Ravi Bishnoi stretches to take a catch

The millennial game is pulling cricket into the future

Sajjad Hussain / © AFP/Getty Images


How T20 has changed cricket forever

Twelve ways in which the shortest format has transformed the sport

Matt Roller  |  

No matter who wins it, the ninth men's T20 World Cup, in June, will showcase a sport that has changed beyond recognition. Cricket has become a commercial behemoth since T20's birth in 2003, with players travelling the world on short-term contracts and associated with privately owned franchises as well as their national teams - and the changes to the game on the field have been just as marked.

Generation Six
Trent Bridge hosted a T20 Blast quarter-final between Nottinghamshire and Somerset in August 2017, but a few hours earlier Sky Sports filmed a six-hitting contest between two of England's modern greats. Andrew Flintoff, then 39, was among the most devastating batters of his generation; he was up against Jos Buttler, who at 26 was still approaching his prime.

The challenge was simple: Flintoff and Buttler were fed three throwdowns each from Rob Key, plus one practice throw, and had to hit the ball as far as they could. Flintoff, who had played his final professional match two years earlier, maxed out at 92 metres; when Buttler launched his practice throw 103 metres into the top tier of the pavilion, Key and host Nasser Hussain fell about laughing.

Flintoff's technique was based around straight lines, locked wrists and weight transfer; Buttler relied on hand speed and his wrists whipping through the ball. It was a plain demonstration of T20's liberating effect on batters: Buttler grew up in an era that allowed him to place a much lower value on his wicket, and much more emphasis on his ability to hit sixes.

Where once there was room for an "anchor", there is now an expectation that every batter in a top T20 line-up should be able to clear the boundary. In the IPL's first season, there were 2.7 fours for every six hit; in IPL 2023, that figure had dropped to 1.9 fours for every six. In April Kolkata Knight Riders and Punjab Kings hit 42 sixes between them in a single match, more than one per over.

Strong-arm tactics: big, muscular batters like Tim David are the finishers of choice in limited-overs cricket today

Strong-arm tactics: big, muscular batters like Tim David are the finishers of choice in limited-overs cricket today R Satish Babu / © AFP/Getty Images

Big guys finish best
In the 1990s, Michael Bevan was Australia's finisher in one-day cricket. Few could pace an innings like him: he finished not out in 30 ODI run chases, and Australia won 25 of those games. In his book Playing the One-Day Game, Adam Gilchrist described Bevan as "an expert in clever placement, audacious running and inventive strokeplay". He did not lack power but he relied primarily on working the ball into gaps and rotating strike: he hit only 21 sixes in a 232-match ODI career, one every 444 balls.

At the T20 World Cup in June, Tim David will be Australia's finisher. The role has the same name, and like Bevan, David never made it as a Test batter; in fact, at 28, he has never even played a first-class match. But David is a pure hitter who uses his height and strength to muscle the ball over the boundary, in the mould of Kieron Pollard and Andre Russell. He only faces 12 to 13 balls per match on average but earns an annual US$1 million from his IPL contract alone. The art of finishing an innings has changed beyond recognition.

Give us your best shots
Scoop, paddle, ramp, starfish: whatever you call it, the shot existed before T20. Douglas Marillier and Ryan Campbell were both flicking and shovelling balls over their left shoulders years before Tillakaratne Dilshan lapped Shane Watson over Brad Haddin's head at Trent Bridge. Reverse sweeps have been around even longer, since at least the 1970s.

So what has changed? The ubiquity of shots that were once the preserve of the sport's innovators. Aaron Finch has observed that "almost everyone ramps, [and] everybody reverse-sweeps and hard-sweeps" even in county cricket - hardly associated with cricket's cutting edge. Emerging modern batters now have a full repertoire of 360-degree shots: for evidence, just look at Tristan Stubbs' outrageous reverse slaps over short third for Delhi Capitals in the 2024 IPL.

Wrist assured: among the top five all-time wicket-takers in T20, four are spinners. Rashid Khan is at No. 2 with nearly 600 dismissals

Wrist assured: among the top five all-time wicket-takers in T20, four are spinners. Rashid Khan is at No. 2 with nearly 600 dismissals Sajjad Hussain / © AFP/Getty Images

Spinners be winners
When England launched the first professional T20 league in 2003, there was a widespread belief that this was bad news for spinners. "We thought they'd be hopeless," Adam Hollioake, who captained Surrey to the trophy in the inaugural Twenty20 Cup, recalled. That mindset permeated the format's early years: it took until the third men's T20 international for any team to pick a frontline spinner.

