The New Zealand players line up for the national anthem

Three bags full: because of a shallow talent pool, New Zealand still turns out a large percentage of all-format players

David Gray / © AFP/Getty Images


Will all-format players become a thing of the past?

Is there greater specialisation in cricket today? We look at trends from the last decade to find out

Mike Jakeman  |  

Earlier this year, as the coronavirus cut a swathe through the cricket calendar, England's limited-overs captain, Eoin Morgan, gave the media an interesting insight. He told a press conference that he was open to the idea of England playing two matches in different formats on the same day. Primarily, Morgan was showing his flexibility in helping cricket get back on its feet, but he was also reflecting how the game is changing.

In 2020 it would be possible for England to field a Test side and a T20 team simultaneously without compromising on quality. Imagine, for example, a Test team of Rory Burns, Dominic Sibley, Zak Crawley, Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Oliver Pope, Ben Foakes, Sam Curran, Stuart Broad, Jack Leach and Jimmy Anderson, and a T20 side of Jason Roy, Jonny Bairstow, Dawid Malan, Eoin Morgan, Jos Buttler, Moeen Ali, Sam Billings, Tom Curran, Adil Rashid, Chris Jordan and Jofra Archer. There would be few complaints if either of those XIs was picked from a full squad.

What Morgan proposed has been made possible because of the gradual specialisation within formats in international cricket over the past decade. It has been a working assumption among many in the cricket community for a while. In 2018 former Australian captain Steve Waugh described T20 as "a different sport" to Test cricket that requires "different skill sets".

To test this theory, the Cricket Monthly looked at every international appearance made over three two-year periods: 2008-09, 2013-14 and 2018-19. To identify genuine all-format cricketers, we considered those players who had played at least two Tests, four ODIs and four T20Is in each period. We found that the proportion of appearances in international cricket made by players who feature in all three formats fell from 57% in 2008-09 to 48% in 2013-14, and further to 44% in 2018-19.

Put differently, if you played Test cricket a decade ago, you probably played T20Is too. This is no longer the case. In this article we explore why this trend has taken root, explore the differences among international teams in regard to it, and consider what it might mean for the future of cricket.

Most specialised teams
The past decade has been transformative for cricket, its calendar, and especially how international teams use their resources. The establishment of T20 at the heart of the game has been instrumental in encouraging specialisation. Back in 2009, the primacy of T20 was by no means guaranteed. The IPL was only a year old and had been exiled to South Africa, the Big Bash League was still a couple of seasons away, and several national cricket boards were battling to limit their players' involvement in franchise-based tournaments.

As it turned out, hosting domestic T20 competitions created a new revenue stream for national boards, while franchise contracts became worth more than national contracts to a number of players. A series of new T20 competitions flooded the hectic international schedule, adding hundreds of new fixtures. Players risked injury or burnout if they signed up for everything. Over the past decade, these forces have encouraged players, coaches and selectors to think carefully about how to achieve all-format success. Specialisation became an obvious route to pursue.

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Our data analysis shows that three teams have followed a strategy of picking players to suit the format much more clearly than the rest: West Indies, South Africa and Australia.

In 2008-09, 58% of international appearances for West Indies were made by players who played all three formats. A decade later this number had been halved, to 29%. In 2008-09, just 13% of appearances were by limited-overs players: that is, those who qualified by our cut-offs as specialists for ODIs, T20s or both white-ball formats. In 2018-19, this figure was close to 50%. The proportion of red-ball specialists and T20-only players also rose. The West Indies board now largely picks two different squads for Test and limited-overs cricket, and increasingly T20 is branching off too.

It is a similar story in Australia, where the proportion of all-format appearances has dropped from 52% to 30% in a decade, while the proportion of limited-overs players has jumped from 25% to 42%.

