Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Is T20 a test cricket breeding ground?

With the meteoric rise of T20 sensation David Warner within Australia’s test ranks, there is a growing current of support for the international T20 game as a legitimate breeding ground for attacking test cricketers. However, is Warner simply a one-off talent or will more aspiring young cricketers look to use the shortest version of the game as a genuine path to long term success as test level? Is T20 a playground for developing emerging talent or simply an opportunity to get a glimpse of a young prodigy?

Even those who pay scant regard to the T20 game would have struggled not to be impressed by Warner’s exploits in his international T20 debut against a star-studded South African outfit at the MCG. The diminutive powerhouse, who as yet hadn’t played a first class match, deposited Ntini, Tsotsobe, Steyn et al. to all parts as he fell eleven runs short of a century in his first outing in the green and gold. In 43 balls, Warner cleared the rope six times in an innings that included another seven boundaries. Over the next three years he plied his trade as a hired gun in England, New Zealand and India, whilst still struggling to nail down a permanent opening spot in his native New South Wales first class side – he is yet to pass 1500 runs in the domestic format. However, the same attacking flair he had shown at T20 level propelled him to a test debut against New Zealand late last year with Australia’s opening resources thin at best. Not so anymore. In his second test, Warner put his attack-at-all-costs approach to one side and did something Australian legends Hayden and Langer never achieved in their illustrious careers - he carried his bat, albeit in a historic New Zealand victory. A little over a month later he moved ahead of Chris Gayle to hit the fourth fastest test century (off 69 balls) in 2029 test matches played around the world. In the short term, he has cemented his spot in a rejuvenated Australian side and shown that there is a pathway for players that pundits had previously dismissed. It is still questionable whether others will follow Warner’s example or if it’s the best path for cricketers to choose if all forms of our game are to continue to flourish.

Can T20 really become a breeding ground for test cricketers of the future? At first glance, with the exception of Warner, the jury is out, and with only a handful of test matches under his belt the extent of Warner’s success is still up in the air long term. Whilst he has fashioned a powerful test batting record in the early stages of his career, how he progresses may shed light on T20’s usefulness to the test arena. It is debateable whether the skills learned as a young cricketer in the T20 environment will aid in their long-term success, or adversely create bad habits that stymie their growth as test or first class players. On the positive side of the ledger, T20 has enhanced fielding levels, helped bowlers think under a constant level of pressure and enabled batsmen to understand to what extent they really can push their running between the wickets, but on the whole such benefits are tenuous at best.

Whilst the majority of established (and more mature) cricketers have the ability to move between the formats and draw on previous experiences to avoid the pitfalls of the T20 merry-go round, youngsters do not have the same mental resources. The requirements of the T20 game mean batsmen have no opportunity to build an innings but see success in hitting to unorthodox areas; playing low percentages shots in the search for quick runs. That in itself is not the key issue here; understanding when to put those strokes aside in the longer versions is. Likewise, bowlers lack the time to work out a batsman’s weaknesses and regularly bowl as many as six variations an over. Whilst the development of a varied arsenal is a definite plus, it restricts bowlers from developing any rhythm.  Over time, will the strain that imparts on young quicks cause more of them to pull up short when moving into the longer game, as it has done with two of Australia’s brightest young tyros, Pat Cummins and James Pattinson? Though spinners have dominated the current Australian BBL and its New Zealand counterpart, all but the old guard of Warne, MacGill and the effervescent Brad Hogg have achieved that success with little turn and even less flight – qualities that should remain in the shorter versions. Are the games’ brightest young stars more likely to become long term test (or first-class) combatants with a T20 diet or a smorgasbord of first class contests?

T20 provides a virtual shop window for young cricketers; a personal marketing tool to show their wares on a televised stage in the hope of getting an opportunity in the longer forms of the game. Alternatively, for those lacking the requisite desire or game to play at test, or first class level, T20 provides a path as a cricketing mercenary travelling the world on highly paid short term contracts. The second scenario is already a cricketing reality, but the first requires further debate. Whilst the glut of T20 cricket may not provide youngsters with a solid technical base, it continues to unearth young talent that may otherwise languish in club cricket with limited opportunities to break into the first class arena. From an Australasian perspective (that’s all we get in Aotearoa – if you live abroad, Google it), Pat Cummins has been the first youngster to truly use the T20 hype, getting an opportunity in first class cricket off the back of his performances before a dream test debut. Playing in last season’s T20 BBL as a 17 year old pimply-faced, raw quick bowler, Cummins blew through domestic cricket’s top batsmen and the plaudits flowed. Within two months of the end of his T20 baptism, Cummins was named in the New South Wales first class side, and before the year was out he, like a number of test debutants throughout 2011, had taken a five wicket bag on debut and led Australia’s bowling quartet to an unexpected victory against South Africa. The pity is, he hasn’t played since, and the question will be asked whether the rigours of test cricket was too much too soon – but that’s a discussion for another day. Others such as Nic Maddinson, James Pattinson and Mitchell Marsh have all used the Big Bash to reaffirm that they have the necessary skills to be successful – whether T20 will aid their progress is still unanswered. Whilst constantly described as a young man’s game, is T20 the best route to develop future stars, or are they better served honing their skills with a red ball? On the back of David Warner’s pummelling of India, Tony Greig (the cheerleader more than the commentator) proclaimed that he’d love to see more players use T20 as a pathway to test cricket. I may be little more than an amateur hack, but for the sake of our game, and tests going five days, I think the traditional route offers better value.

T20 has its place – it helps take our game to areas and crowds that cricket had never truly explored. I disagree with a number of the older brigade that T20 is destroying their game; it may not be taking cricket down a path I necessarily like or agree with, but sport must adapt to the audience it relies on for its continued success. It brings revenues into the coffers of both provincial and international associations that administrators never previously dreamed of. In the case of New Zealand cricket at least, those revenues are relied on to develop cricket at every level; without it I fear for the long term development of the game in our little corner of paradise. With all that said, my wish is that the true pinnacle of our game continues to be the epic battles at test level – I just hope we don’t see the instant gratification generation destroy their cricketing development in repetitive three hour slots.

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