Cricket 2.0 is a book that’s got the cricket community talking in the last year. Wisden, the sport’s bible-like handbook, awarded it their book of the year in 2020, and it also scooped up prizes from The Telegraph and The Cricketer. It’s been on my list for a few months, so I was excited to receive it for Christmas.
Although I’m clearly generalising, cricket writing as a genre is somewhat repetitive and inelastic. What little cricket literature that makes it into major high-street booksellers often falls into a few rigid categories; former and current players releasing heavily ghost-written autobiographies is one, commentaries on iconic Test tours is another. Sentimental memoirs by authors with a conservative outlook on the game – ‘purists’ – also spring to mind.
Tim Wigmore and Freddie Wilde – two youthful, enthusiastic cricket writers – tear up the rulebook in Cricket 2.0, bringing fresh impetus to the genre. Their analytical and holistic approach to cricket’s newest format – T20 – is highly absorbing, relying less on elaborate narrative and more calculated study. Another reason why the text has such a ‘revolutionary’ feel is that, as the co-authors point out, barely any literature exists on the subject of T20.
The book contains 16 essays (‘Survival of the Fittest’ and ‘Up is Down’ are memorable standouts) that act both as individual units and part of a larger, cohesive whole. As such, at times they do overlap, and there are a few instances of repetition (the editing is suspect). There’s also a prologue and an epilogue which makes 31 predictions for the future of T20. The prospect of a T20 World Cup being played in the US during the 2020s, cricket in the Olympics and ‘super-fast’ bowlers are some of the more interesting forecasts.
As specified in the prologue, the book is designed with both the hardcore fan and curious beginner in mind. The writing is digestible and unfussy – on occasion, simplistic to the point where the cricket connoisseur might become impatient. Yet, these instances of the co-authors tending to beginners are offset altogether by passages of rare insight.
Data, data, data
Interest in sports data and the work of analysts is a relatively recent phenomenon in cricket. This stands in contrast to traditional American sports – baseball, basketball and American Football – where a data-driven approach is viewed as the best way to understand and appreciate each sport. Sure, cricket has always been concerned with averages and strike rates, but until recently few had delved deeper into the illuminating world of data. Wigmore and Wilde are firm converts when it comes to the power of analytics – and it is an analytical approach that defines their work.
Take the chapter ‘Spin Kings’, which makes a convincing case for there being three separate eras of spin bowling within the 18-years of professional T20. The first era (2003-07) was led by wily finger spinners who generally bowled slow and stump-to-stump, forcing batsmen to generate all the power when facing their deliveries. Throwback County Cricket names like Gareth Breese and Jeremy Snape are quintessential examples. The game’s evolution has led to the dominance of mystery spinners – who generally bowl flatter and quicker, with a repertoire of deliveries in their locker – in the current era. Not only that, but the role of spinners has been redefined over time. They bowled 6% of deliveries in the Powerplay during 2006 and 25% in 2018, a process instigated by mavericks like the West Indian leg-spinner, Samuel Badree.
‘Why CSK Win and Why RCB Lose’ is another engaging case study on two Indian Premier League (IPL) teams with contrasting fortunes. Using data, the co-authors highlight that Chennai has exploited their home advantage (by stacking their line-up with spinners on receptive pitches), given players specific roles and mastered the art of the IPL auction. All of which has contributed to their success. In contrast, RCB is prone to changes in their line-up and approach the auction poorly, splurging on elite overseas batsman and neglecting the acquisition of star bowlers (that great bowlers not batsmen, on balance, win more T20 Games is one of the book’s proverbial truths).
The IPL’s Enduring Influence
Although T20 is Cricket 2.0’s overriding focus, the IPL is the leading sub-theme. The co-authors do an excellent job of explaining how India’s domestic, franchise competition has shaken-up cricket’s power dynamics. And it all boils down to a matter of economics.
The launch of the IPL in 2008 saw broadcasters bid enormous sums – the likes of which cricket has never seen before – for broadcasting rights to televise games. India’s large and cricket-mad population would show an immediate interest in the competition – an enduring fascination that has kept the price of broadcasting rights on the up (Star India paid $1.97 billion to show live fixtures from 2018-2022).
For the first time ever, cricket players could match the wages of footballers. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in a 6-8-week period – a staggering rise in earning potential. For many, a domestic tournament now promised more financial reward than playing for one’s country. Given that England’s home Test summer clashed with the start of the IPL, elite players now faced a decision: sacrifice playing Test cricket – the pinnacle in the eyes of traditionalists – and join the IPL, or turn down potentially the biggest pay cheque of their lives. As Wilde and Wigmore highlight, a desire to play franchise cricket was the ‘beginning of the end’ for Kevin Pietersen’s relationship with the English Cricket Board (ECB). He was signed to RCB for £1.15 million in the 2009 auction.
The IPL has had other far-reaching implications, such as providing India and it’s cricket board, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), with newfound financial clout and superiority on cricket’s global stage, usurping England and the ECB. There have been a number of spin-off franchise leagues (BBL, PSL, BPL etc) where players stand to benefit from similarly fruitful contracts. But fundamentally, the IPL prompted world cricket to invest in T20 as a format. Certain nations – like the West Indies – began to specialise in the shortest format, targeting and achieving T20 World Cup victories. And now T20 receives undoubtedly more attention than ODI and Test cricket: a role-reversal of the climate in 2003.
A democratising force?
Cricket, a sport traditionally regarded as elitist and hierarchical, has encountered the full liberalising force of T20 in the last twenty-or-so-years. One result has been that Nepalese and Afghani players, like Sandeep Lamichhane and Rashid Khan, now ply their trade across global T20 leagues, competing against star players from Test-playing nations. This would not have been possible without the inception of professional T20, Wigmore and Wilde explain.
As a format, T20 values uniqueness and unorthodoxy in a way that Test cricket, fixated on ‘proper’ techniques, does not. Players from associate nations are often under-coached and self-taught, using whatever resources are available to them. Rashid Khan, the leading men’s T20 bowler, practiced using a tape-ball on a cement-based floor (he now finds it easier using an actual cricket ball). Within this environment, he developed an unusual bowling technique and an elaborate array of deliveries that are integral to his recent success. Should he have grown up in say, Australia, traditional coaching and better resources may have inhibited his progress.
Thanks to T20, cricket is at the onset of a great revolution: of finally becoming a game open to all the talents, regardless of the nationality on their passport.
Undoubtedly the best and most insightful cricket book I’ve read. Cricket 2.0 is all-encompassing in its scope, with chapters on leading lights of the game (Narine McCullum, Gayle, de Villiers), the T20 economy, tactics, doping and match-fixing, and more. I should also mention that the writing is interspersed with interviews from leading analysts, players, cricket writers, broadcasters, coaches and franchise owners – offering the reader a valuable window into the minds of the sport’s most reputed thinkers.
There’s a great anecdote at the start of Byzantium. The author – a Professor of Byzantine History at King’s College London – is approached by two builders and asked, “What is Byzantine History?” This book is her response to the question posed by the workmen: an attempt to illuminate the world of Byzantium for ‘non-specialists’. … Continue reading Judith Herrin, ‘Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire’