Cricketers slowly get to grips with T20

Quinton de Kock and Hashim Amla will open the innings for the Proteas against England. (Peter Parks, AFP)

Quinton de Kock and Hashim Amla will open the innings for the Proteas against England. (Peter Parks, AFP)

South Africa’s cricketers have put aside the joy and relief at winning a season-salvaging one-day international series against England and will now have an uninterrupted 45 days of concentration on the shortest format as they face England in the first of two T20 internationals at the Wanderers today and again at Newlands on Sunday.

Australia then arrive to tackle Faf du Plessis’s team in three further matches en route to India for the T20 World Cup in which the top eight ranked teams in the world will be joined by the top two teams from a qualifying tournament featuring the teams ranked from number nine to 16.

South Africa’s opening game is against England in Mumbai on March 18, which adds a tasty dash of relevance to the two games this weekend. Aside from England and the qualifier, the Proteas will also play Sri Lanka and the West Indies in their group – all three are former winners of the title. The Proteas are not even favourites to escape the group and reach the semifinal, never mind win the cup.

Australia are considered to be among the favourites despite being beaten 3-0 recently on home soil by India, undoubtedly the hottest favourite being on home soil and packed with Indian Premier League stars.
In captain MS Dhoni, they have one of the best-ever “readers” of limited-overs cricket.

One-day cricket was described as a “lottery” for years until players started realising that 100 overs was, in fact, more than enough time for the better skilled and prepared team to ensure that it emerged victorious more often than not.

As former England opener Geoffrey Boycott admitted recently about the 1970s and 1980s: “We just used to bat normally for 50 overs and we would see what happened. Maybe a couple more shots and quick singles towards the end, but we would be satisfied with around 220 and that was often a winning score.”

The evolution in 50-overs cricket to totals greater than 400 has been dramatic, but the change in T20 cricket has been far more so, and much faster. And it has only just begun. Trick shots with the bat and slippery slower deliveries with the ball are important developments and crowd-pleasers, but it’s progress towards really understanding the game that is lagging behind.

Just as Boycott’s generation learned that, by taking singles from defensive shots against good deliveries, a team’s total could be increased by 30 runs, so T20 players are trying to look at the format with a fresh perspective and no preconceived ideas about how to play it and what is possible.

“Very few players really understand the game, in my opinion,” says former Proteas coach Eric Simons, who was in charge of the Delhi Daredevils when they reached the final of the IPL, and is currently the head coach at the St Kitts and Nevis Patriots in the Caribbean Premier League.

“Far too many players still allow the length of the game and its perceived requirements to dictate terms to them rather than playing it on their terms. And many teams still confuse a successful outcome with successful tactics and successful implementation,” Simons says.

In other words?

“There are many examples – analyse a run chase backwards. Work out how many you can score from the final three overs and who you want at the crease to score them. And there is almost always more time to score runs than you think.

“Similarly, it is the bowlers who are able to ‘stay in the moment’ who enjoy the most consistent success. Those who celebrate the half volley which gets a wicket, or bemoan the good ball which is slogged for six, are allowing themselves to be distracted from what they should be concentrating on,” Simons says. “If the tactics are right and the execution is good, you can still go for six – but it won’t keep happening.

“The longer the format of the game, the greater the test of an individual’s skills and a team’s tactics. So luck plays a part in all three formats, but it has its greatest influence on the result in T20. But the percentage of the game which you can influence and even control is far greater than that which is out of your hands.”

If South Africa have not decided on their best XI yet, they will have to do so soon. Hashim Amla and Quinton de Kock will open the batting, with the former still to convince everyone that T20 cricket is his game. Smarting from being left unpurchased in the last two IPL auctions, this may be just the stage for him to make wealthy team owners regret their judgment of him.

Du Plessis will continue his captain’s prerogative to remain at three with AB de Villiers at four, JP Duminy at five and David Miller at six. Du Plessis spoke this week about his desire to have a long batting line-up, which suggests there may be places for both all-rounders, David Wiese and Chris Morris, with Kagiso Rabada, Imran Tahir and either Kyle Abbott or Dale Steyn filling the last three places, depending on fitness.

All the major teams know each other intimately; strengths and weaknesses are no secret. Apart from luck, there is one other way for the game to change direction: an unreadable bowler with the X factor. Tahir remains a potent weapon but Indian batsmen read him like a children’s book. There is only one in South Africa but 26-year-old left arm chinaman bowler Tabraiz Shamsi will have to wait. It shouldn’t be long, though.

T20 squad
Hashim Amla, Quinton de Kock, Faf du Plessis (captain), AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, David Miller, Rilee Rossouw, Farhaan Behardien, David Wiese, Chris Morris, Kagiso Rabada, Dale Steyn, Kyle Abbott, Aaron Phangiso, Iran Tahir.

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