In South Africa, the trend has been more recent, with the proportion of appearances by players active in all three formats falling from 54% in 2013-14 to just 25% in 2018-19. Within these numbers the biggest movement has been in Test cricket. Five years ago, fewer than 2% of South Africa's appearances were by red-ball specialists. By 2018-19, the endurance of Dean Elgar and Vernon Philander and the emergence of Theunis de Bruyn and Zubayr Hamza meant that 13% of total appearances were Test-only, the highest in the world.

Behind these three teams are Sri Lanka and New Zealand, where the trends are similar but not quite as marked, which could be a result of their smaller talent pools.

New Zealand Cricket's manager of high performance, Bryan Stronach, acknowledges that there "is a difference in the sides we are putting out per format", but attributes the higher proportion of all-format appearances relative to Australia to a shallower "depth of talent". In 2018-19, six cricketers - Trent Boult, Colin de Grandhomme, Mitchell Santner, Tim Southee, Ross Taylor and Kane Williamson - played in 70% or more of New Zealand's international fixtures.

Given the impact of T20 on Test cricket, might we see more short-format stars make their way into the five-day game in the future, like Jasprit Bumrah (bowling) and Rishabh Pant (keeping) did

Given the impact of T20 on Test cricket, might we see more short-format stars make their way into the five-day game in the future, like Jasprit Bumrah (bowling) and Rishabh Pant (keeping) did © AFP / Getty Images

All-format players
Is it feasible for a national side to continue to perform competitively with the same core group of players in every format? The success of the current New Zealand team - which reached the one-day World Cup final in 2019, and of beat England and India in Test series in the past 12 months - suggests that this is still possible. But New Zealand's recent T20 record is less impressive, and it is the evolution of T20 that is stretching the range of skills that contemporary all-format cricketers must master.

Dan Weston of Sports Analytics Advantage, which provides data insights for the new Birmingham Phoenix team in the Hundred, argues that batsmen who play Test cricket have already been restricted to the anchor role in a T20 side: "It is so difficult for players to adjust mentally from five-day cricket to trying to hit 20% of the balls they face to the boundary, which is a decent mark of an aggressive batsman in T20."

Our data backs up Weston's theory: in 2018-19, the batsmen who played in 85% or more of their team's international fixtures were almost all anchors or capable of playing that role: Joe Root, Kusal Mendis, Ross Taylor, Babar Azam, Mahmudullah, Rohit Sharma, Mushfiqur Rahim.

It is already all but impossible for a bowler to be a regular across all three formats. There were only three bowlers to have appeared in 80% or more of their team's international games in 2018-19, and all three have a format in which they are weaker, or less regularly picked. South Africa's Kagiso Rabada is the spearhead of their attack in Tests and ODIs, but made only five T20 appearances over the two-year period. Mustafizur Rahman, the Bangladesh medium-pacer, was almost ever-present in white-ball cricket, but played in only five of his team's 13 Tests. Similar was the case of England legspinner Adil Rashid. Then come the New Zealand warhorses Southee and Boult, and that's about it.

Clearly, excelling at all three formats at once is not easy. England's Jonny Bairstow is a prime example. No one doubts Bairstow's immense talent. He averaged 75 in Test cricket in the summer of 2016, lit up the IPL in 2019, and scored two centuries and two fifties during England's victorious World Cup campaign a few months later.

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

A senior analyst with CricViz, Freddie Wilde, notes that the transition from one format to another requires technical as well as mental changes: "Bairstow moved to a more leg-side stance to enable him to be more aggressive in white-ball cricket. It worked in those games, but it now means he is vulnerable to being bowled in Test cricket." He has gained a cover drive, but frequently loses his stumps. Famously, Bairstow has been out bowled 33 times in his 70-Test career, the highest proportion among batsmen with over 100 total dismissals this century. His excellence in limited-overs cricket coincided with the disintegration of his Test game.

Bowlers have to be similarly adaptable. The challenge for a Test seam bowler, who has worked unrelentingly on bowling the same length for an entire series, is to bowl a group of deliveries with wildly different lines and lengths with as much control as a T20 specialist for the T20 series that follows. It is no wonder than Jimmy Anderson has left T20 for Chris Jordan to conquer.

