SOME YEARS back, if Test matches were considered the purest forms of cricket, and one-day internationals (ODIs) ‘more entertaining’, the Twenty20 (T20) format has turned that concept on its head. Today, the shorter format has been termed a ‘spectacle’ by many, and not just because of the many controversies surrounding it. However, there’s no denying the fact that the ICC World Twenty20 tournament is now as big as the World Cup.

Similarly, if batsmen and fast bowlers were the gods of cricket all these years, today, it is the all-rounders who are seeing their stock rise with the advent of the T20 format. Given the short time in the new format, the all-rounders’ ability to perform in multiple areas has made them a precious commodity for any team. Sports journalist and author Boria Majumdar says a good all-rounder allows the captain ‘flexibility to marshal his resources’. “In the Twenty20 format, the role of an all-rounder is much more significant because he allows you the cushion to play either an extra batsman or an extra bowler… If you have two really good batting all-rounders, then it allows you the liberty to play an extra bowler without having to think about your batting depth, and vice-versa. That’s why, in the Twenty20 format, all-rounders are at a premium because they allow you to have an extra resource,” says Majumdar.

A look at the IPL 2016 player auctions substantiates this. Of the eight top buys, five were all-rounders. Australia’s Shane Watson became the most expensive player after being purchased by Royal Challengers Bangalore for Rs 9.5 crore and Pawan Negi became the most expensive Indian player after being picked up by Delhi Daredevils for R8.5 crore. The other three were South Africa’s Chris Morris (picked up by Delhi Daredevils for Rs 7 crore), India’s Yuvraj Singh (bagged by Sunrisers Hyderabad for Rs 7 crore) and Australia’s Mitchell Marsh (picked up by Rising Pune Supergiants for R4.8 crore). Interestingly, all-rounders have been top buys in previous IPL auctions as well. In the 2015 auction, for instance, Yuvraj Singh was picked up by Delhi Daredevils for a whopping Rs 16 crore.

In the current international teams as well, almost every team has a proven all-rounder: James Faulkner (Australia), Ben Stokes (England), Chris Morris (South Africa), Corey Anderson (New Zealand), Angelo Mathews (Sri Lanka) and Andre Russell (West Indies) are just some players that have put in pivotal performances for their teams. Some like Bangaldesh’s Shakib Al Hasan have proven to be a boon for their teams. At 28 years of age, the left-handed batsman and spinner is already regarded as the face of Bangladeshi cricket, and has been instrumental in turning around the fortunes of his country’s team. And what Hasan is to Bangladesh, Ryan ten Doeschate and Roelof van der Merwe are to The Netherlands—Doeschate also represented the Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL from 2011 to 2015. Another notable mention in the all-rounders’ list is Ireland’s Kevin O’Brien, who holds the record for the fastest century in World Cup history—off just 50 balls in a 2011 World Cup match against England.

Changing equations?

Cricket expert and columnist Ayaz Memon believes that when a player falls into the category of an ‘all-rounder’, his ‘incremental value becomes enhanced’. An important trend in international cricket today, says Memon, is that even bowlers are expected to bat. “The rank tail-enders have gone out of fashion. Look at England, which is doing so good. Stuart Broad can bat, so can (Chris) Jordan. Likewise, in the Indian team, barring a (Jasprit) Bumrah or Ashish Nehra, the others can all bat. Even Hardik Pandya can become a genuine all-rounder,” says Memon, adding that the shorter the game, the more valued is the all-rounder.

So with the sixth edition of the IPL starting in April and the ongoing ICC World Twenty20 being hosted in India, will these tournaments offer a glimpse into cricket’s future, where all-rounders will be the first names on the team sheet? “I don’t think there’s a tilt in balance,” says Majumdar. “A Virat Kohli or a Steven Smith will always be talismans despite the fact that they are not all-rounders. Having said that, a top-quality all-rounder will be at a premium.”

Memon says the role of a player, be it a batsman or an all-rounder, will vary as per the format of the game. In the T20 format, for instance, where there are very few overs to bat or bowl, everybody is expected to do both things, but the situation could change in the longer format, where you need specialists. “The minute you get into a Test match, it’s unlikely that a Chris Morris of South Africa is going to bat at number three or four, but a Yuvraj (Singh) can… So specialists have their own roles. You can’t have 11 all-rounders playing and expect to win,” says Memon.

Spinning a web

Just like the rise of all-rounders, a shift has been witnessed in the bowling department as well, with spinners hogging the limelight. A close look at the ICC player rankings for bowlers in T20 (as of March 11) shows that spinners have clearly spun a web. The top five are all spinners: Sunil Narine (West Indies), Ravichandran Ashwin (India), Imran Tahir (South Africa), Shahid Afridi (Pakistan) and Graeme Cermer (Zimbabwe). Former Indian spinner Maninder Singh believes that the evolution of spinners in the world of cricket has been phenomenal. When T20 cricket started gaining prominence, there was a general feeling that batsmen would score freely against spinners. As Singh explains, this is where a lot of them got it wrong. “A lot of people thought spinners were slow and would be hit for many runs. But a spinner is artistic,” says Singh, who played 35 Tests and 59 ODIs for India and picked up 88 wickets in Tests and 66 wickets in ODIs over a career spanning almost 11 years. “Getting wickets and slowing down the run rate is really important. A quality spinner will get you wickets in this kind of format.”

