Sport

T20 is the proverbial whole new ball game

Neil Manthorp

Disparagers of T20 cricket may not like hearing this but the game has pushed the boundaries of tactical strategising further than ever before.

England batsman Eoin Morgan prepares to reverse sweep watched by Proteas wicketkeeper AB de Villiers during the third NatWest International T20 between England and South Africa. (Getty)

This is ironic on several levels, not the least of which is that the physical boundaries have been brought in closer to satisfy its viewers' lust for fours and sixes.

When AB de Villiers faced Sri Lanka's star fast bowler, Lasith Malinga, during the fifth over of the seven-over match last week in Hambantota, he seemed eerily well prepared for the second ball. He positioned himself quickly, suspiciously quickly, for the hook shot and then made the sweetest connection possible to send it more than 100m over deep midwicket.

There are no extra runs for distance in this game (yet) but the "added value" came with the converse effects on morale in the two camps. So how did he "know" what was coming? It is not suspicious at all, as it happens.

"The field he set told me he had only three options – the full yorker, the fast bouncer or the slower-ball bouncer," De Villiers said afterwards.

Never mind how he worked that out – there are some international batsmen who would not get it.

Indeed, the first ball of the over had been an attempted yorker, which slid out of control for a wide. De Villiers reasoned that a fast bouncer was unlikely to follow – which left him with the slower bouncer. He picked it – and destroyed it. In every sense except the literal, it was worth considerably more than six runs.

There is a new favourite phrase among the Proteas. Gone is "sticking to our processes", replaced by "thinking on our feet".

To most of us that would mean doing adequate maths to keep up with the required scoring rate, but not in this day and age. It is one thing to remember where an opposition batsman scores the majority of his runs but quite another to recall what the video analysis report was on his "go-to" shot under pressure when boundaries are vital.

The equations are hard enough between two committed opponents. But the international landscape these days has been completely muddied by the Indian Premier League in which the major players from around the world become team-mates for seven weeks a year. Take South Africa's game against Australia next Tuesday, for example. Dale Steyn scoffs at the suggestion that former Proteas coach Mickey Arthur's presence in the opposition camp will give them any advantage whatsoever:

"Cameron White and Dan Christian are my team-mates at the Deccan Chargers and not so long ago we were sitting down to do a video analysis of AB de Villiers. Explain that! So, Mickey knows our games inside out ... but so does everybody else. We all 'know' what each other does.

"That doesn't mean to say we can react the right way. If someone hits my slower ball in the air they can say 'oh, that was his slower ball, I know about that – I saw it on video'. It doesn't matter, it's too late," Steyn says.

"The coach can only do so much. He can't hit the ball or bowl the ball; he can just sit and watch by the time the game starts."

Nonetheless, bowling and batting "patterns" are extremely important to know and remember, especially under pressure. Cricketers stick to their own tried and trusted methods when the game is at stake. Only the very bravest break away from what they know.

"The game is becoming more and more about your ability to out-think your opponent," says Jacques Kallis. "You look for signs all the time, as batsman and bowler. A fielder moves 10m on the boundary between balls ... a sign or a distraction? A batsman is cramped for room for two balls, does he step away – or inside the line? You look for signs, try to get inside his head and think like him."

All of this has been going on for decades, but with nothing like the intensity it has now. There are two differences: in 50-over cricket, the players have the luxury of taking two, three or even four overs to work out what the foe is up to, and how to counter it. In T20, three or four balls can be too late.

"When I started my T20 career, I used to feel disappointed if I made eight off three balls," says Albie Morkel. "But that was because I didn't understand the game. It can't be measured like all the other cricket we play.

"JP [Duminy] made 12 off five balls against Sri Lanka and it was the difference between a competitive score and a winning one. This is a team game more than any other. The guy who tops scores or takes four for 30 will get the headlines, but it is the 12 off five balls and the zero for 15 in four overs that is winning the game."

South Africa play their three Super Eight games in just five days, starting against Pakistan on Friday, followed by Australia on Sunday and India on Tuesday. Look out for what goes on before the ball is bowled and played. You may be surprised.

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