T20: The Thinking Man’s Game?

The IPL is polarising. If you love first class cricket and, like Michael Holding, you think T20 is a threat to traditional forms of the game, then you probably dismiss the event as a gaudy circus.

However, if you just love cricket in general, and you’re grateful for the income that T20 generates, then you probably don’t mind the razzmatazz of India’s premier domestic sporting competition. You might even find it refreshingly vibrant.

There’s a danger of generalising here, of course. These two positions are just extremes. But it’s amazing how many generalisations, or perhaps I should say false assumptions, are made about T20. A common one was actually made by the editor of this very blog a few years ago (sorry, James)! It’s the idea that T20 is somehow a dumbed down version of cricket that isn’t for the discerning or even the thoughtful.

Although I confess that T20 was probably just ‘hit and giggle’ when first played at professional level nearly 20 years ago, the shortest form of the game is now a massive money spinner and the rewards have grown exponentially. Therefore, there’s every incentive for professionals to think from every possible angle in order to secure an advantage.

Because of this, data and analysis is now used in T20 more than any other form of the game. So the view that T20 is nothing more than a bit of fun, or a brainless version of the sport, is itself quite brainless. The best T20 sides go to great lengths, and utilise every resource, in order to gain even the smallest edge re: recruitment, selection, and tactics.

During England’s recent tour of India, some argued that England’s management team were foolish to invest so much in the T20 series. They claimed that T20 was almost too random to prepare for; therefore it made no sense to rest some of England’s Test stars so they could play in the subsequent T20s.

I can understand this argument to a certain extent. In the shortest form of the game, it only takes one bad over, or one incredible assault from an individual batsman (think Carlos Braithwaite in the World T20 final five years ago), to leave the best laid plans in tatters.

However, once again this argument rests on a fundamental misunderstanding. The short duration of T20 is actually the reason why analysis is so important (rather than the opposite). Journalist Tim Wigmore, who has written extensively about the evolution of T20, explained this well on the Betway Insider Blog last week:

“T20 is the most random format in that it takes the smallest number of deliveries to swing the course of a match, but it can also be planned. It gives you a far better opportunity to use data to plot your path to victory”.

Trying to plan one’s way through a 5 day Test, in which weather conditions change, the pitch itself changes, and bowlers and batsmen tire, is nigh on impossible. There are too many dimensions for data (and past performances) to become indispensable. It’s just about possible, however, in innings that last approximately two hours.

“You have so many variables in Test cricket” says Wigmore. “If you’re batting on a day-five pitch that is turning a certain amount, you might only have come across that scenario once or twice a year because of the number of things that need to take place in a Test match to get there. T20 scenarios repeat themselves. You can plan for the 15th over when a certain batsman is well set because it happens so often”.

The short nature of T20 also means that there’s an abundance of data to plough through. Why? Because there are so many games. Certain scenarios repeat themselves again and again. It’s almost like baseball; therefore a Moneyball approach can pay dividends.

Whereas a top class Test batsman might play 12 or 14 Tests per year (depending on what country they represent), a franchise T20 veteran might play 50 matches per year. What’s more, the conditions in T20 contests are likely to be more similar too (in order to favour the batsmen). Test cricket is a completely different beast where conditions and match situations differ greatly around the world.

Because every single delivery counts for more in T20, management teams look at everything: averages, strike-rates, boundary percentages and much more in every phase of the innings. Furthermore, this wealth of information is all available at the click of a button. If an IPL franchise wants to recruit a batsman with a strike rate of 200+ in the last five overs of innings, then they no longer need to rely on personal knowledge or judgement; they can simply look it up on a computer.

Test cricket obviously has a great emphasis on strategy and tactics too – I’m not arguing that T20 is more nuanced – but its variables make it more difficult to predict. The strategies adopted by the best T20 sides, like the Mumbai Indians for example, wouldn’t work nearly so well over 5 days. The success of Mumbai is based on out-smarting opponents by identifying undervalued talent that can perform in certain circumstances. Test cricket, on the other hand, requires different skills and the ability to adapt – not least the ability to both attack and defend when required.

Whilst you won’t be surprised to learn that Eoin Morgan, who is England’s most experienced and decorated white ball captain, is a keen devotee of the data-driven approach, not every cricketer is convinced. One such player is Kevin Pietersen: “If I decided during the match that a bowler had to go, then it didn’t matter who it was. It was game-based, so I didn’t plan it with analysis beforehand”. However, it should be noted that a player as supremely talented as Pietersen operated at a different level to others; therefore analysis mattered less.

