Why is it that I dislike T20 cricket so much? Actually I’ll rephrase that. Why is it that I dislike playing T20 cricket? After all, twenty over cricket is pretty entertaining to watch. It might not be ‘proper’ cricket, and I’ve never understood why the players have to wear garish pyjamas, but it’s usually a highly entertaining spectacle.
I think I dislike taking part because T20 makes me feel inadequate. As someone who’s always been a decent cricketer – I’m no Don Bradman but I did play occasionally for the Worcestershire junior teams - I don’t like the way sloggers are more valuable than orthodox batsmen in the shortest form of the game.
I’ve always been a very traditional opening batsman you see. I have a good technique, and can play shots all around the wicket, but my game is too classical to score at ten runs per over. I’m much better at batting all day, with a strike rate of 70, than plundering runs at breakneck speed. I’m more like Ian Bell than Ian Botham.
I fear that the T20 revolution has left me behind. And no matter what the coaches tell me – “get your front leg out of the way and muller it, James” – I simply can’t hit sixes over cow corner like some of my peers. My elbow is just too high and my bat is just too straight.
However, although I rather snidely called destructive batsmen ‘sloggers’ above, I actually begrudgingly admire them. They’ll never be able to caress the ball through the covers with sheer timing, or make a Lord’s crowd purr with delight on the morning of a test match, but their brilliant eye and brute strength blows me away. They’re also undeniably entertaining – which is why, of course, the England Cricket Board seems willing to cannibalise first class cricket in order to launch their new city-based T20 tournament.
Although it’s tempting to debate the pros and cons of the new T20 competition at this juncture – and unfortunately I think the risks outweigh the potential rewards - what I actually want to discuss is the batting skills involved in white ball cricket. Is it more difficult to be a classical first class batsman with a highly tuned technique or a match-winning T20 specialist who biffs the ball miles?
Being someone who drives and square cuts the ball fluently but occasionally struggles to raise the tempo, I’ve always thought that scoring quickly is more difficult. Concentrating hard and playing orthodox shots straight from the MCC coaching manual has always come naturally to me; therefore I’ve never had to try hard to develop these skills.
On the other hand, I know a few effective sloggers (and quite a few bowlers) who envy my defensive technique. Occupation of the crease, and wearing bowlers down, might seem unfashionable these days but winning games by compiling big scores is nothing to be sniffed at. Perhaps it comes down to a matter of taste? Alastair Cook and Jos Buttler couldn’t be more different as cricketers but they’re both world class at what they do.
Personally I fear that the continued growth of T20 cricket will eventually make old fashioned cricketers like Cook underappreciated. I wonder who will earn more money in their careers – Haseeb Hameed, who made such a good impression in the test series defeat in India, or Ben Duckett, who looked completely out of his depth? Unless Hameed also learns how to hit the ball miles, one imagines it will be Duckett by a distance.
Having said that, although Duckett’s defensive fragility is clear to see, there’s no doubt that he’s an extremely skilful player. After all, there’s more to T20 cricket than agricultural slogging. Players like Duckett and the aforementioned Buttler (who has also struggled somewhat in test cricket) also employ more subtle means of scoring: the reverse-sweeps, switch-hits, and ramp shots that have become ubiquitous in white ball cricket are incredibly difficult to execute. Batsmen need to practice extremely hard to master them.
Perhaps, at the end of the day, it just comes down to temperament. If, like me, you’re quite happy to occupy the crease and accumulate runs at your own pace, you won’t be particularly fussed about ‘range hitting’. But if you’re Jos Buttler, and you love massacring the opposition, you’re less likely to practice your defensive method.
One thing’s for certain though: modern professional cricket has started to reward, and will presumably continue to reward, attacking players far more than the traditional first class accumulators. Whether you think that’s good for cricket or not is a matter of opinion – and unfortunately I happen to think it’s not. First-class cricket is great because it has room for different types of players. T20, on the other hand, only has room for aggressors. Sadly this makes it one-dimensional.
None of this, however, will worry Ben Duckett’s bank manager. After all, the big hitting you see in T20 cricket happens to be the most immediately entertaining (and therefore the most marketable) aspect of cricket. It puts bums on seats, generates revenue, and increases cricketers’ earning potential.
Which is all terribly harsh on distinguished and decorated English heroes like Alastair Cook. They’ve put in the hard yards, and stood in the field for days (rather than just twenty overs) but won’t get a sniff of a lucrative T20 deal. Sometimes life just isn’t fair. But then again, maybe I’m just an old curmudgeon who’s allergic to the word ‘change’.