T20’s narrower focus makes it easier to evaluate performance

The format demands a here-and-now approach both as a strategy to score runs or take wickets as well as while selecting teams

The format demands a here-and-now approach both as a strategy to score runs or take wickets as well as while selecting teams

Virat Kohli’s innings against Pakistan raised the question: Was this someone out of form playing a good innings or one in form playing a patchy one? The important thing is that it doesn’t matter. And this is where T20 is crucially different from the other formats.

There are three aspects of T20 that merit discussion here: the philosophy, usually unstated, that drives the game, the actual playing of it, and team selection.

To begin with the philosophy, T20 is not a shorter version of the 50-over game, and the aim is not (necessarily) to play attractively or score centuries. Averages don’t count, strike rates do. All judgements are made purely on the basis of figures in the scorecard.

No pretensions

The long format places emphasis on style and character, on the how and why rather than merely the what. T20 has no such pretensions. Ugly and effective is far more useful than attractive and useless, batting or bowling.

An inside edge that narrowly misses the stumps and trickles away for four is more valuable than a classic cover drive that fetches just a single. T20 is cricket without the airs.

Kohli might have been dropped in the first over, and inner-edged dangerously a few times. His strike rate was unimpressive (35 off 34 balls), and he threw it away just when India seemed to be recovering from the first-ball dismissal of K.L. Rahul. But he and Rohit Sharma added 50 — in T20 terms that is a lot, especially when chasing 147.

Short, quick partnerships can turn a match. Hardik Pandya showed this when making an unbeaten 33 in 17 (nearly twice as fast as Kohli’s innings). The concept of rotating strike, a cliché in the game, does not apply to T20. Rotating strike means scoring a single, meaning three or five more runs that could have been scored off that delivery were not.

Bowlers, although they have only 24 legal deliveries at their disposal, can still plan and alternate between short-term and long-term strategy, but batsmen need to be single-minded, repeating to themselves, “Four or six, four or six.”

Designated hitters

In the team as a whole, everyone is a designated hitter. Some carry the licence to throw their bats at everything regardless of the state of the game. If there are eight in a team who can be expected to score significantly, and half that number might fail, the remainder striking consistently is still good enough to win a match. The four who ‘fail’ keep changing, and it is up to the team management to ensure that they are not discouraged from hitting the next time around.

In the Pakistan match, thanks to two genuine all rounders, Hardik and Ravindra Jadeja, India could afford an off-day for a bowler or even play an extra batsman (Rishabh Pant, the obvious choice).

Role of all-rounder

The all-rounder in T20 is nothing like the all-rounder in red ball cricket who can hold down a place either on his batting or his bowling alone. Here the all-rounder is someone who can bowl between two and four overs and is capable of scoring 25 runs in 15 balls.

And so to team selection. In his book, the Tyranny of Merit, the American philosopher Michael Sandel says, “Meritocratic hubris reflects the tendency of winners to inhale too deeply of their success. It is the smug conviction of those who land on top that they deserve their fate, and that those at the bottom deserve theirs too.” Change the winners to ‘seniors’, and you have the situation in Indian cricket selection for long.

For years, selection operated on the principle of divine right. Some senior players felt they had a divine right to be selected regardless of form, fitness or age. The selectors played into this for political reasons.

In recent years, however, divine right has been jettisoned by the selectors who are now paid a salary and expected to behave as professionally as the players. Yet vestiges still remain.

Form and performance

Form and performance ought to be the keys to T20 selection — although sometimes a performance has to be judged on intent too. The format demands a here-and-now approach both as a strategy to score runs or take wickets as well as while selecting teams.

If the top batsmen are not delivering, move them around to see where they fit or drop them. Nothing is permanent – neither the selection, nor the dropping.

It is becoming increasingly clear that T20 is a young man’s game. The mixture of arrogance and fearlessness that wins matches belongs to youth. The much-experienced are more aware of the pitfalls. Theories of the game keep changing from season to season, even match to match. The coach has to adapt and rejig constantly.

T20, however, is focused only on winning. How you play the game, another sporting cliché, doesn’t matter.

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