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The lure of IPL is redefining batting

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Bengaluru: Mayank Agarwal’s coach R X Murali narrates an interesting incident when the India cricketer was batting at one of the ‘nets’ at his academy prior to the commencement of IPL 2024. In the adjacent net, an 11-year-old boy was scooping the ball over his head by getting into different positions that left the Karnataka skipper, himself a T20 batter of repute, stupefied. The young boy, Murali says, wasn’t bothered about getting hit or getting bowled. He just kept scooping ball after ball. Welcome to the world of IPL!

Why IPL? Because the desire to get into the T20 league is so intense it’s producing a generation of batters who have little time for old-school batsmanship. Where a place in the Ranji Trophy side used to be the first big dream for an aspiring cricketer, it’s a berth in an IPL franchise that has become the driving force now.

While a young batter was taught to defend and duck, told to leave the ball and play along the ground, today he is encouraged to do the exact opposite. If a batter, even a decade ago, was admonished for getting out by playing in the air, today he is admired for the same.

The jury is still out on whether it’s good or bad for Indian cricket, but the batting as we know is changing dramatically, even though it may go through some refinement from time to time.

“The way I look at things is, the world is changing,” begins Murali, who sees no problem in the way batting is evolving. “When we started playing cricket, when I was playing cricket, it was different. We were not supposed to sweep the ball, we were not supposed to play across… all those kinds of things. Umpires would give us out and say it’s because I played across the line, no matter what. From there, you see how much it has changed. 220, 230 used to be a good score in a day (in a first-class game). Now, it is close to 280, 290, 300. So, it is evolving.”   

Gautam Gambhir, however, has a different view. The Kolkata Knight Riders mentor feels the way domestic players approach their cricket — the manner in which their game is constructed around T20 cricket — is a “threat” to Indian cricket going forward.

“The way domestic players want to play in the IPL and the way they work around T20 cricket — I think most of their focus is on playing T20 cricket,” Gambhir said in a chat with R Ashwin on the latter’s YouTube show, Kutti Stories.

“If you see a lot of these young cricketers… and that’s where the massive threat is going to be for Indian cricket going forward because how many cricketers do want to play Test cricket? Because the entire discussion with young cricketers revolves around how they can get selected to play the IPL, and I hope the IPL is not a shortcut to play for India. If your domestic players keep talking about how they can get selected to play the IPL, somewhere the focus starts shifting from first-class cricket to IPL,” Gambhir said.     

The Shashank Singhs, the Abhishek Sharmas and the Ashutosh Sharmas have caught the imagination for their never-seen-before six-hitting abilities on a consistent basis. Their interactions with TV pundits reveal the hours they have spent perfecting these skills. It’s great that they have been able to put on a show but where does it leave Indian cricket in the larger scheme of things?

While the aforementioned trio is relatively older, it’s the generation, the school-going kids who watch their exploits on TV, that develops a fetish for instant gratification. So, they want to emulate those shots from a young age. The reverse sweep has replaced the dead bat, ducking under the ball has been replaced by the ramp shot. How does it affect their red-ball skills, or are they even interested in playing first-class cricket?      

Gambhir is clear in his view that IPL performances alone shouldn’t be a factor in selecting a player for even the 50-over format, let alone Test cricket.
  
“India’s T20I side should be selected from IPL (performances),” Gambhir said. “For the 50-over format, it should be selected from Vijay Hazare (Trophy one-day tournament), and your Test side should be selected from your first-class cricket, red-ball cricket. As simple as that. If you start selecting people for the 50-over format or red-ball cricket from an IPL competition, you are making a lot of shortcuts for a lot of these young players to not focus on red-ball cricket or the 50-over format, and you are literally walking on the edge.”

The failed experiment with Suryakumar Yadav underlines Gambhir’s apprehensions. A T20 maverick, the Mumbai batter looked out of his depth in both 50-over and Test cricket.

Murali, however, is steadfast in his belief that it’s time to “embrace the change” in the conviction that something will give.    

“Now, if I am always comparing what it was like then and how it has become now, that is not the right way of looking at things. You are not embracing the change, basically. So, whether we like it or not, it’s what it is. People (citing England’s approach to Test cricket) are looking at 300 instead of 220. If somebody can score 350 (in a day in Tests), then you are attacking. Test cricket is something that everybody thought was all about survival, all about defence, all about patience. Somebody has decided, ‘boss, why should I? I will go the other way.’ So they are taking more risks.”

England’s rigid approach led to a 4-1 drubbing in India earlier this year. They drew the Ashes series (which meant the urn remained Down Under) earlier while sticking to their new modus operandi. Maybe they have succeeded against teams that don’t have enough quality, but when they are up against teams like India or Australia, their strategy has come unstuck.

“People have realised that attacking is a good way but let it be controlled aggression,” points out Murali. “Earlier, it used to be defend, defend and defend. Now it is slightly different. Give me a little bit of room, I am going to go after it. Overpitch or bowl a little wide, I am going to go after it. You better be accurate. The bowler is constantly under pressure. This has evolved over a period of time. Even this attacking game that England are playing is going to be refined. Over a period of time, they will also understand that in India, maybe you have to be a little more cautious. They will evolve there. But the attacking brand of cricket is here to stay.”

Murali does have a point in the sense that India’s comeback win over England wasn’t rooted in the traditional grind-the-attack method. It was a judicious mix of Yashasvi Jaiswal’s calculated aggression at the top and a few others dropping anchor without being too cautious which drives us to the conclusion that while the batting may get increasingly attacking, the basics of the game will remain uncompromising.

“You always have these two sets of batters. Those who don’t hesitate even for a second to take the aerial route and those who still want to follow text-book cricket though their numbers are dwindling. But a trade-off of the best qualities between the two is the best way forward because as T20 cricket gains more and more prominence, the grind-the-attack method will become passe,” offers Murali.

We will let Murali have the last word, for now.

Published 25 May 2024, 15:28 IST

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