Proof of this could be seen in the final match of the recently-concluded Asia Cup tournament in Bangladesh, where it was off-spinner Ashwin who started the bowling attack for India against Bangladesh. To give Indian captain MS Dhoni his due, it was a move that made complete sense. Ashwin is in top form. The 29-year-old had a remarkable 2015, which saw him finish the year as ICC’s top-ranked Test bowler. “He (Ashwin) can ball the straighter one, the big off-spin. He can bring more revolutions to the ball… Ashwin is at the peak of his powers. Spinners, in general, have a lot of variations. They bowl from the back of their hand, they bowl the carrom ball, the doosra, the slider, the drifter, conventional off-spin. That’s almost six different kinds of deliveries, which was unheard of in the past,” says Majumdar.

So will spinners starting the bowling attack for teams become a regular feature in the future? Experts say a lot depends on the location, prevailing conditions, nature of the pitch and whether the captain is comfortable with such a decision. Majumdar believes that as spinners add more variations and grow in confidence, their demand will only increase. “With time and the shorter format, there has been so much innovation. Who knows, maybe the whole ambidextrous thing might become a reality 20 years down the line? If a batsman can play the switch hit, why can’t bowlers bowl with both arms?” Game on!

Garry sobers: 5-in-1 cricketer

DURING THE third Test match in the 1971-72 series between the World XI and Australia, a left-handed West Indian played what Sir Don Bradman—regarded as the best batsman ever to grace the pitch—called the greatest innings he had ever witnessed in Australia. Batting for the World XI in Melbourne, Garfield ‘Garry’ St Aubrun Sobers scored 254 runs at a time when big names in his star-studded team, like India’s Sunil Gavaskar and Pakistan’s Zaheer Abbas, were reeling under the aggressive and incisive bowling of young Australian pacer Dennis Lillee.  He also picked up three wickets in that match.

What made Sobers’ knock all the more remarkable was that even at the veteran, warhorse age of 35 years, he did justice to the title bestowed upon him for his earlier performances: the world’s finest all-rounder.

Hailing from Bridgetown, Barbados, Sobers played 93 Tests for the West Indies from 1954-74 and scored 8,032 runs, with an average of almost 58. His bowling figures are equally impressive. In 93 matches, he picked up 235 wickets.

Although he played only one ODI (the first ODI was played in 1971) for West Indies, his first-class career stats— matches with a duration of three days or more—are anything but ordinary. In 383 first-class matches, Sobers scored more than 28,000 runs and notched up an unbelievable 1,043 wickets. What made Sobers such a balanced performer was the fact that he possessed a combination of versatile skill-sets. Not only a great batsman, he was an excellent fielder as well. But his most impressive facet was his bowling—left-arm seam and swing, slow left-arm orthodox, and left-arm wrist spin. No wonder Bradman once called Sobers the ‘five-in-one cricketer’.

Some legendary all-rounders down the years

WG Grace, England: Be it batting, bowling or fielding, WG Grace was exemplary in all aspects of the game. His remarkable statistics still stand tall: 54,211 runs and 2,809 wickets in 870 first-class matches in a career spanning 43 years (1865-1908).

Kapil Dev, India: Kapil Dev was India’s captain at the time of the country’s first World Cup win in 1983. Over a 16-year-long career, he scored 9,031 runs and picked up 687 wickets in 356 matches (131 Tests and 225 ODIs.

Ian Botham, England: Ian Botham is easily England’s greatest all-rounder. He played 102 Tests and 116 ODIs in a 16-year-long career and was inducted into the ICC Cricket Hall of Fame in 2009. He scored 7,313 runs and took 528 wickets. Interestingly, Botham was a talented footballer too.

Imran Khan, Pakistan: Imran Khan is often regarded as the world’s second-best all-rounder after Garry Sobers. Renowned for his reverse swinging yorkers, Khan lifted the World Cup for Pakistan in 1992.  He scored 7,516 runs and took 544 wickets over a 21-year-long career.

Heath Streak, Zimbabwe: While Heath Streak will always be remembered as a strong fast bowler, he was equally capable with the bat. Streak played 189 ODIs and 65 Tests for Zimbabwe in the 12 years of his career, scoring 4,933 runs and taking 455 wickets.

Paul Collingwood, England: Lightning quick in the field and a technically astute batsman, Paul Collingwood chipped in with useful performances in the bowling department as well. He played 68 Tests, 197 ODIs and 35 T20s for England, scoring 9,934 runs and taking 144 wickets.

Jacques Kallis, South Africa: Jacques Kallis was an outstanding cricketer. With more than 13,000 runs and 292 wickets in Tests over a 19-year-long career, he is considered one of the greatest players of his generation.

Sanath Jayasuriya, Sri Lanka: Sanath Jayasuriya’s records tell the story of a remarkable career. He played 445 ODIs for Sri Lanka and scored 13,430 runs over a career spanning 22 years. As a bowler, too, he was lethal with his slow left-arm orthodox bowling, picking up 323 ODI wickets.

Shane Watson, Australia: At 34 years of age, Shane Watson might be at the fag end of his career, but he is still one of the finest all-rounders in the game. Apart from his stellar performance in ODIs and Tests, Watson has played in 54 T20 matches till now for Australia and is still going strong. He has till now scored 10,854 runs and taken 286 wickets.

Yuvraj Singh, India: Like Shane Watson, 34-year-old Yuvraj Singh is still a formidable batsman, bowler and fielder. Singh’s greatest spell was his performance in the 2011 World Cup in which he scored 362 runs, picked up 15 wickets and was named the player of the tournament. He has till now scored 11,311 runs and taken 147 wickets.

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