x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Indian Premier League: Skillsets under the spotlight in shortest form of the game

In Part II of his series, Osman Samiuddin writes about how the preconceived victims of Twenty20 cricket have not come to fruition because of the Indian Premier League.

Not too long after winning the World Cup in 2011, Sachin Tendulkar and his India teammates lost eight consecutive matches in England and Australia as the effect of the IPL may have played a part. Greg Wood / AFP
Not too long after winning the World Cup in 2011, Sachin Tendulkar and his India teammates lost eight consecutive matches in England and Australia as the effect of the IPL may have played a part. Greg Wood / AFP
What kind of impact has the Indian Premier League (IPL) had on the playing of cricket itself?
Perhaps the query should be a broader one: what kind of impact has Twenty20 cricket had on the game itself?
If we take the IPL to be the centre of the Twenty20 universe, in some way cumulatively representative of the effect of Twenty20, and agree that the status of the format is irreversibly enhanced by the arrival of the IPL, then maybe the original query is fine.
Spinners were widely feared to be the first casualty of the IPL, thought to soon be trading flight and turn and patience for darted yorkers at the batsmen's feet.
The old-school Test batsman, capable of batting through an entire day to save a Test for his side, or win one on a feisty surface away from home, would go next. Fast bowlers would continue their unfortunate descent into cricket serfdom, four-over bursts gradually reducing their workload as well as their relevance.
Scoring rates across the board would increase, the number of Test draws would lessen, as would the number of Tests stretching a full five days. Only fielding, it was thought, would definitively benefit. It had to, given the shortened nature and quickened pace of the format.
But five seasons of the IPL later, and after 10 years of Twenty20, what has really changed?
Batting
The initial, puritan worries about batting, post-IPL, were that the league would destroy technique. Forget that the notion of some monolithic, textbook-classic technique is a myth, anyway. Virender Sehwag and Shivnarine Chanderpaul are two of many examples of this notion being busted.
But what has definitely changed is how batsmen feel when they walk to any crease, Test, ODI or Twenty20: which is to say, invincible. Because these are batsmen who hit more boundaries than ever before.
A greater number of wide balls are chased and the repertoire of attacking strokes has increased. But it has become more restless, because the feeling is that if you are not hurtling to anywhere, you are going backwards. They have probably become more vulnerable, too, because of that. The mindset, not technique, is changing.
Some numbers are worth looking at. Aggregate Test run-rates since the IPL began are 3.23 per over; in the five years directly before, they were 3.31, and in the five years before the advent of Twenty20, 2.94. Batting averages five years before and after the IPL are essentially the same (34.91 and 34.88, respectively) but increased from before Twenty20s (31.53).
There have been 16 Test totals below 100 since IPL began, which does seem indicative of a decline. There were 18 instances in the five years prior to the IPL, but that list was dominated by Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, with nine occasions between them, which is not the case, post-IPL. That list has just one sub-100 score by Zimbabwe and pretty much every top side is on the ledger at least once.
Good sides, with apparently stronger batting, are getting out now for double-figure scores.
Still, it is difficult to establish definitive linkages, because these numbers say nothing of the conditions in which they were created, or even allow for the cyclical nature of talent. Perhaps the cricket world is undergoing a lean batting age following an unusually prosperous one.
Maybe the best example of the effect of the IPL comes from the fortunes of India itself. When they rose to No 1 in the rankings and claimed a World Cup win, it was thought that the IPL had played a huge role in the rise. It made their cricketers smarter, more confident. When the side subsequently fell, vanquished 0-8 away from home across two series in England and Australia, the IPL was thought to have played a huge role in that, too. Batsmen could not play the short ball because of it, or play away from home at all.
This much, at least, can be concluded batsmen coming through now will be unrecognisable from those gone, because of their tryst with Twenty20 and the IPL.
Bowling
The greatest fear about the format and the IPL was over the effect it would have on spinners. Bigger bats, smaller boundaries and fewer overs led to the logical conclusion that spinners would be hit out of the game, or become more defensive bowlers.
Little of that has come to pass, in the IPL itself, inside the format or outside of it. At worst, spinners have not gone anywhere, and at best, more have thrived because of the format. Something about the challenge of Twenty20 - and the over-aggression of batsmen - has worked in their favour and opened them up as bowlers, with more variety than before.
Look at how many sides have solid spinners at the moment maybe not great ones, but good ones. Think back to when Shane Warne, Anil Kumble and Muttiah Muralitharan left and the pervasive pessimism about the future of spin after that.
Yet every year since 2008, spinners have featured prominently among the top wicket-taking lists. In 2009, nine of the top 17 Test wicket-takers were spinners; in 2010, it was six of the top 18 and in 2011, four of the top 10 were spinners, including the highest wicket-taker.
In 2012, it was eight of the top 17, including, again, the top spot; and this year, five of the top 10 Test wicket-takers are spinners. These are figures comparable to the five years before the IPL. Moreover, six of the top-15 IPL wicket-takers are spinners.
Saeed Ajmal, Graeme Swann, Monty Panesar, Ravichandran Ashwin, Pragyan Ojha, Nathan Lyon, Abdur Rehman, Shane Shillingford and a few more besides are all reasons not to be down about spin.
Fast bowling, because of its nature, demands a more visceral appraisal. At times, it is easy to believe that fast bowlers have been reduced somehow. Translated across formats, fast bowling feels generally more defensive than it used to be, designed to stop runs rather than take wickets. There are some fine fast bowlers around - Dale Steyn and James Anderson for two - and some more coming, but it is not the 1990s (or 1970s and 1980s).
Yorkers have been used less in other formats because the IPL and Twenty20 generally has made them less effective.
There have been several slower ball innovations: the slower bouncer, slower balls delivered from the back of the hand or yorkers on off-stump from around the wicket. But these are all run-saving innovations, not necessarily wicket-taking ones.
Tournaments like the IPL are also an immense addition to the workload of the average fast bowler, even if they bowl just four overs per game. Managing the workload of pacemen is now the most important thing in the development of a fast bowler; Steyn is a wonderful, but perhaps unique example, of how it can be managed.
But the worry is that Lasith Malinga and Shaun Tait, both playing mostly in Twenty20s around the world, are the more relevant future fast-bowling template.
Fielding
The easiest thing to say about the IPL and Twenty20 is that it has improved fielding standards across the board. Yet, is that really the case?
It is not an easy discipline to measure. Certainly, by an unscientific count, there have been more spectacular, athletic catches in the past five years. It is not so uncommon anymore to see, for instance, the parry at the boundary line to first prevent the boundary or six, before regaining balance and completing the catch.
And when we say Kieron Pollard is a Twenty20 cricketer and mean it as a compliment, it is mostly because of the insane athleticism of some of his catches, which a man of his size should not be capable of.
But where else? Ground fielding?
Well, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have been setting standards since at least the mid-1990s for the rest of the world to follow. They had taken ground fielding to new levels much before the IPL came along. In fact, fielding did not change with the IPL, it did with Jonty Rhodes in the early 1990s.
If India has men like Ravindra Jadeja and Suresh Raina now, it is not the IPL that was responsible, not entirely, at least. It was the two men who made fielding cool to a generation of Indians, Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif. The IPL helps maintain those standards, but it had little to do with them being reached in the first place.
But unless cricket starts broadening the statistics it has for fielding, beyond just the number of catches held, it will be difficult to know definitively what impact the IPL and Twenty20 have had on fielding that was not already there.
osamiuddin@thenational.ae
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