The other obstacle facing cricketers who want to succeed in all three formats is the sheer number of matches. The Cricket Monthly's workload survey, which covered the 12 months until end September 2019, showed that Root played 81 days of international cricket over the previous year. The year before, a frazzled Bairstow played 91. Maintaining form, fitness and freshness when playing the equivalent of an international fixture every four days is a tough ask, especially when the skills required for success are broadening. It is no surprise that the number of all-format ever-presents is falling.

Our data shows that 20 players appeared in 85% or more of their team's international fixtures in 2008-09. This figure fell to seven by 2018-19. (Incredibly, Ross Taylor appears on both lists.) Weston believes that the rising number of fixtures, combined with a broadening of the skills required across formats, means that "it wouldn't be a surprise at all if we see very few, if any, all-format players of an extremely high level in a decade's time".

ESPNcricinfo's Gaurav Sundararaman, who has provided data analysis for franchises in the IPL and the CPL, holds a similar view: "If you have four or five all-format players in a team at the moment, that number is likely to fall to two or three in the next few years and is likely to end up at one or zero."

Are selectors influencing this era of specialisation or are they simply bowing to the demands of a packed international schedule?

Are selectors influencing this era of specialisation or are they simply bowing to the demands of a packed international schedule? Nick Potts / © PA Photos/Getty Images

But not everyone agrees. Jamie Cox, a former Australia selector, argues that "the best players will always want to play as much as possible. Careers are short and need to be maximised." He is confident that further improvements in monitoring fitness will enable players to play as many games as they wish.

Another school of thought suggests that Test cricket itself is being changed by players who spend most of their careers in white-ball cricket. There is no evidence that run rates in Tests are rising as a consequence of more white-ball cricket: they have been steady around 3.2 an over for the past 20 years. However, the average number of runs per wicket and the average number of balls per innings are both a bit lower than they were a decade ago. This could be attributable to better bowling, trickier wickets or batsmen playing more limited-overs cricket. Either way, more Tests now end in victories. As New Zealand's Stronach notes: "If this trend continues, it could lead to a 180-degree switch and make T20 players far more applicable to Tests, and in turn, an increase in the number of all-format players."

The selectors
The influence of the people who pick teams on our data is enormous. For example, Ed Smith's appointment as England's chief selector transformed Jos Buttler from a white-ball cricketer to one of the few automatic picks for all formats.

However, it is not clear whether selectors are setting the trends or responding to them. Cox, who helped pick the Australian sides between 2006 and 2011, said there was no clear push for greater specialisation in that period, even though the number of Australians playing all three formats was falling quickly over this time. "Back then it was largely 'pick the best players and let them sort it out.'" That comment is quite telling, as it implies that until recently selectors spent little time differentiating between the formats.

It also reflects that in the period Cox refers to, T20 was being played by cricketers with skills developed for Tests and ODIs. This is no longer the case, and selectors need to keep up.

Unsurprisingly, two empiricists I spoke to believe that more could be made of data analytics in choosing T20 players. Weston says that he has met coaches and selectors with "deep knowledge of strategies, stats and also recruitment dynamics" but also others who are "more keen to trust known quantities, big names and players they have worked with". Wilde concurs and believes that too many T20 selections are made "based on players' exploits in Tests or ODIs" or as cheap opportunities to "see how a player is around the group".

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Selectors also need to be watching the right games. Here again, T20 is different from Tests and ODIs. A Test match or an ODI is almost always of a higher standard than a domestic first-class match or a List A game. However, the salaries on offer and the looser limits on foreign players means that T20 games in the IPL (and perhaps also the BBL) are often superior in quality to T20 internationals. Cox says that he is "just not sure the [Australian] selectors trust the BBL as a pure selection tool". Likewise, Wilde believes that "no country's selectors misunderstand T20 more than India", and that the selectors pay too little attention to IPL performances when picking the national T20 side. He cites Rishabh Pant and Dinesh Karthik as two players who should be mainstays in the India T20 team off the back of their domestic form.