Instead, spin has become a pivotal feature of the T20 game: spinners bowled a record 41.7% of overs in the 2023 IPL - compared to just 23.2% in 2008 - and four of the top five wicket-takers in the format's history are spinners, with Dwayne Bravo the only exception. Every top T20 team features either a wristspinner or a mystery spinner, with the ability to turn the ball both ways.

With five fielders stationed on the boundary, spinners' margin for error is far greater in T20 than in Tests. As R Ashwin has suggested, "Six well-constructed bad balls could be the way to go forward in T20 cricket." The format has revolutionised the way legspin is bowled too: there are more modern spinners who resemble Anil Kumble than they do Shane Warne, with shorter average lengths and faster, flatter trajectories in vogue - as modelled by Rashid Khan.

Spinners who bowl out of the front of the hand have come in and out of fashion. They largely disappeared after the ICC cracked down on suspect actions, but are on the rise again: at this World Cup, expect Akeal Hosein, Mitchell Santner and Maheesh Theekshana to bowl seam-up deliveries that drift into right-handers with the new ball.

Same difference: Lasith Malinga's action has inspired a generation of bowlers, most notably Sri Lanka's Matheesha Pathirana

Same difference: Lasith Malinga's action has inspired a generation of bowlers, most notably Sri Lanka's Matheesha Pathirana Sajjad Hussain / © AFP/Getty Images

Unorthodox is the new orthodox
The T20 era has normalised the abnormal, especially when it comes to fast bowling. Seamers with low, slingy trajectories or idiosyncratic actions have proved particularly valuable in the modern era: Lasith Malinga was the outstanding fast bowler of T20's first decade, and his former Mumbai Indians team-mate Jasprit Bumrah has taken that mantle on in the past ten years.

Malinga's action was once considered unique but his success has spawned a generation of imitators: Sri Lanka's Nuwan Thushara and Pakistan's Zaman Khan also use low-arm, slingshot actions, while Matheesha Pathirana - dubbed "Baby Malinga" - is his protégé, and has regularly ripped stumps out at the IPL.

We'll take it slow
Dwayne Bravo, the format's all-time leading wicket-taker, has led the way when it comes to variations: towards the end of his career he would often bowl 20 slower balls in a four-over spell. Every multi-format fast bowler now has at least one slower ball, and often two or three: offcutters, legcutters, back-of-the-hand deliveries or knuckleballs.

Some T20 specialists - such as Ravi Bopara - have reached the stage where they exclusively bowl "change-ups". Benny Howell, the English allrounder, defies categorisation: his ESPNcricinfo profile describes his bowling as "right-arm medium" but he labels himself a "fast spinner" and has flippantly claimed to have 50 different deliveries in his armoury.

Rope me in: boundary relay catches, where the fielder throws the ball back into play for a team-mate to complete, have become the norm

Rope me in: boundary relay catches, where the fielder throws the ball back into play for a team-mate to complete, have become the norm Mike Egerton / © PA Photos/Getty Images

Fielders of our dreams
Watch highlights of any game from the 20th century and you will be struck by the standard of fielding - and not in a good way. You'd be lucky to see anyone sliding along the outfield, trying to prevent a boundary. More often, fielders escort the ball like bodyguards, keeping their distance.

Things improved as the game professionalised but there has been a marked change in the modern era. "T20 triggered a real momentum shift in fielding and the attitudes around it," Paul Collingwood has observed. Relay catches are now so common that ESPNcricinfo's scorecards note both fielders involved. Most teams practise relays immediately before a game.

Only a handful of players can get away with being "hidden" in the field, and the change is most notable with fast bowlers. In a previous generation, they could hardly hide their disdain for the entire craft; now, even 6ft 7in Reece Topley can be found taking screamers at short fine leg in the IPL. When the BBL ran a poll of the best catches of the 2023-24 season earlier this year, all four involved Michael Neser.

Colourful in whites: inventive shots no longer raise an eyebrow in Test cricket

Colourful in whites: inventive shots no longer raise an eyebrow in Test cricket © Getty Images

Keep up, will ya
The early days of T20 prompted a theory that the format would bring about a resurgence of specialist wicketkeepers, picked for their glove work more than their batting. In reality, it has gone the other way, with keepers generally involved in only a handful of balls per innings, most teams are content putting a part-timer or a stopper behind the stumps, so long as they can contribute substantially with the bat.

