The age of the quintessential specialist in cricket

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The age of the quintessential specialist in cricket

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SportsCafe Desk

01/07/2017

Only half of the England Test squad that left India for the New Year break will return next week as part of the limited-overs side led by Eoin Morgan. When the curtains go down on the ODIs, Jonny Bairstow and Chris Woakes will then make way for Chris Jordan and Tymal Mills for the three T20I.

The situation is not very different with the Indian squads either.

Halfway across the globe, Australia will be playing a T20I against Sri Lanka in Adelaide only a day before the start of the first Test of their four-Test series in India in Pune on Feb 23. It appears we are heading into the age of the specialists.

The modern-day cricketer appears comfortable in his specialist skin. It's a far cry from the days when batting great Rahul Dravid donned the role of wicket-keeper-batsman in the early part of his ODI career to be able to hold a place in the limited-overs side.

The inimitable VVS Laxman hated the fact that he was branded as a Test specialist and never could come to terms with the tag. His batting was considered slow-paced for the shorter format and he played in only 86 ODIs compared to 134 Tests.

On several occasions during his illustrious, 16-year international career, the Hyderabadi stylist spoke of how not being an integral member of the ODI side had an impact on his Test career owing to lengthy breaks between Test series.

Those were days when global audiences, especially the Asian expats, favoured ODI cricket, and India were playing tri-nation and multi-nation series from Sri Lanka to Singapore and Malaysia to Canada for over a decade from the early 90s.

Although there did exist ODI specialists in world cricket during that period, the numbers were limited and the players only grudgingly acknowledged the tag. Australian finisher Michael Bevan is a fine example of a limited-overs specialist (232 ODIs, 18 Tests) of his time.

Back then, only a Test cricketer was considered a complete player, and the game’s longest format the real test. It was also largely believed that a good Test cricketer could easily adjust to limited-overs cricket for the requirements were comparatively limited, considering that the 50-over format allows for the ‘bits and pieces’ cricketer to flourish.

In many ways, it was the advent of Twenty20 cricket, and its immense global popularity that saw the proliferation of professional leagues across the cricket world over the past decade, that led to the birth of the consummate limited-overs professional.

Over time, T20 cricket also changed the perception of limited-overs series on full tours by a national team from being an add-on to becoming one-half of the tour. Much like how England have returned for the limited-overs segment of three ODIs and an equal number of T20I with a squad largely different to the one that lost the five-Test series 4-0 last month.

Interestingly, India played their first home T20I in October 2007, almost a year after figuring in their first-ever T20I on the tour of South Africa, and between those two events went on to win the inaugural World T20 with a second-rung side led by Dhoni.

The BCCI hadn’t until then taken the game’s newest format seriously, at first dismissing it as a variant for young legs. India’s inaugural WorldT20 triumph changed all that, and the same board turned T20 cricket into a multi-billion dollar business with the launch of the Indian Premier League the following year.

Bangladesh, Australia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the West Indies launched their own professional Twenty20 leagues, not to forget the Champions League, further underlining the popularity of the time-efficient and exciting format globally. These leagues have also provided players like Chris Gayle with the option to remain a T20 professional.

Twenty20 has over time not only influenced the two older forms of the game, from shot selection to achieving taller targets, a quicker rate of scoring to exciting finishes but more importantly, has raised the bar of the unique skill sets required to be successful in the shorter forms.

And with it has come the age of the quintessential specialist.

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