Why the T20 format is the blood transfusion cricket needed
There is no doubt that the T20 format and the Indian Premier League has changed the way we look at cricket itself. While in T20 cricket and in the IPL, the composition of teams, is vastly different from anything known before, the greatest innovation has come in the how games are played and in the measurement of cricket. It led to a vastly different assessment of risk and as a consequence, to the arrival of different shots, different balls bowled and the explosion of analytics.
The last point is the most interesting one. Cricket has always been a game that lent itself to measurement. But in T20 cricket, because every ball is an event, every over is five percent of the innings, every innings are played with over 40,000 eyes on them, players need to measure more accurately and use analytics in decision-making. While instincts will and should never go out of a leader's repertoire, analytics are allowing them to be more precise in their judgment than mere hypothesis could have.
The maximum innovations in playing the game have come in shot-making. It is interesting that each of these has come as a counter to traditional field placements and except for the switch-hit which stretches the definition, none of them have broken the rules of the game. Each of these shots came from players who challenged existing thought and recalibrated risks.
Every youngster is always taught to play in the 'V'. That 'V' was between mid-off and mid-on or at best, between extra cover and mid-wicket. A player is told that he must, at times, endeavor to show the 'the bat makers name' to the bowler. Hitting the ball in the air was also frowned upon because it was merely another way of getting out. We were actually told that hitting a six was like having a drink and that it would tempt you into another and ultimately lead you towards doom. For example, the great Don Bradman hit only six sixes over his entire career.
The change was essential in a less affluent India and that translated into playing safe, almost predictable cricket. But, once someone challenged the givens, we realized that some of the shots routinely frowned upon weren't actually as dangerous as previously assumed.
For example, the shot, over the wicket-keeper's head was, if well executed, a pretty safe one because there was never going to be a fielder there. So, in effect, batsmen were discovering newer markets and exploiting them. And soon a new 'V' was being formed: behind the batsman. AB de Villiers emerged as the game's first genuine 360-degree batsman, a phrase impossible to even imagine a generation earlier.
It meant too that traditional field placement had to change because the disruption in stroke play could not be countered with a conventional approach. Bowlers started to feel the heat because the same ball could be hit over mid-wicket or reverse-swept to the third man. And a relook at conventional risk meant that a 50-50 shot (meaning an equal chance of the shot coming off or the batsman getting out), hitherto frowned upon was now on. Batsmen were looking for more gaps, not just between fielders as they were taught to by the old masters but in the space between the fielder and the sky above. And the batsman discovered, as bowlers did to their sadness, that by confronting traditional thought, newer results were coming forth, that with the arrival of technology (in the form of big but not very heavy bats), you could recalibrate risk.
At the heart of this re-evaluation were because of the increased stakes on every delivery. Not taking a run was a big risk as a dot-ball is a huge setback. Also, since you had ten wickets to lose over a mere twenty overs, batsmen were more dispensable. Matches are also played with greater frequency and so the sadness at being out cheaply today was quickly dispelled by the opportunity of batting again in a couple of days.
The beauty of T20's and in particular, the IPL is that it has changed the look of cricket forever. The pace at which this format is played has had a rub off on the test and one-day cricket as well. There are more 300+ scores than ever before in one-day internationals, totals of 350 are being chased down frequently and there are more results in test cricket. International cricket is more athletic than ever before. With their cheerleaders, carnival-like atmosphere, and the celebrity-spotting courtesy the wealthy team-owners; The IPL has upped the glamour quotient of the game.
The IPL is as much about entertainment as it is about sport. Most of the matches end up with a close finish. Viewers find reasons to support multiple teams - it could be their local franchise, they could be fans of Chris Gayle or AB de Villiers or even a Shahrukh Khan or Preity Zinta. All this excitement has managed to ensure packed stadiums for most matches. Watching an IPL game is a family outing since everyone is more open to watching this fast-paced version. T20 has given a new lease of life to cricket and is now the most profitable form of the game. Therefore the shortest format has changed the dynamics of the game and will continue to do so.