A T20 template worth the risk
England have added method to the madness West Indies first enthralled us with, an approach India must consider.
There is, as Rahul Dravid had pointed out during this World Cup, no one way of playing T20 cricket. Every team has come up with the template they are most comfortable with, keeping in mind the skills, the strengths, the pool and the reputations to preserve. But since England now have an enviable legacy in white-ball cricket—finalists in 2016 T20 World Cup, winners of 2019 ODI World Cup, semi-finalists at the 2021 T20 World Cup and winner of this edition—maybe their case should be taken up for study in how to succeed in this format.
New Zealand could have been ranked alongside England but for their inability to find a different gear in those crunch moments. But Asian teams like India and Pakistan have bigger issues to address, starting with the mindset. A great example is how Pakistan captain Babar Azam reacted to a question if the top and middle batting order needs to be reviewed. “We lost. That’s why you think we should change. But it’s too early,” said Azam.
This reluctance to change has been a frustrating recurrence with Asian teams, typically because they don’t want to call out the big names who don’t score consistently. But England have been pragmatic about it. Joe Root, their best Test batter, last played a T20I in 2019. James Anderson and Stuart Broad, the most prolific fast bowling pair, can play only Tests. That is how it is. And it’s bearing results as well.
It brings us to the most basic question: Where do you draw the line between skill and method? The selection goes a long way in sorting this issue. And West Indies were ironically the first team to get it right when they assembled a squad of freelancers and T20 specialists. Take the 2016 T20 World Cup final for example, where Chris Gayle was the anchor cum enforcer in a line-up that also had Johnson Charles, Marlon Samuels, Lendl Simmons, Dwayne Bravo, Andre Russell, Daren Sammy, Carlos Brathwaite, Denesh Ramdin, Samuel Badree and Suliemann Benn.
Samuels was the only Test regular batter at that time. Spinners Badree and Benn were horses for courses on a slow and low Eden Gardens track; Charles and Simmons were the only proper batters but in Bravo, Russell, Sammy, Brathwaite and even Samuels West Indies had five proper allrounders. The long and short of that strategy is that they packed in seven bowlers and nine (including Ramdin) batters in an eleven.
Considering Chris Jordan can bat, and he comes at No 10, England resembles that West Indies team in terms of skill and strength. But the most significant difference is method. Their white-ball supremacy hinges on matchups and data-based analysis, which is why they are not hung up on personal landmarks. Emotion and ego play no part in this format. Adil Rashid didn’t take wickets in heaps and they are fine with it as long as he brings home an economy of 6.12, with at least one over during the Powerplay. Also on point were Sam Curran (6.52 econ) and Ben Stokes (6.79 econ) who opened the bowling both in the semi-final and the final. Between these three, England have bowled 63 overs under seven runs per over. And in this format, bowling economy any day outweighs wickets.
“As great as Stokes was though, the strength of this England team is just how many people contribute. That is why they are a great team,” Sammy told the ICC in an interview after England’s win. “Sam Curran has that ability to put the choke on the opposition and take key wickets in the middle overs. Every time they look like they might be building a partnership, he comes on and takes a couple of quick wickets. Praise also has to go to Chris Jordan who came in for the big games and got key wickets.”
Performances can kick in only when the intent is right. And England had to go through many lows to achieve this high. This summer was chastening as they lost in West Indies, India and South Africa. But England refused to take their eyes off the big picture.
“I think maybe as frustrating as the summer was in terms of result, I think I actually learned a lot through that period with the benefit of having a few months after to kind of reflect on things I probably would have done differently or what certain situations arose and how they made me feel and how I reacted to them,” said Buttler.
Go back to what India were doing all this while. There was no real experimentation with the top three, just a wild guessing game with Rishabh Pant and Dinesh Karthik while Suryakumar Yadav and Hardik Pandya held up the batting at different times. Of course, the injuries of Jasprit Bumrah and Ravindra Jadeja were setbacks India couldn’t have envisaged but the backup planning was poor as well. Batters like Virat Kohli can’t ever be taken for granted was proven once again in the Pakistan game. England too have similar anchors in Stokes and Ali who can also play the big shots. But the rest—barring Buttler to some extent—don’t believe in hanging around. Even if that leads to a collapse once in a while, England can take it as long as the bigger tangible wins come their way.
This is why we again go back to the mindset part of this conundrum. As hosts of the biggest franchise league, India have at their disposal an enviable talent pool beyond the usual stars. There are some of the cleanest strikers of the ball and bowlers who don’t know anything but hitting the blockhole. If India are not averse to taking those risks, they too could become what England are now.