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How difficult is captaining in T20 cricket compared to ODIs?

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T20I leadership is more about reflex, ODI captaincy is more about maximising returns while maintaining a perfect equilibrium over a phase of a hundred overs © Getty Images

The ICC World T20 in its final stages. With the passage of time, Twenty20 matches have involved more on-the-foot strategising from the captains involved. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the different challenges a captain faces in the two limited-over formats of the sport.

When 50-over cricket had emerged at international level it had led to a lot of scepticism. Purists did not accept the concept very sportingly. Things changed rapidly: first arrived Kerry Packer with his wallet; then came India’s triumph in the 1983 World Cup; and finally, the subcontinent hosting the 1987 World Cup, the spread of satellite television in India, and the boom of One-Day Internationals (ODIs) in the 1990s.

The new millennium witnessed the emergence of a shorter version: the number of overs was slashed by 60%, cricket involved (who would’ve thunk?) cheerleaders, India won the inaugural International Cricket Council (ICC) T20, the Indian Cricket League (ICL) and Indian Premier League (IPL) were launched, and cricket was never the same again.

The traditionalists, of course, still swear by the longest version, and quite rightly so: there is a reason for it being called “Test”. The other two, they say, is instant entertainment. This has triggered an oft-asked question: if Test cricket acts as the five-act epic and T20Is play the role of Twitter one-liners, does the sport need ODIs at all?

The answer doesn’t lie in skills: every format has its own pool of talents; some have managed to hold on to their spots at international level across all three formats, but it has not been true for most. Sport has always been about skills (natural or honed) and adaptability. Quality cricketers have, and will always emerge as champions.

Adaptability, of course, has not been restricted to cricketers alone: leadership roles have been different across formats. While Mike Brearley had redefined man-management and strategising at the turn of the 1980s, Martin Crowe had helped New Zealand overcome the odds in the 1992 World Cup; and the world saw Bob Woolmer using his laptop (and Hansie Cronje, his headphones) to glory, to name a few.

Leadership in the longest format has always been about long-term decisions: whether the openers should dominate or “give the first hour to the batsmen”; whether a seventh consecutive over for Dale Steyn would provide a breakthrough or a few loose deliveries on the offering; how to rotate his bowlers; what roller to use; and the two decisions unique to the format — when to take the new ball and when to declare.

The other two formats seem more or less the same to the naked eye. A typical Twenty20 innings is usually perceived to be a combination of the first-ten-overs from the Sanath Jayasuriya era and the traditional “slog overs”: batsmen going hammer-and-tongs, and bowlers trying deft variations in pace, line, and length to tie them down.

At first glance a T20I innings seems to be not much different from what is generally considered the “entertaining phase” of an ODI innings: the 30-over intermediate lull becomes non-existent, and a single over may reverse (even one during the course of the match) can alter the proceedings. A captain needs to think on his foot, changing bowlers around after getting him on for a single over (to the extent of using six bowlers within, say, the first eight overs); promoting and demoting batsmen depending on who is bowling (since every over is crucial); and change the field around skilfully.

ODI leadership seems easier in comparison: captains can fall back on orthodox methods, especially between overs 11 and 40; the general idea is to get (or stop) as many singles as possible; and to keep overs from “death-over specialists” for the end.

However, things are really as easy. One must remember that there are two kinds of resources being talked about here: wickets (ten across formats) and number of overs (50 and 20). While you can get away in T20Is losing 50% of your wickets by the 15th over, doing the same will lead a side in a precarious position in an ODI. A score of 120 for five after 15 overs may sound impressive in the shortest format, but not so in ODIs. On the other hand, one can recover from 45 for one after 15 overs in an ODI, but it is almost impossible to do the same in a T20I.

The difference in approach in the two formats is, thus, balance: in ODIs you cannot wield the two-handed bardiche; it has to be the sword-and-shield pair instead, and the knowledge to know which of the two to use, and when. One must remember that the batting side has to play the perfect equilibrium to ensure they do not lose wickets too early while maximising the score at the same time.

The other aspect lies in team selection (and by that I do not mean selecting specialists). We have seen MS Dhoni getting Suresh Raina to bowl a spell of, say, 4-0-28-0 (the numbers have been selected randomly). This will go down as an exceptional T20I spell, but not only will it be considered pedestrian in the 50-over format, it will also remain an incomplete spell. Almost certainly the captain needs to turn to another bowler after a spell of that order.

This would mean that the emphasis will lie on all-rounders, or if there are not many around, several batsmen who can bowl (a strategy that India had adopted in the 2003 World Cup). A T20I captain, on the other hand, can afford to get away with someone who can squeeze in with four overs (or maybe two who can share it) and play more explosive batsmen in the line-up, but an ODI captain cannot afford a similar luxury.

In other words, while T20I leadership is more about reflex, ODI captaincy is more about maximising returns while maintaining a perfect equilibrium over a phase of a hundred overs.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in and can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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