Exit Kohli? T20 cricket is about to change

CRICKET’S OVERLORDS imagined this year’s T20 World Cup, currently being held in America and the West Indies, as a hello to millions of new fans. It has not quite worked out that way. Despite the little-fancied American team beating Pakistan, one of the game’s giants, in Texas on June 6th, few Americans have registered their country’s role in the showcase event of the world’s second-most popular sport. The New York Times summed it up best with its headline: “US Scores Historic Cricket Win, but Only Pakistan Notices”.

Instead of being a grand hello, this World Cup may be remembered more as a goodbye to a generation of players that have helped to make this short format of the game—which offers more fireworks than one-day matches or five-day Tests—the sport’s most popular. When the next T20 World Cup is held in 2026, it will have entered its third era. And it is likely to be very different from its present incarnation.

There was bemusement when the English cricket authorities explained the idea of “Twenty20″ two decades ago. But the thinking was sound. As enthusiasm for the sport’s fustier formats waned, they hoped that a faster pace of play would attract new fans. There were pop stars performing at the interval and hot tubs on the boundary (which took some selling to wrapped-up fans on a brisk summer’s evening in Durham). Spectators used to a thermos of tea and some gentle clapping had never seen the like. It was all a bit of a joke—“hit and giggle”, as it was known then.

But things started to get more serious in 2007 when India beat Pakistan to win the first T20 World Cup and the sport’s superpower fell in love with this short form. The following year, the Indian Premier League (IPL), a domestic, plutocrat-backed competition, was launched. Suddenly, T20 mattered.

The new code proved a challenge for many players. The sensible techniques most had mastered often hindered their performances. But some found the adaptation straightforward. Those with the biceps to hit the ball a long way and the courage to take risks flourished. So too did those with the best cricket brains, like Australia’s Shane Warne and India’s M.S. Dhoni. Spin bowlers enjoyed a renaissance, as batters were forced to be more aggressive in order to whack their deliveries into those tubs.

The first T20 era ran until the mid-2010s. As the old guard exited the scene, the IPL grew up. With investors piling in, offering previously unimagined riches, a second generation of cricketers realised that focusing on T20 skills was a sensible move. Players like England’s Jos Buttler were teenagers when T20 appeared and had longer to adapt their styles. They changed the game. Mr Buttler, for example, has been a pioneer of batting shots that would have made Test players of yore blanche. Some, such as the “ramp” over the batsman’s own head, have gone from the other-worldly to run of the mill during his career.

Many second-generation stars will not be back in 2026. David Warner, an industrious Australian, and Rohit Sharma, a big-hitting Indian, are 37. Andre Russell, a West Indian T20 specialist, is 36. Virat Kohli, India’s best batter, is 35. Even if they wish to play on, they may find themselves ousted. This year’s IPL was instructive about the direction in which T20 cricket is heading. The tournament witnessed eight of the nine highest team totals in IPL history. The scoring rate rose from just under nine runs an over in 2023 to more than nine and a half. Batsmen played more aggressively than ever and it paid off. Nine players scored more than 300 runs at a strike rate of more than 175 runs per 100 balls faced. This had happened only 16 times before in the IPL.

Four of the nine players hitting this milestone are from the third generation of T20. Jake Fraser-McGurk, Abhishek Sharma, Tristan Stubbs and Phil Salt are around the same age as T20 itself. They grew up practising their range hitting (whacking the ball as far as possible) and relay catches (two fielders combining to pull off a preposterous catch that would otherwise have flown over the boundary). For them, cricket means T20. They know that in this format scoring 20 runs from eight balls does more for their team’s chance of success than scoring 40 runs from 30. Mr Salt is already clouting the ball around in the England team, and Mr Stubbs is South Africa’s designated finisher, adept at scoring at the end of an innings. The churn from the second age to the third is under way.

Sadly, little of this new style of play has been seen in the World Cup so far. The pitch in New York, flown in from Australia and relaid in the stadium, has proved something of a minefield for batters. The wickets in the Caribbean are also tricky. Scores have been correspondingly modest. But don’t be fooled. This says far more about the conditions at this tournament than teams’ intentions. T20 will be an even faster, more athletic and more popular game when the next World Cup rolls around.

© 2024, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. 

From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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