July 3, 2022

How T20 bowled over the cricketing world: Format that started as ‘bit of a joke’ enters 20th season

Cricket’s revolution began with derision, suspicion and a huge wide from Sussex’s James Kirtley. 

It was shunned by India, only begrudgingly accepted by the counties and hailed as the death knell for Test cricket. 

But as Twenty20 enters its 20th season, it has grown into cricket’s most important format and changed the face of the entire sport — for better and for worse.

Sussex batsman Luke Wright has featured in five overseas T20 leagues around the world

A FUNNY NEW GAME

IN 2002, cricket needed to replace the poorly attended Benson & Hedges Cup, with county gates across the country down 17 per cent. However, counties and players were wary of an idea led by ECB marketing manager Stuart Robertson for a 20-over cup. Only 11 of the 18 first-class clubs voted for its introduction and when it began in June 2003, players, in the words of Adam Hollioake — who captained Surrey to victory in the first Twenty20 Cup final — ‘took it as a bit of a joke’.

His apathy was not surprising, as there was no guarantee T20 would survive for long. Five years earlier, New Zealand had launched ‘Cricket Max’ — two 10-over innings each, with two runs for a wide and goalposts at each end of the ground that counted double if a boundary went through them. Touring sides from England, West Indies and India took part but it proved too much of a fad to take off.

Yet just two weeks after Kirtley’s anticlimactic first ball in T20 cricket for Sussex against Hampshire, counties were already calling for an expansion the following season. Attendances had quadrupled as crowds warmed to after-work start times and shorter innings to hold children’s attention spans.

T20 age has led to a proliferation of unconventional shots such as paddles and switch hits

T20 age has led to a proliferation of unconventional shots such as paddles and switch hits

T20 age has led to a proliferation of unconventional shots such as paddles and switch hits

HOT SHOTS AND SPIN KINGS

Not all were converts. The early reception for T20 mirrored that which greeted the Hundred last year, and former England captain Brian Close gave this early review in the Guardian: ‘The format does not teach the bowlers anything; it does not teach the batsmen anything. All a batsman needs is a good eye and the ability to slog.’

The impact on red-ball techniques was a common refrain, and anyone who has watched England’s top order in recent years would agree that they have deteriorated, culminating in the team plummeting to the bottom of the World Test Championship table.

However, the national side’s white-ball boom has been led by a commitment to attacking batting and the ‘360’ approach of being able to hit any delivery to any part of the ground.

The T20 age has led to a proliferation of unconventional shots — ramps, laps, paddles, switch hits, helicopters, flamingos, Natmegs and Dilscoops.

Without increased batting versatility, would Ben Stokes have been able to produce his destruction of the Australian bowling attack at Headingley in 2019? His innings was the perfect marriage: traditional defensive solidity to be two not out off 66 balls, modern improvisation to bludgeon 133 off the next 153.

England's Adil Rashid is among seven spinners in the top 10 of the T20 world bowling rankings

England's Adil Rashid is among seven spinners in the top 10 of the T20 world bowling rankings

England’s Adil Rashid is among seven spinners in the top 10 of the T20 world bowling rankings

Bowlers, too, have expanded their arsenal — focusing on changes of pace, angle and length to deceive batsmen. The ‘every ball counts’ motto has demanded better fielding, with tandem boundary catches a regular feature. Each of these changes has bled into the red-ball game to create arguably a better skillset.

Another prediction was that spinners would die out, rendered useless by flat pitches and a barrage of six-hitting. But by varying their pace — either firing the ball in or holding it back to deceive opponents in the air — they have become the most valuable asset in a bowling attack.

Spinners make up seven of the top 10 in the ICC’s T20 world bowling rankings, and in international cricket have conceded almost a run per over fewer than pace bowlers (6.90 to 7.72), with a better average (22.50 to 24.17).

‘I just try to bowl dot balls because dot balls bring wickets in T20 cricket,’ says Nottinghamshire’s slow left-armer Samit Patel, the most prolific English bowler in the format’s history with 290 scalps. ‘My mantra is, “Give ’em nothing”. Let the batsman make the play. Spinners will get hit out the park, but we also have a chance to get people out.’ To emphasise the point, Patel, 38, was taken for 28 runs in his first over by Yorkshire’s Michael Lumb in the inaugural 2003 summer.

