A gripping book on T20 cricket and why it's the sport's default format

ON A STRONG WICKET: Indian players after winning the inaugural T20 World Cup in 2007. A novel concept then, the tournament has become one of the most important event on international calendar.
Looking back, 2019 seems like a gift from the cricketing gods — a season so ridiculously thrilling that you could actually make a film out of the entire thing and watch it on loop. In the age of seemingly endless cricket, that’s probably the greatest compliment you can pay to just a few months of cricket. 

The summer’s two defining images both featured  Ben Stokes: the Durham all-rounder holding his hands up to apologise for the deflected overthrow that went for four and forced the World Cup final into a super over; and the same man exulting after crunching Pat Cummins through extra-cover and winning an Ashes Test match for the ages.  

On paper, at least, both these unforgettable matches had nothing to do with T20 cricket. And yet, you can’t help but view the two games in the context of cricket’s shortest format. England succeeded in their obsession of landing the World Cup on the back of — as absurd as it may sound — more boundaries scored, a reward for the English batsmen’s more belligerent instincts in the aftermath of the super over also ending in a tie. And at Headingley, Stokes was able to keep out the Aussies for over 200 balls and steer his team to an improbable one-wicket win because he batted in a way that was every bit reflective of T20’s cricket bold, slightly temerarious approach.

So enormous has been its impact on the sport as a whole that any discussion surrounding modern cricket seems incomplete without the mention of the T20 format — it’s changed cricket in a way thought to be unfathomable till about 15 years ago.

Initially seen as a money-making gimmick, T20 cricket has morphed into something more significant: a game that goes beyond mere brainless slogging and damage control; a game with its own set of intricacies and tactical acuities. 

Chris Gayle, the man who has come to define batting in cricket's shortest format. Reuters
This very coming of age is eloquently summed up by English cricket writers Tim Wigmore and Freddie Wilde in Cricket 2.0: Inside the T20 Revolution. The book comes at a time when the latest season of the Indian Premier League (IPL) — the format’s ultimate poster boy — has been indefinitely suspended, but in its own little way, Cricket 2.0 is as brilliantly entertaining and engaging as some of the games might have been.  

T20 may seem rather simple, but, as Wigmore and Wilde explain, the format is now driven by science more than ever before — something akin to a completely different sport. What are the benefits of opening the bowling with a spinner? How much variation is too much variation? How many foreigners does an IPL franchise actually need to buy? How can someone like A B de Villiers preempt what the bowler is about to do? Through interviews and data analyses, the authors offer credible answers — in a style that, in some ways, mimics the approach adopted by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski in their phenomenally successful book, Soccernomics

There is an interesting passage in the first few pages on how Brendon McCullum became a T20 sensation, featuring a throwback to his monumental innings for the Kolkata Knight Riders on the ritzy opening night of the IPL back in 2008. Quoting McCullum as someone who’d rather get out than face five straight dot balls in this format — as the Kiwi had in that knock — the authors put down his success to his eschewing of “smart cricket”, an old cricket truism that is normally described as the tendency to take a single on the delivery immediately following a boundary. “Nothing sh**s me more than boundary-one — and everyone claps and it’s the old-school thinking… But to me you’ve passed up your opportunity to be able to win the game in that moment,” McCullum says in the book. 

And while the book, much like the format itself, is stacked in favour of the batsman — apart from McCullum, there is lofty praise for de Villiers as well as Chris Gayle — Wigmore and Wilde are on point in their dissection of the role of the spinner in T20’s slam-bang scheme of things. They reserve special mention for Sunil Narine and Samuel Badree, two bowlers who have, over the years, perfected variations and kept teams quiet through their ability to pick up wickets. It’s an important chapter since it underscores a larger point: mystery spinners such as Narine, and wrist spinners like Badree who can rip it both ways, will continue to be popular among franchises. Moreover, innovation will continue to be sought by teams, something that the authors allude to in their mention of the “ambidextrous spinner” towards the end of the book. 

From an Indian perspective, there is a fabulous — and essential — breakdown of “Why CSK win and RCB lose”. A major reason for RCB’s lamentable IPL record, argue Wigmore and Wilde, is that they end up trying out too many players. CSK, on the other hand, have been successful due to the their refusal to tinker too much with their playing personnel — a strategy reflected in the fact that they’ve had the same captain ever since the league began. They further assert that RCB have largely been reliant — perhaps due to a surplus of star players — on individualism, unlike CSK, who have always thrived as a team. 

That said, Cricket 2.0 seems stretched in places, often stating observations and platitudes that may enthuse a general readership, but not all diehard cricket fans. The chapter on the “Democratisation of Cricket”, for instance, seems a bit excessive, given that the game is still controlled by a handful of powerful nations. And while it is true that T20 has popularised cricket and helped establish leagues in places not traditionally known to play the sport, their long-term fate will most likely depend on the financial support they’re able to muster. 

There are some other questions, of course. The most important of which is: where does cricket go from here? T10? T5? Deciding games with just the toss of a coin? Having said that, it’s imperative that we accept T20 as cricket’s default format, one that both Wigmore and Wilde have carefully studied, and provided an essential account of — on how it’s taken over our lives, and why it’s here to stay. For those still not convinced, there’s always the summer of 2019.

Cricket 2.0 Inside the T20 Revolution
Author: Tim Wigmore & Freddie Wilde
Publisher: Penguin Random House 
Pages: 400
Price: Rs 499

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