In much the same way that cricket analysts were slow to catch on to the importance of strike rate in ODIs, so too have they been slow to catch on to the importance of strike rate in T20s. Everyone knows strike rate is important in limited overs; what few understand is how this can lead to extremely boring matches. This article looks at why efforts to contrive a more interesting game of cricket have only somewhat succeeded.
The advent of T20 came about when someone realised that, all other things being equal, fans liked seeing boundaries and wickets, and didn’t much care for dot balls or for contests that were over long before they technically finished because the chasing side lost early wickets. And so a form of the game was contrived to have as few dot balls as possible, and as many boundaries and wickets as possible.
But what this new fashion risks losing sight of is the fact that cricket is only interesting in the first place because it is a contest of skill, and sometimes the nature of the match situation in T20 is not conducive to playing the game skillfully.
For instance, it almost never occurs in ODIs that the chasing team, in the first five overs, falls so far behind the required strike rate that the match is effectively lost without resorting to slogging. The chasing team might lose early wickets, which makes the chase much harder, but as long as they can keep their wickets intact there are still plenty of overs in which to win through playing proper cricket and building an innings.
In T20s it’s common for the chasing team to build up enough scoreboard pressure in the first five overs that they effectively cannot win. In other words, it’s possible to lose the game with the bat in the first five overs because of scoreboard pressure – something that is near to impossible in ODIs.
This can happen if the team setting a total bats well enough that they’re close to the optimal possible run rate over the 20 overs (which is usually somewhere just above 10 an over, a rate that cannot realistically be maintained for an ODI). When the required run rate for the batting team climbs above this, it cannot be achieved without taking risks (i.e. slogging) and when this happens one is no longer playing cricket. It’s no longer a contest of skill but merely hit and hope.
This is an incredibly boring outcome from the spectator’s point of view, because the beauty of cricket is that it is a contest of skill where the batsman must find a balance between aggression and keeping his wicket intact. Removing the “keeping the wicket intact” part of the equation often reduces the game to slogging.
It has happened twice in the two matches of the T20I series between New Zealand and India so far.
In the first T20I in Delhi this week, Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma both scored 80 at strike rates of 145+ opening the India innings, which allowed them to finish on 202, more than 10 runs an over. This asking rate was so high that the slightest stumble in the chase would see the match over as a contest.
And it duly was effectively over, 22 balls into the chase after Munro and Guptill had both been dismissed. At this point the equation was 185 runs off 98 balls and Kane Williamson and Tom Latham, for all their undoubted skill as batsmen, couldn’t do much about it because neither could slog at the required rate.
Once a T20 match gets to this stage it gets ugly, because batsmen have no time to get used to the conditions so as to play big innings where they strike the ball skillfully and with timing into gaps in the field. So after Williamson and Latham were dismissed, Colin de Grandhomme had to come in and slog his first ball, which got him out.
In last night’s T20I at Rajkot, the contest was effectively over in the second over of the chase after Trent Boult had taken two wickets. Colin Munro clubbed his way to 109* (58) in the first innings, which meant that the slightest stumble would put the total out of reach.
And it duly was effectively over after Boult’s second, which meant they needed 10.5 an over for the remaining 18, or an individual strike rate of 175, with their two best hitters out. None of their batsman managed this, as few do.
The remaining batsmen were unable to score at the required strike rate without throwing their wickets away, and so limped to a loss, effectively throwing in the towel long before the innings concluded.
In ODIs strike rate is a major factor, but strike rate seldom destroys the chasing team’s hopes as quickly, as ruthlessly and as completely as in T20Is. Scoreboard pressure can destroy a chasing team’s chances so quickly that players can be forced into mindless slogging, and this is much less interesting to watch than a balanced contest between bat and ball.
The Black Caps T20 side already can’t find room for batsmen of the quality of Ross Taylor and Tom Latham, because they can’t (or don’t) slog enough. This means that the viewer is watching batting of a lower level of skill just because the way the T20 format is contrived promotes such. This is also not interesting from a viewer’s perspective.
The real horror scenario is this – what if it is decided that strike rate is so important in T20Is that there’s no room in the side for Kane Williamson? Because if this day ever comes, T20Is might start to be considered a joke format by cricket fans in the same way most rugby union fans consider sevens, or at least one only suited for levels below international.
If the joy of sport comes from watching skill on display then it can be argued that T20Is are objectively more boring than ODIs because they objectively give less opportunity for the batsman to display skill. The overwhelming importance of strike rate means that skillful cricketers are often pushed out of the side by sloggers, which are only fun in small amounts.