spin bowlers – Shahid Afridi, Saeed Ajmal and Ajantha Mendis. The Sri Lankan mystery bowler in fact has notched up the best figures by any bowler in T-20 internationals – six for 16 against Australia.
Of course ultimately what makes the connoisseur embrace T-20 closely is how the format has evolved over the last few years. The game’s traditional format has evolved through time in matters of strategy and tactics making the role of the captains crucial. The general belief has always been that the leadership qualities are more important in Test cricket than in the limited overs game.
More elaborate planning was required in the traditional format as compared to the shorter versions of the game. However as more and more ODIs were played the role of a captain gained more importance and now it appears this is also true of Twenty20.
A format largely believed to be batsmen oriented is slowly becoming a platform for bowlers to display their thinking skills fuelled by imaginative captaincy. We have seen numerous such cases in T-20 and this can range from a surprise change in the batting order to an unexpected bowling change to a fielder placed in a least expected area. The idea is to ambush the opposition and leave them nonplussed.
Some time ago Adam Gilchrist said in an interview that 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 course of a game can be changed in one over, in two or three hits. It is demanding and you have to be aware of situations."
In short, the shorter the format the more important is the captaincy. In Twenty20 decisions have to be made almost every delivery. The captain has to be very alert and very aware every single delivery. 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. This is where the thinking and planning comes in and that is why T-20 is now a format that has to be taken seriously.