The cricket powerhouse
Speaking of India, data on cricket's most important is a little puzzling. Where the global trend for all-format appearances shows a fall over the past decade, in India the proportion has actually risen, from 53% to 57%. At first glance, it appears that India is pursuing a very different strategy, or even no clear strategy.

However, there has been some movement under the surface. MS Dhoni, who captained India in Tests between 2008 and 2014 and in limited-overs cricket between 2007 and 2016, liked a core group of players around him, which might explain why India's all-format percentage went up to 61% in 2013-14. Since Virat Kohli succeeded Dhoni, the numbers have moved towards specialisation.

Sundararaman disagrees with Wilde, and sees a clear selectorial strategy in the Indian set-up: "They will try to get a player into the T20I squad and then, if they work out, into the ODI squad and then sometimes the Test team. The management feels that the T20I and ODI squads should be quite similar as there are synergies between the formats. India are doing it just like any other team, by specialising in white ball and red ball."

Several among the latest generation of Indian international cricketers - Jasprit Bumrah, Hardik Pandya, Pant - were given limited-overs experience before their Test debuts. Simultaneously, the first-class route into Test cricket has been used in the case of Hanuma Vihari as well as Mayank Agarwal and Prithvi Shaw. (The latter two played the one-day series in New Zealand earlier this year, but only because of injuries to the first-choice openers.)

The data suggests that the Kohli years may see similar specialisation as elsewhere in the world. In the past five years, the proportion of players making T20I-only appearances for India has risen from zero to 8.9%, one of the highest in the world. This figure may fall again as the latest batch of young players learn their trade in T20 before graduating to other formats. Or it might be the start of a new era.

It's not cricket: can you see a breakaway International T20 Federation emerging in the near future?

It's not cricket: can you see a breakaway International T20 Federation emerging in the near future? © Ashley Allen - CPL T20 / Getty

What's next?
Here are two scenarios for the next ten years. In the first, international teams continue to pick from broad squads of players, all of whom have a chance of being picked for any of the formats. There are plenty of cricketers who excel at all three. Some successful crossovers between the formats means that Test cricket continues to see some of the innovations created by T20. Run rates in T20 plateau and more attention is paid to picking the right players for the game conditions.

In the second scenario, T20 continues to evolve at its current pace, with new shots and deliveries and a much deeper understanding of tactics and game management. The proportion of cricketers able to excel at both T20 and ODIs falls and the prospect of Test cricketers playing T20 begins to feel quaint and anachronistic. A large group of cricketers play only franchise T20 (or T10, or the Hundred) and the occasional international. All national teams employ separate coaching teams and selection panels, usually with Tests and ODIs grouped together and T20 separately. The confirmation of T20 as a separate sport comes when it breaks away from the ICC entirely and a new global administrative body is formed, perhaps with a view to achieving Olympic participation.

These outcomes lie at the ends of a spectrum. Our data suggests that cricket is capable of further specialisation. More international appearances are still made by cricketers who play all three formats than any other combination. It seems unlikely that the evolution of T20 will just stop; Weston argues that "most people, including high-profile decision-makers, are yet to fully grasp the fact that T20 is much more than merely an extension of the 50-over format. We are only part way through the journey." Some selectors, too, appear to be accepting that it is difficult for players to stretch across formats.

For now, it might be best to enjoy the fact that we are in an age of peak cross-pollination between formats. Two of the best Test innings ever were made in 2019: Ben Stokes at Headingley and Kusal Perera in Durban, and both owed a debt to the players' experience of T20. Mendis downed the South Africans with five sixes and a strike rate of 76; Stokes confirmed his supremacy over the Australians with a reverse sweep for six. For now, cricket is a multi-format sport, but it might not be forever.

Mike Jakeman is the author of Saving the Test. @mikejakeman