Keepers have become increasingly innovative, with a general shift from soft hands to strong hands in their technique. MS Dhoni's lightning-fast hands and no-look run-outs have led the way - no wicketkeeper has more dismissals in the format - but standards have shot up: just watch Heinrich Klaasen's recent stumping of Shikhar Dhawan while stood up to Bhuvneshwar Kumar for proof.

Do we match up?
The terminology is new, even if the idea is not: in the 1932-33 Ashes, Douglas Jardine realised that hostile fast bowling was the best match-up for Donald Bradman. In any format of the game, but particularly in limited-overs cricket, captains have always tried to use their bowlers at the best possible time; and batting pairs have always tried to ensure that the right batter is on strike against the right bowler. But T20 has fundamentally changed the way captains think, with their decisions now seen primarily through the lens of resource deployment.

Statistical evidence increasingly supports the long-established theory that batters find it much easier to play balls that spin into them than those that turn away. "If you are a fingerspinner - a left-arm spinner or an offspinner - you need to know how to turn the ball the other way for teams to have the confidence to play you as a genuine bowler," Dinesh Karthik has observed.

It has also accelerated the role of data analysis: every T20 dugout in the world will feature at least one analyst - if not two or three - whose influence may be far greater than many realise. The use of data has enhanced the sport, generally backing up the instincts of the most attacking players: "People talk about taking risks all the time, and T20 cricket being so risky," Eoin Morgan said in Cricket 2.0. "[But] naturally, you don't take as high a risk as you should, and as data tells you to."

Put (no) price on your wicket: batters are scoring with more freedom now

Put (no) price on your wicket: batters are scoring with more freedom now Noah Seelam / © AFP/Getty Images

Wickets are cheap
Perhaps the single biggest difference between 50-over and 20-over cricket is the value of a single wicket. Around one-third of ODI innings culminate in a team being bowled out but in T20Is, the equivalent figure is around one-fifth. The principal effect has been predictable, liberating batters to attack much more with much less concern about the prospect of losing their wicket. Virat Kohli, for example, is dismissed once every 63 balls in ODIs but once every 37 balls in T20Is.

The contrast has had some intriguing consequences. Increasingly often, it can actually suit bowling teams to keep a struggling batter at the crease. In 2014, Yuvraj Singh made 11 off 21 balls in the T20 World Cup final, limiting MS Dhoni to only seven balls and leaving Suresh Raina unused entirely; Sri Lanka cruised to their target of 131 with 13 balls to spare. The recent counter has been teams placing such a low value on wickets that they are comfortable retiring batters out. R Ashwin, as so often, set the trend.

Luck of the coin
Once the simplest part of any game, the toss has increasingly convoluted, and at times has seemed to determine the outcomes of whole tournaments. In the era of the impact player, IPL captains walk out to the toss with two separate team sheets and name a different XI depending on whether they are batting or bowling first; in the BBL, the traditional coin has been replaced by a novelty bat flip.

But the real change at the toss is its outsized ability to influence results in T20, particularly in floodlit games where conditions change significantly from one innings to the next. There is a slight bias in favour of chasing teams across T20 history but in certain tournaments there has been a clear sense of "win the toss, win the game": at the T20 World Cup in the UAE in 2021, chasing teams won 22 out of 33 floodlit matches from the Super 12s stage onwards, including all three knockout games. Australia, the eventual champions, won the toss in all six of their victories; the only time they lost the toss, they were thrashed by England in Dubai.

20-20 vision
T20's influence on the modern game has been clear across formats. In 2003, Test matches saw 3.20 runs per over and 36.33 runs per wicket; by 2023, runs were scored at a quicker rate (3.52 runs per over) and wickets fell more regularly (32.50 runs per wicket). The comparison is a little murkier in ODIs, where playing conditions have changed significantly, but scoring rates have jumped from 4.67 runs per over in 2003 to 5.54 runs per over in 2023.

Many of Test cricket's best moments in the past five years have been tied inextricably to skills honed in T20: consider Ben Stokes' reverse-sweeping during his 135 not out against Australia at Headingley in 2019, or Jasprit Bumrah's stunning yorker and slower ball to Ollie Pope and Ben Foakes respectively in Visakhapatnam earlier this year. Even those purists who refuse to watch T20 itself are still watching a game shaped by it.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98