New game, old skills


“You have more time than you think,” said Owais Shah, the England batsman, earlier in the summer. He wasn’t referring to Tests, nor was he talking about 50-over ODIs, but the new kid on the block, Twenty20.

The sweat hadn’t yet dried from Shah’s forehead, his heart was still racing from urging England to a tense win over West Indies at The Oval. Had the adrenalin of victory masked Shah’s common sense? Twenty overs is, after all, not enough time to bed in a new bat, let alone construct an entire innings.

Shah has a point, however: teams can build huge innings in a mere 120 balls, and the batsmen need not be the carefree, wild bullies that many assumed they would have to be in order to succeed in this format. Quite the contrary in fact, and a quick glance at the leading Twenty20 run-scorers makes for instructive reading.

Brad Hodge tops the list with 1383, followed by Darren Maddy (1278), HD Ackerman and Martin van Jaarsveld. Maddy apart, these are traditional batsmen who look to play straight wherever possible. Also in the top ten are Phil Jaques, David Hussey, and those embodiments of English orthodoxy, Mark Ramprakash and Graeme Hick. From the stands Twenty20 might feel like a carnival, but the cricket is pure and the purists are winning.

“You are weighing up a lot of when out in the middle: the pace of the pitch, the size of the boundary,” Ramprakash says. “Personally, I try to decide which bowler I can get after. You’ve to think very quickly on your feet about how you are going to go about scoring the runs - if the ball is quick then you can deflect it using its pace, and if the spinners are on you can try and hit the ball out of the ground.

“Initially when I played Twenty20 I just wasn’t up with the pace of the game, because the fielding team are charging in to get their overs [finished] very quickly and every ball is a very big event. And so as a batsman I had to get with the pace of the game, I had to weigh up the situation, decide in what areas I was looking to score and that was a very big adjustment for someone who was playing four-day cricket or a 50-overs game.”

A big adjustment mentally, then. Look at Ramprakash build an innings in 50 overs as opposed to 20 and there are very few differences, other than his urgency at the crease. There is no substitute for class, which probably comes as a relief to the sceptics who muttered and moaned when Twenty20 first appeared that the format diluted cricket’s essentials. Ramprakash’s cricket - the cover drive; standing tall to cut past point; smiting down the ground - remains, essentially, the same. The myth that the new format requires inventive, crazy batsmanship is just that. Aggressive cricket need not be suicidal or ugly.

Though England are beginning to show a one-day renaissance, their troubles (and in particular those of Michael Vaughan) in the past decade were perplexing. How can a batsman of Vaughan’s talent in Tests appear so out of his depth in the shorter format? Vaughan averages 27.15 and, in 86 matches, is yet to reach three figures, which contradicts the Australian mantra that any Test cricketer should, by virtue of his ability, be more than capable of succeeding in one-dayers. Stuart Law, a Pom by marriage but an Australian at heart, is one such believer. “Not a truer word has been spoken,” he says. “I remember talking to a guy in the club I played in when I was growing up, an ex-senior player, who said to me: ‘One-day cricket is just an extension of two-day and four-day cricket, but it’s an opportunity to express their talent and expand on what they normally do.’ And it’s so right. There’s no secret formula; you can’t wake up one morning and say, ‘Right, time to put on my Twenty20 head.’ It’s cricket. If you can adapt quicker, sum up the conditions of the pitch as quickly as you can, then you can expand into what looks to be really aggressive cricket.

“There’s no real secret formula. In Twenty20 cricket you haven’t got the time to play yourself in like you have in 50-over cricket. You’ve basically got to get out there and do it from ball one. I wouldn’t say you change the way you play your game. It’s about getting to that point where you think you can accelerate the run-rate as quickly as you possibly can.”

But let’s face it. With lifeless pitches, an international schedule to make grown men weep and the continued shortening of boundaries, cricket is a batsman’s game. The poor, puce-faced bowler doesn’t have a hope in Twenty20s.

“Every bowler hates Twenty20 cricket,” Law says, with a hint of glee in his voice. “If a bowler says Twenty20’s great, it’s fantastic, ‘I love it’, they’re kidding themselves … as they watch their best deliveries sail over the fence at a regular interval. It’s not much for any of them.

“But once again, it’s about summing up the pitch, different paces, different lengths, bumpers and yorkers, and then [it’s up to the spinners] to change their pace a great deal. Gary Keedy’s been very successful for us [Lancashire]. He either bowls it extremely slow or as quickly as he possibly can.”

And that has been one of Twenty20’s biggest surprises: the impact and success of spinners. Nayan Doshi, the former Surrey spinner, has taken 53 wickets at 14.66 - more than anyone else in the history of the format. Mushtaq Ahmed is hot on his heels, with 42 at a typically miserly 13.80. Much as Law is convinced of batsmen’s need to change their mental approach to batting, so is Harbhajan Singh, the Surrey offspinner who is making his international comeback for India next week, with regard to bowling.

“You can’t really change things. You just have to adapt your mindset,” he says. “You know that you are going to go for runs, but still you must look to get wickets. It’s a 20-over match, so you have to bowl according to that. You just get four overs to bowl, so you have to make sure you bowl four overs the way you want to bowl.” There is a hiccup to this logic, however. Spin has been a revelatory success on Twenty20 in English cricket, but next week’s inaugural World Twenty20 in South Africa carries a couple of uncertainties. And the pitches are chief among them.

South Africa have never hosted an international so early in their season (their domestic competitions don’t even begin until October) which could produce some deathly dull, slow, low pitches. “Spinners do well in Twenty20 in England because they play in June and July when the wickets are mostly dry, and they play on big grounds,” Harbhajan says. “There will be a big difference between international and domestic Twenty20.”

Secondly, this is Twenty20’s international debut. How will the crowds react? Will Matthew Hayden bully the bowlers from the off, or will Australia’s slightly lax attitude toward the format cost them? The fewer the overs, the greater the chance of an upset.

And yet, as Law, Ramprakash and Harbhajan have said, adaptability is the fundamental key to any player in Twenty20. If they can alter their game plan to suit a Jeremy Snape “moonball” for example, or bowlers running in off one step, they can surely cope with inclement Cape Town weather and a peaty pitch.

These are professional sportsmen, after all. The grounds might appear to be dressed in candy floss and drowned in a cacophony of music, but Twenty20 cricket in the middle remains true to its roots.

Source:Cricket News

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