For most cricketers though, analysis still plays a useful role in determining their strategies. “It can’t measure or predict everything” says Wigmore “it maybe can’t account for the wind or the dew or an injury, or whatever. I don’t think anybody is actually trying to say that gut feel is being replaced”. However, T20 has proven that data and analysis, at the very least, can be an incredibly useful tool.

So the next time you’re asked about T20, don’t just comment on the fireworks, the cheerleaders, and the unnecessarily enthusiastic commentary. Think about the game’s cerebral elements too. You might even develop a newfound appreciation for the format.

Josh Samuel

5 comments

  • Never. It’s as predictable as a wet summer. How many games end up as 150 plays 150? I gave up watching it over 5 years ago because it was such a predictable bore. I tried a couple of games last year and it hadn’t changed a bit. Tactics? Yes it’s about how many sixes you can slog into a baying half cut crowd. Cricket should never be played in a rush, it’s ups and downs, the unpredictable that make a test or county game something to savour and remember. I can’t recall more than about 3 one day games that were exceptional, T20 is instantly forgotten until the next thrash. And now they want to basterdise the great game even more with the crap 100. T20 is the McDonald’s to the Gourmet meal.
    As for the IPL being played by mercenary greedy cricketers in a Covid ravaged country…Well it stinks quite frankly and should be postponed. These players are swaning around the world in the midst of a pandemic getting paid a fortune by the IPL, the ECB and their counties they are not playing for, while Indians are unable to fly out to see their dying relatives. I don’t normally swear but It’s fucking shameful. And they are going to stuck their to boot.
    Rant over.

  • I can just about put up with the T20 blast – at least it’s county based and a money maker. IPL – zero interest. Gaudy, dumbed down cricket for those with a short attention span. No offense to those who enjoy it – just not for me.

  • Anyone who uses the word “vibrant” without irony needs to give themselves a good talking to. What does it actually mean? It means nothibg, it’s completely vacuous.

    Every ball matters in T20. This can be exciting and stimulating. However if the match istelf doesn’t matter, so what? Lose this match and another will be along in a day or two. It – and this is the great unspeakable – also means that the game is more corruptable. How anyone can believe in the integrity of the IPL escapes me (and T20 elsewhere – there’s been proven fixing in English T20). WWF is probably called “vibrant” by marketing men but it has no integrity – you think it’s an isolated case?

  • Cricket has produced more formats over the centuries than any other game In think of. With this mind I cannot see how anyone can call themselves cricket fans and not find something to like in all of them. I know 20-20 represents a threat to all other formats for many, with its razzmatazz and artificiality, appealing to a more general sporting audience, but it has become a real science and is no longer the lottery it seemed initially. There’s more to it than slogging boundaries on flat tracks. The flaw in its makeup is the publicity, which tries to represent it as the most attacking format of the game , whereas it is in fact the most defensive format from a fielding side’s point of view, with no close fielders, enforced power plays to stop captains posting all their fielders on the boundary and bowlers deliberately bowling wide of the stumps to make life more difficult for the batsmen. Outfielding as a result has improved out of all proportion.
    One day cricket will always have a more general appeal as you get a result in the one visit, like any other of our major team sports, but it unquestionably threatens the more pure forms of the game where that is not guaranteed. As with all professional sport these days cash is king and that means sponsorship, which is directly related to the sport’s profile. Unfortunately white ball is generally much higher than red these days.

  • Josh has made a good case to prove T20 is not merely a dumbed down version of the game. The compressed nature of the contest has forced players to be innovative, which earlier short forms did not, and the various scoops and sweeps and ramps are a welcome addition to cricket; likewise the clever bowling variations, and the revival of the leg-spinner, the most surprising and best thing of all to come out of T20.

    However…and it’s a big however…the T20 game, and especially the hysterical Indian version of it, fails to provide that most basic of cricket’s features. I refer to the battle between bat and ball. In its ideal form, the bowler is the hunter and the batsman the hunted, the prey. Most of the time. “When it’s your day, fill your boots,” as the great Ken Barrington used to tell his batsmen. For cricket’s greatest moments, we think of Watson and Bailey at Lord’s (those of us who are very old), of Bell and Collingwood at Cape Town, of Atherton v Donald, wherever that was, and of Stokes and Leach, heroes of Headingley. THAT was cricket, real cricket, which T20 can never emulate.

    Then there’s the Franchise element, the real spoiler, to my mind. I remain unconvinced that the IPL, in particular, is honest. How often have we seen, this season alone, a team which is coasting to victory suddenly lose a cluster of wickets and finish up needing 35 off the last 3 overs? Or a team which is down and out being presented with three overs of utter filth, to get back into the contest? Can professional cricketers really be so poor? Or are they being paid to provide ‘entertainment’? After all, nobody really cares who wins, as long as the money flows in. Just follow the script.

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