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Ten ways T20 has changed since the last World Cup

The rise of specialists, superspecialists, right-left pairs, six-hitting, wristspin, and more

Sidharth Monga, Shiva Jayaraman, Girish TS  |  

How long has it been since we last played a T20 World Cup? Long enough for R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja to go from being persona non grata in the format to taking the place of the two wristspinners who replaced them. Long enough for the knuckleball to go from hip to raging fad to shunned to just another delivery. Here is how much the format has changed in the intervening years.

Different players for different formats
When the T20 World Cup was played last, it had been established that T20s were not an extension of ODIs. The last five years have reinforced even more strongly that this is a completely different format. And with a completely different format come specialists. It shows in how few players taking part in this World Cup also play Tests, and more starkly, ODIs.

Over 43% of players in the 2016 World Cup had played in at least half of their teams' ODIs over the previous three years. That number has come down to one in three. One in three had played at least half their teams' Tests and ODIs; now it is only one in four. In a three-year period before the 2016 World Cup, half the participants had played 40.6% or more of their teams' ODIs; the corresponding number is down to 28.5% for this World Cup.

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Wristspin is in
India were the only top side in the 2016 World Cup without a wristspinner. Since then they have played 69 T20Is with a result, and have used wristspin in 65. Unpredictability and variations trump accuracy on true pitches in such a short format, which makes wristspin key.

Only three wristspinners bowled 30 or more overs in the 2016 edition of the IPL. Six did in 2017, seven in 2018, nine in 2019, and eight in 2020.

In no IPL till 2017 had wristspinners bowled 2000 balls; the four IPLs between 2017 and 2020 featured 2325, 2571, 2927 and 2723 balls of wristspin. These four remain the only editions when more than 100 wickets fell to wristspin. The role of fingerspinners accordingly fell.

Still, while a wristspinner remains a must in a squad, the really good fingerspinners have begun to fight their way back, especially if they can bat or if the pitches are likely to help them or there is a strong match-up on offer. And thus India have gone from using Ashwin and Jadeja in the 2016 World Cup to neither to both again.

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

All change, all the time
For decades, cricket relied on repetitions and mastery of a stock skill, but in T20, especially if you are a bowler, you need to constantly upgrade. You are a mystery bowler one year, but by the next, batters find a way to pick your variations. You have to either add subtleties to your variations or find better deception. The same goes for slower balls. One year it is the back-of-the-hand legcutter, the next, the knuckleball. This is exactly what longer formats and early T20 cricket used to look down upon. Ashwin, for example, is no longer put down for trying too many things: offbreak, carrom ball, legbreak, wrong'un, various seam positions and releases. Sunil Narine is a bowler unrecognisable from the one who started out, and though he is not in the West Indies World Cup squad, he has remained among the best because he has kept evolving and bringing in new forms of deceit.

Don't take your foot off the pedal
This is something bowlers feel: batting sides keep going hard even if they lose wickets. Shiva Jayaraman has tried to come up with a metric here. In the first innings (chasing innings are excluded, because there the target dictates your approach) of IPL games, look at teams' strike rates in the 18 balls after a loss of a wicket. (Leave balls in the last three overs out, because you have to keep going in that phase regardless.) There is a sharp jump in strike rates in the years 2018, 2019 and 2020.

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Right + left = right
There was a series of Indian cricket adverts in the 1990s where the man on the street would spout cricket wisdom. One such: "It's simple, rightie gaya rightie bhej; leftie gaya, leftie bhej." If a right-hand batter gets out, send a right-hand batter in; if a left-hand batter gets out, send a left-hand batter in. T20 is now going out of its way to maintain right-left combinations. The biggest reason is not to upset the bowlers' rhythm, but rather to deny bowlers, spinners especially, a match-up against one style of batter.

The percentage of left-right partnerships for the top five wickets* in the IPL shot up from 41.6% in 2015 to 50.7% in 2016. Since then the numbers have been 49.2, 54.3, 52.8 and 55.9.

Has it worked? Comparing just strike rates might not be the best way to judge effectiveness, but in 2019 and 2020, left-right combinations for the top five wickets scored at a quicker rate that right-right; in 2020 left-left outpaced right-left, but left-left pairs are rare, making up around 5% of top-five partnerships.

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

*Note that figures in the graphic are for all wickets, not just the top five

The rise of the superspecialist
Traditionally, consistency in selection has been seen as a good thing in cricket. Not anymore in T20s. In the 2020 IPL, Mumbai Indians offspinner Jayant Yadav played only two matches, one of them the final and the other against the same opponent in the league phase. There was no injury or fitness concern that brought this about. Yadav was a superspecialist. He was brought in to counter a specific side, Delhi Capitals, that was bent on utilising right-left combinations with three right-hand and three left-hand batters in its top six. The increasing use of right-left batting combinations has brought about a return of offspinners, since there aren't many left-arm wristspinners to take the ball away from left-hand batters.

A typical ODI World Cup squad is the 1st XI plus four players who can cover as much ground as possible as replacements should there be an injury or loss of form. T20 World Cup squads are more about picking extra players who might be used in only one or two situations. Roston Chase, batting strike rate under 130, is not a typical West Indies player on flat pitches; he plays only in low-scoring matches or against a side with a few left-hand batters.

Want to win? Find the fence
It is a fact that teams that score more in boundaries win four of five T20 matches. In the second half of the last decade, the onus on hitting boundaries has increased, but more so in the middle overs, and especially six-hitting. We can see this in the IPL. Mumbai Indians were playing less-than-modern T20 when they were not winning; then they became the leaders in the middle overs.

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Sixes speak louder than the rest
ODI cricket relied a lot on avoiding dot balls, but T20s are so short that the humble, hard-working single doesn't have enough time to make an impact on the game. Fours are okay, but sixes are where it is at. In 2016, T20 champions West Indies struck sixes every 16.3 balls against the top seven teams, compared to once every 22.5 balls by other sides in the top eight in games against each other. In the last four completed IPLs, balls-per-six have stayed under 20, possibly never to cross that mark again.

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Bowlers need to bat too
Mumbai Indians once won an IPL with Harbhajan Singh, Mitchell Johnson, Lasith Malinga and Pragyan Ojha and one other bowler in their bottom five. The year was 2013 and the logic was that 20 overs were not long enough to need allrounders: you could do with six batters, including a keeper and a part-time bowler, and select five specialist bowlers to take wickets.

You will not find similar team formations today. Teams want depth to allow their main batters to go all out. There is batting till No. 7 at least, followed by at least two more bowlers capable of hitting sixes. Batters who don't hit sixes have to be as good as Jasprit Bumrah or Yuzvendra Chahal as pure bowlers to survive.

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

There's still room for anchors
You would like to believe the era of two anchors getting together for a second-wicket partnership of 66 in 8.1 overs in a match that goes at near ten an over - as happened with India in the second semi-final of the last T20 World Cup - is over. To an extent it is: England, for example, will struggle to put together such partnerships because they will not play more than one anchor batter.

However, look at teams overall and there is no statistical indicator that the role of anchor batters, or even of anchor partnerships, has receded. The role of anchors in innings so short has been part of heated debates among followers, but as of now it appears teams don't believe pure hitting ability has evolved to the point they can do away with the notion of one batter who tries to hold the innings together. This is good news for viewers: the longer teams retain this fear of losing too many wickets, the better it is for the format as a contest between bat and ball.

Note: IPL figures have been used in some instances in this article, as they offer standardised data that can be compared year on year, unlike for T20Is, where the quality of teams, and match conditions, vary widely

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo, Shiva Jayaraman is a stats analyst and Girish TS is a designer