But spinners, and wrist spinners in particular, have thrived. The ability of Afghanistan’s Rashid Khan, England’s Adil Rashid and Wanindu Hasaranga of Sri Lanka to turn the ball both ways is a crucial weapon.

MONEY, MONEY, MONEY…

Key to T20’s expansion has been the franchise leagues, with all the major Test-playing nations setting up tournaments that attract the world’s top players and are given prime positioning in that country’s summer.

None of them is quite like the Indian Premier League. It’s astonishing to think now that India were reluctant to adopt T20 due to fears over its impact on the 50-over game, and were the only nation to vote against the introduction of a T20 World Cup — the first of which they won in 2007. 

Eighteen months later, the first IPL match was played. It has swelled into a behemoth that lasts one sixth of the year and is given an exclusive window away from any international cricket. The franchises are immensely valuable, at an average of more than $1billion each. At $1.35bn, Mumbai Indians are worth more than all but 12 football teams in the world.

The IPL franchises are immensely valuable, at an average of more than $1billion each

Money, however, often brings with it a darker side. English cricket’s first attempt to harness the T20 boom began by getting into bed with Texan tycoon Sir Allen Stanford, who turned out not to be the benevolent friend he claimed to be.

He signed a lucrative deal with the ECB in June 2008, was arrested 12 months later and is now serving a 110-year sentence in a Florida prison for fraud.

‘What he did was wrong, obviously, and he is being punished now,’ says Patel, who top scored for England in a humiliating 10-wicket defeat by Stanford’s Superstars. ‘But it showed the cricket world what T20 could become. Playing for a million dollars was potentially life-changing. It was my first time away with England and we saw how much preparation others were doing in T20. We came straight out of our English summer whereas the West Indies lads were in a camp for six weeks. They were fully drilled.’

TESTS STILL BEST?

Unsurprisingly, the T20 generation play a faster-paced brand of the game. In the 20 years of Test cricket in the T20-era, compared to the 20 years preceding it, run rates have shot up from 2.89 per over to 3.23. Draws are down from a stable one in three Tests throughout its first 130 years to just one in five since T20 began.

The introduction of a glitz and glamour little brother raised fears that the country’s leading players would snub the traditional game. Or worse, look to turn their backs on cricket here for the Indian Premier League. Luke Wright — whose seven T20 hundreds are the most by an Englishman — was given an ultimatum as a would-be early English pioneer at the IPL.

‘I was in the car when I got a phone call from Sachin Tendulkar, asking me to join Mumbai Indians,’ Wright tells Sportsmail. ‘I thought it was a p***-take.

England stars Kevin Pietersen (L) and Andrew Flintoff attracted £1.1m fees in the IPL

England stars Kevin Pietersen (L) and Andrew Flintoff attracted £1.1m fees in the IPL

England stars Kevin Pietersen (L) and Andrew Flintoff attracted £1.1m fees in the IPL

‘But I quickly realised this was no joke. So, I apologised to him and tried to work out if I could go. But Ravi Bopara and I were told that we couldn’t go if we still wanted to be up for international selection. So I turned it down.’

Despite being signed for record £1.1million fees for the second season, Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen were provided with just a two-week window to feature in 2009, so as not to compromise Test preparations.

The landscape has changed. Wright has featured in five overseas T20 leagues and Patel seven. Over the next 12 months, Englishmen will bolster overseas quotas in 10 ICC-approved tournaments.

The money on offer has led to a growth of white-ball-only cricketers, and some — such as West Indies’ Andre Russell or Australia’s Dan Christian — have become T20-only guns for hire. The proud cricketing nations of the West Indies can now only see their premier players under lights with a white ball in their hand, due to the influence of the franchise era.

But the influx of T20 money has also allowed the smaller national boards to continue playing Test cricket, which makes a loss in almost every match that does not contain England, Australia or India. There have been an average of 43 Tests a year since 2003, far more than ever before. So the format is hardly being squeezed out of the cricketing calendar.

STAYING POWER

Having defied critics who dismissed it as a gimmick, the format is more dominant than ever and here to stay. Other new formats such as T10 and the Hundred have drifted in, but T20 remains king as it has struck the balance between entertainment and a universally recognisable, legitimate format of the game. In another 20 years’ time, it may well be that the format that began as a ‘bit of a joke’ is having the last laugh.

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