The fear has been with us for a very long time. Cricket does fear and worry better than parents watching a drunken aunty hold their newborn. T20 is cricket’s creeping evil. If you look hard enough, and have the right kind of tunnel vision, you can see its destructive powers in every part of cricket.
The spectre of T20 and its giant mutated child, IPL, is never far away when people talk about India. If India win a match, they do it because of the IPL. If they lose, they do it because of the IPL. Their batsmen are flashy millionaires with shots a dozen who can’t crack real cricket. Their bowlers are lazy, popgun, four-over specialists with tricks to get a bloke caught at long-on and not much more.
We are in the first T20 generation of cricketers. Players who are arriving at Test cricket with contracts across continents, who can reverse, switch-hit, ramp or scoop a maximum for a moment of success, but who enter the corridor of uncertainty like a chainsaw wielding psycho is at the other end. Coaches tried to ground their pupils at first, but now we have T20 specialist coaches who cheer rather than chide improvisation. When Glenn Maxwell played a reverse hook shot, we’d reached uber cricket-max mode.
Cricket has feared the limited-overs revolution for almost as long as it has existed. In the 1990s every time a bad shot was played, ODI cricket was blamed. It was the IPL before we had the IPL. Yet, if you spend anytime watching old cricket footage, stupid shots and pointless bowling has always existed. When Sobers made his double-hundred at the G for the Rest of the World, the modern analyst’s computer would have exploded at the amount of short and wide balls he got.
T20 makes you rich. T20 puts you on television. T20 makes you a target.
In this match we have David Warner, Steven Smith, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon, R Ashwin, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, and Rohit Sharma. All T20 players first, Test cricketers second. Perhaps not in hopes or dreams, but in reality and contract.
Warner was a franchise player before a first-class player. Smith has travelled the world playing limited-overs cricket in shirts every colour of the rainbow. Ashwin was a Chennai Super King well before he was an Indian spin king at home. Kohli was the emerging player in the first IPL and one-day superstar. They have all adapted, changed and are working out what Test cricket is.
India as a team is yet to evolve. This is a young team; Kohli with 33 Tests is the most experienced player. They have talent, they have proved that at home, but on the road is where young players are tested the most. And on this road at the SCG, they were run over.
Most of India’s current squad have played more domestic T20s than any other form of cricket. Dhoni had not played a Ranji Trophy match since 2005, or Irani Cup match since 2008. Rahane has played one first-class game outside of India colours since 2012. Dhawan has played none since his debut. Rohit has one in the last two years. Mohammed Shami last played in 2012. Raina did not play a first-class game in 2014. He has played 203 ODIs, and 86 first-class matches. And Ashwin not one since 2010. This is a generation of cricketers learning Test cricket while playing it.
Because of their schedule, and how they like to warm up – when India play warm up matches before Tests – they use most of their squad. Blokes retire once they start hitting the ball well. They bowl 12 overs in the match and then rest with the physio. They don’t treat them like matches, and they don’t reap the rewards of a bowler bowling his 20th over and working through a set batsman. Or a batsman pushing beyond 130 knowing how tired that makes you. Their innings and spells are short, their games are make believe. And because of this they struggle to play more than three good sessions in a row. They can’t catch in the slips. Their bowlers need a rigid plan. And their batsmen give away good starts.
Many times in this series India have played good cricket. The first two sessions on day five in Adelaide gave them a chance of winning. The next session might as well not have existed. At the Gabba they fought to get the Australia tail in while they were well behind. Then they spent hours bowling at them. For three seasons India batted well at the MCG, but they had one session where they gave away five wickets and the Test was over. They have not had one great innings from beginning to end. Not with the bat, not with the ball, not with their fielding, and not with their captaincy.
India have dropped a fair chunk of slip catches this series, but what was more noticeable is the amount of people who have fielded in the cordon – Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara, Kohli, Ashwin, Raina, KL Rahul, Rahane and M Vijay. There could be even more. Slip is a position you only learn by standing there. You can have the hands, you can have the reflexes, but your mind needs to be trained on how to be ready for the one ball a day that may come your way. The Indian slips don’t even get whole days. Or whole sessions. Ashwin aside, if you’re a batsman, you’re probably going to be travelling through there.
The first morning in Adelaide, India started around the wicket to Warner. It was a clear plan. When Mitchell Johnson came in at the Gabba, sledging and bouncing happened. It was a clear plan. All series India have been aiming at Chris Rogers’ hip. It is a clear plan. When Brad Haddin came in at Melbourne, he was bounced. Plan. India set the field in such a way that Haddin, and seagulls flying overhead, knew where the ball was going. It’s almost as if India don’t believe their bowlers can come in and bowl ball after ball, over after over, session after session. So they pile on these plans that, mostly, have just not worked.
Kohli has three hundreds and one fifty. His team have two hundreds and seven fifties. Rahane, Pujara and Vijay should have made hundreds. Dhoni, Rohit and Ashwin gave up starts before they got to 50. The Australian order has only made three more hundreds, but they have a tail. India are naked once they are seven wickets down. Too often their batsmen have done some good work, but not enough, and then the innings just disappears.
That is India. On first glance they look okay, then the harder you look, the longer you look and the more often you look, the worse they seem.
The 12th ball on Boxing Day was quick, bounced, and took the edge. Umesh Yadav is big and strong. He’s the most moose like of Indian quicks. His strike rate is amazing. His pace is impressive. Dhawan at slip goes low, the ball hits the middle of his hands, he rolls forward athletically.
But it’s kind of a mirage. It’s the best of India, and what they can do. But not often what they do.
They’re learning as they go in front of a billion angry fans, on unhelpful surfaces, without bowlers who can keep pressure, batsmen who score regularly overseas, with a captain leaving, a hot head taking over and Ravi Shastri. And T20 cricket ruining their games.
Their biggest problem might just be that they don’t play enough cricket of this kind. You can make 264 in an ODI, without really knowing how to do it in a first-class match. You can take a five-wicket haul without knowing what a fifth spell feels like. And you can catch a one-hander on the boundary and never learn how to take a nick at second slip.
Today India watched Sunrisers Hyderabad’s Warner make a hundred, before ending the day with a big partnership from Rajasthan Royals’ Smith and Watson. Earlier in the series they lost wickets to the find of the 2010-11 BBL, Nathan Lyon and the IPL-winning Ryan Harris. And they ran out the top scorer of the first IPL tournament for 99 in Melbourne.
If T20 is truly evil, it’s clear it also discriminates.