This World Cup has been a coming of age tournament for T20 cricket, and no one is to thank more for this than the ‘dot-ball annihilators’ of the game.
When ‘Twenty20’ is raised as a talking point in any cricketing conversation, the mind quickly wanders to six-hitting and the bish, bash, bosh nature of the whole affair. This is cricket, but shortened – a ‘cricket-lite’ if you like – a jazzy, entertaining spectacle, but not quite the real thing.
Has it not always been so? Perhaps. Perhaps, that is, until now.
This year’s World T20, the sixth edition since the inaugural tournament in 2007, has been a coming of age for the format. For the first time since the first T20 international, over a decade ago, the game has been covered, talked about and scrutinised in a light like nothing before.
Why the change? Certainly its popularity has a role to play. Through sheer spectator numbers, the hands of journalists and administrators alike have been forced into giving the game credence. This, after all, is how the coffers get filled.
At first, their hands really were forced. Attention was turned only reluctantly and with a dragging of feet which caused great friction. There were those that believed that the format was beneath them – they cherished the ‘purity’ of the game; there was a widespread feeling that the tactical, technical and mental elements of cricket were lost to the swashbuckling style of T20s. Those views now however, are few and far between.
This is not because T20 cricket lacks the fireworks it has become synonymous with. There is certainly a place for the Gayles, Guptills and Afridis of the game – indeed this tournament saw the record for the most sixes in an innings surpassed by Gayle himself, striking eleven against the West Indies’ opponents in Sunday’s final, England. These players have their place, and are fun to watch, but they lack an aspect of their game which makes the best T20 players not good, but great – consistency.
This was a virtue previously believed to belong solely to the longer formats, to Test cricket and perhaps the 50-over game too. Twenty20 cricket, it was argued, was too unpredictable to be consistent in. The performances of Virat Kohli, Joe Root and Kane Williamson of late however do much to prove this wrong. Not only have they shown previously unimagined consistency, but more interesting is the manner in which they have achieved this feat.
Instead of the high risk, high reward task of hitting maximums, Kohli and Root in particular have anchored their teams to match-winning positions through minimising the dot balls faced.
Before this tournament started, Kohli talked candidly and openly about the realisation that he was never going to be a player to hit sixes of the frequency and consistency of Chris Gayle et al. Much as Steve Waugh omitted the hook shot from his repertoire, and in so doing became the best batsman of his generation, Kohli has decided not to go after the huge sixes.
Root too has spoken about going about his business in a similar manner, focusing on his strengths and simply forgetting any weaknesses from his game.
“I made a few changes but the main thing I did was stick to my strengths,” said Root in an following England’s series defat of Australia in the Ashes last year. “I made sure I made all the shots that I felt were my bread and butter as good as they could possibly be.”
These are the players who are most deadly not because they hit you the furthest, but because they score quickly and effectively without the opposition even realising they’re doing it in the first place – the silent assassins.
A quick look at the stats supports this assertion. In Kohli’s last innings, in the semi final on Thursday, his 89 from 47 balls contained just six dots – a dot ball percentage of just 12.8%. Across all innings in the tournament, Kohli kept this percentage below 30%. According to CricViz, the in-play analytical tool, only one other batsman who faced more than 100 deliveries achieved this feat – Joe Root.
In his innings against South Africa in the group stages, Root faced just four dot balls in 44, a dot ball percentage of 9%. In doing so, Root steered his side to the highest successful run chase in a World T20. When pundits talk about being ‘busy’ at the crease, this is the epitome.
For all the talk of bat sizes and the mismatch of bat versus ball as a result, perhaps we’re looking for answers by posing the wrong questions. For this is an evolution in batting not of the brute strength category, but of the psychological, technical and tactical mould.
Dileep Premachandran, editor of the Wisden India, said as much during the tournament, after another prolific Kohli innings, “Young players trying to imitate the Kohli look would be much better off trying to replicate his dot-ball percentage.” Is this the path to greatness?
Bowlers too are quickly realising the rewards of maximising an opposition’s dot ball percentage in return. During the 2015 World Cup, Messrs’ Starc, Boult and Southee stunned the cricketing world with their display of swing bowling. Their effectiveness in the end, came down to the unplayable nature of their deliveries – the dot balls, for these three delivered the most.
In this tournament, England’s death-over-phase dot ball percentage is 45.6% according to CricViz, the highest – and best – of any team in the World T20. England are in the final. In overcoming Australia, New Zealand’s canny combination of swing and spin saw their Antipodean rivals score off just 17 of the first 91 balls bowled, a dot ball percentage of 81.32%. Death by suffocation.
Ed Smith, the former England cricketer-turned-writer and broadcaster, noted following India’s defeat of Australia – largely down to another classy Kohli innings – that he played five “majestic cover drives” to win the game. “Classical skill & technique,” tweeted Smith, “will ALWAYS win cricket matches, any format, any opponent.”
Twenty20 may have once been a game of brawn over brain, but it would seem that that era is now over; this is no showcase jamboree, but serious stuff, and like it or not, the future of the game.
That said this could all be assertive rubbish; this piece, after all, is being penned just as the West Indies have muscled India out of the World T20. India’s dot ball percentage of 20.8% in their innings proved no match to the West Indies’ 41.3% in the tournament until then, whose innings contained 11 sixes to India’s four.
A happy medium perhaps, is the key to success?
Isabelle Westbury is a freelance broadcast and print journalist with a focus on politics and sport, especially cricket. She has written for a number of publications including The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, The Mail on Sunday and ESPN Cricinfo. She is also a broadcast journalist for the BBC, calling on both men’s and women’s domestic and international cricket matches. She studied at Oxford University, and is now Middlesex CCC women’s cricket captain. She barracks for Essendon, mainly due to the legal intrigue the club provides. Isabelle tweets from @izzywestbury and can also be found on her website – isabellewestbury.com