June 10, 2023

Where do you prefer your team to be after the Powerplay in a T20 game: 38-0 or 50-3?

This is a question at the core of the difference in playing styles evident after the recent T20 World Cup.

England was chasing a mediocre target of 138 in Sunday’s final against one of the best bowling attacks in the tournament, and were 49-3 after six overs.

However, Jos Buttler’s team won by five wickets with an over to spare, despite the early setbacks.

When the team was two down, Buttler ramped an express delivery from a fire-breathing Naseem Shah over the wicketkeeper. The England batsmen constantly tried to put bowlers under pressure, even at the risk of wickets falling.

Earlier in the World Cup, Pakistan – who eventually reached the final – were chasing a mere 128 against Bangladesh in a do-or-die contest in the Super 12s, and reached 35-0 after the Powerplay. Babar Azam’s team won the game by five wickets with 11 balls to spare.

Although Bangladesh’s attack is not the most fearsome in the world, the likes of Taskin Ahmed, Mustafizur Rahman and Shakib Al Hasan can make life difficult on their day.

Two contrasting approaches, thus, yielded similar results.

The traditional approach

The two subcontinental teams tend to keep wickets in hand in the Powerplay and try to accelerate from the middle overs.

“India is still playing very conservative cricket. It was an issue they hoped to address and, in all fairness, did in bilateral cricket. But here at the World Cup, India was constantly hoping the back 10 overs would bail them out. Today, it wasn’t enough,” tweeted noted commentator Harsha Bhogle after India lost to England by 10 wickets in the semifinals.

The Indian bowling too failed to bail them out and couldn’t take a single wicket, conceding 170 runs in 16 overs. India made 38 runs in the PowerPlay. It is a moot point whether making 50 in the first six overs would have brought a wicket or two while bowling.

Pakistan also had their fair share of critics for the approach of their openers. Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan strike at 127, averaging 41 and 48 respectively.

The duo has been the most successful opening combination in terms of average (50.47) since 2021 but that comes at a slow strike rate. In the World Cup, with the exception of the 102-run stand against New Zealand in the semi-finals at Sydney, chasing 153, Babar and Rizwan had trouble getting off to acceptable starts.

However, Pakistan reached the 2021 World Cup semi-finals, the 2022 Asia Cup final before the T20 World Cup final, despite all the criticism of the safety-first approach of their openers.

England, NZ kindred spirits

It was the summer of 2015. England, after the debacle at the ODI World Cup, started afresh. New Zealand, after losing the final in Melbourne, were starting a new cycle.

No one had a clue what was coming. It was the beginning of a new way of playing. Eoin Morgan and Brendon Mccullum, two of the sharpest cricket brains, laid the foundation for what Michael Vaughan calls “the attacking brand” of cricket.

Though it was an ODI series, the scores from both sides suggested the teams were playing an elongated version of T20 cricket. Since then, both England and New Zealand have been reaching the semi-finals of white-ball world events consistently. England won the 2019 ODI and 2022 T20 World Cup. New Zealand reached the final of the 2021 T20 World Cup and the 2019 ODI World Cup and the T20 semi-finals in 2016 and 2022.

The attacking approach continued at the 2022 World Cup. The Kiwis chose to play Finn Allen, who strikes at 165 and averages 24, over veteran opener Martin Guptill, striking at 135 and averaging 31.

Allen’s 42(16) against Australia in their first game, setting up a huge win, was thorough vindication of their method.

England’s openers Buttler and Alex Hales had a similar approach. They scored 63 in the Powerplay in the semi-final against India, who managed just 38.

“India was too timid with the bat. Unfortunately, Rohit (Sharma) and KL (Rahul) were not able to take the game on in the first six overs. They have got the firepower but you have to take the game on in T20 Cricket,” former Australia all-rounder Shane Watson spoke on Star Sports.

England and New Zealand are filled with power-hitters apart from one anchor each in Dawid Malan and Kane Williamson respectively.

On the other hand, India and Pakistan are filled with conventional batsmen with only one player each who can be called an innovator – Suryakumar Yadav and Iftikhar Ahmed.

Subcontinental superstar syndrome

Rugby in New Zealand and football in England are more popular sports than cricket. Bit in India and Pakistan, cricket is the sport with top players treated as demi-gods and legends. Hence, it becomes difficult to drop superstars even if their performances are not up to the mark.

Three of India’s top four – Sharma, Virat Kohli and Yadav are over 30. The skipper has been playing T20 cricket right from the inaugural ICC World T20.

“It has been a long journey and the game has evolved so much,” he reflected before the 2022 edition. “You can literally see how it is played now compared to what it was like in 2007. 140 or 150 was a good score back then and now people try and get that score in 14 or 15 overs.”

Despite saying the team wanted to play an attacking brand of cricket and acknowledging the change in the way T20Is are played these days, when the pressure was on, India could not play the modern way and went back to their shell or comfort zone for their experienced players with a safety-first approach.

Pakistan faced a similar situation for many years picking players based on reputation in a format rather than their performances.

Will the induction of young blood solve the problem of this traditionally conservative approach? Only time will tell.

Rahul is the elephant in the room, who played his second World Cup but in a timid old-fashioned way. He has tried to get in before taking the attack to the opposition, for many years now. This is the method he follows in the IPL and for India, but with a low rate of success.

With youngsters like Ishan Kishan, Prithvi Shaw, Shubman Gill and Mayank Agarwal available, will the team continue to persist with players who delivered in the past rather than in the present?

“This group of England white-ball players is extraordinary and for once, English cricket has a trendsetting team the rest of the world should emulate. How is England going about their business? What do they do? If I was running Indian cricket, I would swallow my pride and look at England for inspiration,” Vaughan said after England won the World Cup on Sunday.

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