The talk in the lead-up to the ongoing T20 World Cup was how big hitters, with all the technical and scientific know-how to back them up, were going to light up the tournament. The likes of Jos Buttler, Liam Livingstone, Hardik Pandya, and Glenn Maxwell were going to be unstoppable, it was predicted.
But it has not quite gone that way. Out of the 39 matches till the England-Sri Lanka game in Sydney, only twice has a team reached the 200-run mark. Often, scores in the range of 130-150 have resulted in close games, and anything above 170 has been difficult to chase down. The six-merchants, key to those mammoth scores, have been largely subdued till now. It has largely been ‘proper’ batsmen, playing ‘proper’ cricket shots – with the odd bit of ‘innovation’ thrown in – who have been more successful. Virat Kohli and Suryakumar Yadav are names that come to mind readily. Those who can’t find the boundary by other means, or can’t run like hares between the wickets on these larger playing areas, have been found out a bit.
A combination of bigger grounds, pitches having something for bowlers (Perth can be termed downright spicy), and teams finding new ways to tame the marauders has been at work. In fact, someone like New Zealand’s Glenn Phillips, who flew a bit under the radar before the tournament, has been one of the revelations.
Skill over brawn
It can only be good for the game, even for its Twenty20 version which is often sold as a six-hitting extravaganza. A six, especially one that clears the boundary and advertising hoardings and lands among the crowd, is a thrill only when it is rare and a result of some unique skill on the part of the batter. When every other delivery seems to be hit for a six, it becomes monotonous and in danger of becoming a mere statistic.
The two sixes Kohli hit off Haris Rauf in the game against Pakistan have been the talking point for weeks only because of the unreal skill and the breathtaking audacity on display. To hit a back-of-a-length ball from a genuine speedster over his head and over the straight boundary at the Melbourne Cricket Ground is not a common occurrence. To follow it with a sweetly-timed flick that cleared the legside fence is not something one expects from lesser mortals.
Something similar can be said about what Yadav did on the bouncy Perth pitch against the South African pacers. Lungi Ngidi and Anrich Nortje were too hot to handle for the other Indian batsmen, but Yadav seemed to be playing on another surface as he nonchalantly flicked and pulled them beyond the sizeable boundaries at the swanky venue.
Pitches with ample assistance for pacers have also forced most teams to not throw caution to the winds at the start of innings. Shots that would normally sail over the boundary at smaller grounds would keep fielders interested due to the bounce and movement on offer in Australia. Batsmen have had to be smarter – the straight boundaries in Adelaide provide a much bigger challenge to the big hitters than the square ones, while the square ones in Melbourne and Perth seem to be in some other postal code.
Bowlers back in the game
It has allowed bowlers to use the unique dimensions of these venues to their advantage. They often bowl short of a length in Melbourne and Perth to force batsmen to hit towards the longer boundary, and relatively full in Adelaide. Of course, plans change according to match and pitch situations.
And with more conventional batting styles reaping dividends in this World Cup, the ramps and reverse-sweeps and reverse-hits are fraught with more danger than they usually are, due to the extra bounce on Aussie pitches. There have been several instances of ramp shots being caught at fine-leg, or even by the wicketkeeper. Fielding captains have also been a step ahead of the game, often keeping a fielder almost behind the stumps with that particular shot in mind.
However, one is unlikely to see someone like Kohli resort to such fancy shots, as he is strong all around the dial with conventional strokes. As many acclaimed analysts point out, he plays copybook shots but elevates some of them in T20 cricket. Being a player with an eye for gaps in the field, Kohli smartly focuses on fours instead of sixes, which probably explains him returning not out after three of his first four innings in the tournament.
The tournament has also seen a resurgence of the good-old yorker, which seemed to have fallen out of vogue in favour of variations like the knuckleball and slower bouncers. But the World Cup has shown that if a bowler has pace and the pitches offer some assistance, he has the option to resort to the very full ball, the on-pace short ball, or what is called in cricketing parlance the ‘hard length’.
In short, conditions Down Under have separated the top guns from pretenders and one-trick ponies.