Back in the last decade, I was a cricket journalist for a few years. Then, around 12 years ago, I quit. I was jaded as hell. Every game seemed like déjà vu, nothing new, just another round on the treadmill. Although I would remember her fondly, I thought me and cricket were done.
And then I fell in love again. Cricket has changed in the last few years in glorious ways. There have been new ways of thinking about the game. There have been new ways of playing the game. Every season, new kinds of drama form, new nuances spring up into sight. This is true even of what had once seemed the dullest form of the game, one-day cricket. We are entering into a brave new world, and the team leading us there is England. No matter what happens in the World Cup final today – a single game involves a huge amount of luck – this England side are extraordinary. They are the bridge between eras, leading us into a Golden Age of Cricket.
I know that sounds hyperbolic, so let me stun you further by saying that I give the IPL credit for this. And now, having woken up you up with such a jolt on this lovely Sunday morning, let me explain.
Twenty20 cricket changed the game in two fundamental ways. Both ended up changing one-day cricket. The first was strategy.
When the first T20 games took place, teams applied an ODI template to innings-building: pinch-hit, build, slog. But this was not an optimal approach. In ODIs, teams have 11 players over 50 overs. In T20s, they have 11 players over 20 overs. The equation between resources and constraints is different. This means that the cost of a wicket goes down, and the cost of a dot ball goes up. Critically, it means that the value of aggression rises. A team need not follow the ODI template. In some instances, attacking for all 20 overs – or as I call it, ‘frontloading’ – may be optimal.
West Indies won the T20 World Cup in 2016 by doing just this, and England played similarly. And some sides began to realise was that they had been underestimating the value of aggression in one-day cricket as well.
The second fundamental way in which T20 cricket changed cricket was in terms of skills. The IPL and other leagues brought big money into the game. This changed incentives for budding cricketers. Relatively few people break into Test or ODI cricket, and play for their countries. A much wider pool can aspire to play T20 cricket – which also provides much more money. So it makes sense to spend the hundreds of hours you are in the nets honing T20 skills rather than Test match skills. Go to any nets practice, and you will find many more kids practising innovative aggressive strokes than playing the forward defensive.
As a result, batsmen today have a wider array of attacking strokes than earlier generations. Because every run counts more in T20 cricket, the standard of fielding has also shot up. And bowlers have also reacted to this by expanding their arsenal of tricks. Everyone has had to lift their game.
In one-day cricket, thus, two things have happened. One, there is better strategic understanding about the value of aggression. Two, batsmen are better equipped to act on the aggressive imperative. The game has continued to evolve.
Bowlers have reacted to this with greater aggression on their part, and this ongoing dialogue has been fascinating. The cricket writer Gideon Haigh once told me on my podcast that the 2015 World Cup featured a battle between T20 batting and Test match bowling.
This England team is the high watermark so far. Their aggression does not come from slogging. They bat with a combination of intent and skills that allows them to coast at 6-an-over, without needing to take too many risks. In normal conditions, thus, they can coast to 300 – any hitting they do beyond that is the bonus that takes them to 350 or 400. It’s a whole new level, illustrated by the fact that at one point a few days ago, they had seven consecutive scores of 300 to their name. Look at their scores over the last few years, in fact, and it is clear that this is the greatest batting side in the history of one-day cricket – by a margin.
There have been stumbles in this World Cup, but in the bigger picture, those are outliers. If England have a bad day in the final and New Zealand play their A-game, England might even lose today. But if Captain Morgan’s men play their A-game, they will coast to victory. New Zealand does not have those gears. No other team in the world does – for now.
But one day, they will all have to learn to play like this.