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.