When England came to India in 2012 for a Test series --- which they won --- the Barmy Army had come up with an eye-catching shirt.
Embossed was a picture of an Indian attendant, dressed in blue, waiting on an English sahib in white flannels. “Cup of T20 sir?” asked the attendant. “No thank you. I prefer something longer and more sophisticated,” replied the sahib while reading a newspaper with the headline ‘Test is best’.
The picture summed up England’s love-hate relationship with Twenty20 cricket. Necessity led to the invention of Twenty20 in Auckland but it was in England that the art was perfected through their T20 Cup that came up way before India and Australia could introduce their domestic versions.
It drew in the younger crowds but never quite tilted the balance to the extent that the format would be taken seriously at the highest level, not even after they had won the World Twenty20 in 2010, England’s only world-level victory till date.
The apathy towards T20 cricket was particularly visible during the IPL. When most countries would try to keep their schedule as free as possible in April-May, England walked the other way by arranging Test tours. There were exceptions. Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen played some IPL but England’s most prominent face in the IPL has been Eoin Morgan, who has often spoken on the need to play tournaments like IPL to spruce up shorter format skills.
“It’s a great experience for overseas players, an opportunity to learn skills and improve. It teaches you how to cope with the pressure, crowd, and the fact that you are watched by a huge TV audience,” Morgan had told HT during the 2015 IPL. “Only if you play over a few years will it help in growth of the skill level. Playing just one season of IPL won’t help,” he said.
The wheels of change have started turning but slowly. Appointing Trevor Bayliss, who coached KKR to two IPL titles, as head coach last year indicated how keen England were to overturn their patchy form in the shorter formats. Reaching the WT20 semifinals for the first time since 2010, that too in India, shows they may have finally broken the T20 code in international cricket.
In accordance with Indian conditions, England have brought along two spinners, an explosive opening batsman in Jason Roy, a solid middle order and talented all-rounder Ben Stokes. They might have lost to Chris Gayle, but apart from that they have shown the maturity to either chase down a 200-plus total or defend 171 against defending champions Sri lanka. Only four England players --- Sam Billings, Jos Buttler, Morgan and Pietersen --- have been given IPL contracts for the 2016 season. If they upset New Zealand, that number could inflate next season.