When the top two teams in any sport compete against one another over some time, one can understand the level at which the sport is currently at and get a look at the future of the sport.
The power tussle between the West Indies and Australia during the early 1990s produced some high-quality attacking Test cricket that defined the trajectory of Test matches in the ’90s and later.
From that constant tussle over a few years, we saw Australia emerge as the cricketing superpower, setting the template for how the sport was to be played over the next ten to 15 years. During this period, every team wanted to play like Australia.
Similarly, the India-England series over the past month or so shows the world where white-ball cricket is at the moment and where it is headed. England has been the ‘thought leader’ in white-ball cricket over the past two to three years and is the No.1 ranked white-ball side.
India is the No.2 team and is at the start of what looks like their cricket Gilded Age. When these two teams met in Ahmedabad and Pune, the sport revealed itself. In the future, every team has to play as England does.
What did we learn about the current state of white-ball cricket, particularly 50-over cricket? I am more interested in how the middle child is evolving and finding its place in the cricketing world.
The game can’t stand still
Just before the ‘English way’ was invented, the era of 50-over cricket had a certain predictable rhythm to it. At the start of an innings, teams would try to use the new ball and the fielding restrictions.
Once the field was spread out, the batsmen would knock the ball around for ones and twos and try to keep wickets in hand for the slog overs. During the slog overs, the batsmen would go hell for leather and get to a score close to 300.
If wickets are lost early, then the middle-order batsmen would play themselves in, cut out the risks and play conservatively until they would cut loose in the last ten to 15 overs.
Joe Root (Julian Finney/Getty Images)
England, over the past three to four years, has changed this narrative. They bat very deep, often until No. 10 and keep attacking the boundaries irrespective of the situation.
They would never let the game stand still for some time. This approach saw them win the 2019 World Cup and many other bilateral series over the past few years.
Despite England’s evident success, other teams have still not fully taken to this approach, however, it is only a question of time.
We saw India adjusting their game plans and employing this English method of play as the white-ball series progressed. We saw how Rishabh Pant and Hardik Pandya kept hitting fours and sixers, despite finding their team in a precarious position.
As more teams play against England and practise this style of play, they will also be forced to change.
Economy rate does not matter; the wickets column does
It was not long ago, in limited-overs cricket, captains preferred bowlers whose style it was to bowl economically over an attacking bowler who’d take wickets but went for runs. In this new age of 50-over cricket, teams will look to do just the opposite.
The English way will see teams scoring 350-plus regularly or get bowled out for 250 and not change their game plan.
A bowler like Shardul Thakur, who picks up two to three critical wickets per match but gives away six-plus runs an over, will be preferred over someone like Krunal Pandya, who tries to bowl defensively looking to go under 5.5 an over.
Bowlers like Jasprit Bumrah or Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, who can take wickets and still keep the economy rate down, will be like gold dust.
(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
Bits and pieces players are here to stay
However, each of those bits and pieces need to be significant in size. The captains will look to pack their teams with eight to nine batsmen and six to seven bowlers. It is not just a case of filling the numbers; many of these players will have to be good enough to score runs and pick up wickets.
In the ’90s, teams would have players like Robin Singh and Chris Harris, who were not distinguished batsmen or bowlers, but when their capabilities in these departments were added up, they amounted to essential contributors to the limited-overs team.
This template still holds; however, the modern-day Singh has to be more like a Ravindra Jadeja.
Out-of-form players will need to find it outside international matches
In the earlier era, one saw teams would play their out-of-form players in international matches, hoping that they would spend time in the middle and regain form. This kind of approach will be challenging to follow for captains in the current era, unless that player is a Virat Kohli, Jos Buttler, or Ben Stokes.
Anyone below these players’ standards will need to spend time outside the international game to find their form. There is no place to hide weaklings as they will get brutalised, like how the English batsmen hammered Kuldeep Yadav.
One-day pitches may have to add a tinge of bowler friendliness
As I look into the future, I see the potential of 50-over cricket becoming an extended version of T20 cricket.
It isn’t suitable for 50-over cricket’s existence and relevance in the long run. A pitch with a bit of help for the bowlers will result in ebbs and flows in the 50-over game and make it a sweet combination of T20 and Test cricket.
I would think that those asking for four-day Test cricket should instead ask for a slightly spicier one-day cricket that will satisfy their taste buds.
The middle child’s place in the game is as a mix of the older and younger children.