Where do batsmen like Kane Williamson and Virat Kohli fit into a T20 line-up?

One valuable skill Kane Williamson brings to a T20 side is his ability to score runs in all sorts of conditions, particularly in tournaments like the IPL, where the overall standard of the game is high Anthony Au-Yeung / © Getty Images

Cricket 2.0: Inside the T20 Revolution chronicles the rise of the T20 format from a gimmick to the modern face of cricket. In this extract, authors Tim Wigmore and Freddie Wilde look at the role classical batsmen can play in the T20 order

"Batting like in a Test match in Twenty20 cricket is not really going to work."
Kane Williamson

He was already well on his way to being hailed as his country's finest ever batsman and, at 27, was international captain and in his prime. Yet there was a growing feeling that, in Twenty20, his multifarious gifts did not translate into being an asset for his country.

"If Kane Williamson doesn't open in T20, he shouldn't be playing," declared the former New Zealand player turned commentator Simon Doull in February 2018. "His record opening is very good - at three and four, it's not that great. But he shouldn't be in the T20 side."

Doull's concerns were not misguided. In his previous two T20 innings, Williamson had scored 9 off 14 balls and 8 off 21, injuring his side in two ways: not scoring many runs and, just as importantly, chewing up a lot of balls.

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Even as Williamson was well-established among the leading three cross-format international batsmen of his generation, along with Virat Kohli and Steve Smith, there was a gnawing sense that the demands of T20 were outgrowing his classical batsmanship. In the previous year's Caribbean Premier League, Williamson mustered 172 runs at an average of 17.20 - and a strike rate of just 89. Williamson was used both as an opener and a number four, but with equally dire results. As he painfully tried to muscle boundaries, he resembled an opera singer struggling to sing pop.

Williamson's fate spoke to broader changes in the game: the vastly divergent skills required in T20 and Test cricket. For those like Williamson who were brilliant Test and ODI players, the schedule did not allow them as much space to play T20 as short-format specialists. And T20, with its emphasis on muscularity and power, simply seemed to have no need for what orthodox Test batsmen could do, even when they were as fantastic as Williamson.

Then, a funny thing happened. In his very next game after Doull's comments, Williamson - batting at number three, just as Doull said that he should not - crafted 72 from 46 balls, winning man of the match in New Zealand's victory over England. In the 2018 Indian Premier League, which began two months later, Williamson enjoyed the third most prolific seasons of any batsman in IPL history, scoring 735 runs at an average of 52.50 - but, most importantly, with an excellent strike rate of 142. Williamson captained Sunrisers Hyderabad to the top of the IPL league stages - they would eventually be losing finalists. In the process he suggested that reports of the death of classical batsmen in T20 had been exaggerated.

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The debate around the value of classical batsmen such as Williamson in T20 spoke to wider conflicts between old and new, defence and attack and style and substance.

"As understanding of the realignment between attack and defence in T20 grew, batsmen became more adept at power-hitting. And so teams began to realise that having a batting order with more than one or two classicists was inappropriate"

T20 heralded a shift in the nature of batting, emphasising aggression, power and boundary-hitting. Players like Andrew Symonds, Virender Sehwag, Brendon McCullum, Chris Gayle, Kieron Pollard and MS Dhoni, and later AB de Villiers, David Warner, Aaron Finch, Jos Buttler, Andre Russell, Glenn Maxwell and Hardik Pandya, embodied this approach.

The evolution ran contrary to the most prized batting skills in Tests and ODIs - wicket preservation and strike rotation. And so it led to some of the world's leading batsmen - who played long innings, but often fell short in terms of scoring rate - being evaluated in a different way. 'Batting like in a Test match in Twenty20 cricket is not really going to work,' said Williamson.

The very notion of some of the world's best Test and ODI cricketers being ill-suited to T20 illustrated how radically T20 differed from its older siblings. That it was classical batsmen who were squeezed by the shortest format was particularly pertinent because this resonated with the concerns of traditionalists about the future of the game - that ultimately T20 was a simplified game, morally and intellectually inferior. There was a profound sense that traditional cricket lovers wanted classical batsmen to succeed in T20 - and that acceptance of the sporting merits of the format partly hinged on them doing so.

"Mahela Jayawardene shows beauty can thrive in game of beastly hitters," wrote a headline in The Guardian during the 2010 T20 World Cup, when Sri Lanka's Jayawardene was top-scorer. "This may well be seen as a tournament for the musclemen, those powerhouses who can clear the front leg out of the way and force the ball vast distances beyond the boundary," The Guardian's esteemed chief cricket correspondent, Mike Selvey, wrote in his article. "Jayawardene represents the antithesis to this, a slender presence, but one whose wrists are of tungsten and whose technique is a thing of beauty." Similarly, ESPNCricinfo gushed that "Jayawardene is showing the world that an orthodox approach can be wildly successful in Twenty20." The implication was that this notion made T20 an altogether more satisfying game for those reared on the longer formats.

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After the 2017 IPL - when Hashim Amla, another orthodox Test great had great success - Sunil Gavaskar, one of India's greatest Test batsmen, launched a staunch defence of their more conservative approach. "T20 is not about sixes... T20 is about making sure that there are no dot balls and both these batsmen have made sure that there are very few dot balls," Gavaskar said. The comment did not stand up analytically: in T20, the number of boundaries that a team hits is a far better predictor of whether they will win than the number of dot balls they allow. But Gavaskar's comments distilled the desperation for T20 to find a place for archetypal Test batsmen.

The world's best batsmen in Test and ODI cricket were in many ways considered the sport's finest artisans - very elegant players, with supreme technical proficiency in attack and defence. In the 1990s and 2000s Sachin Tendulkar became the sport's first global mega-star and was one of a coterie of modern batting greats alongside Brian Lara, Ricky Ponting, Jacques Kallis and the Sri Lankan pair of Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. In the 2010s the torches were passed to India's Virat Kohli, Australia's Smith, New Zealand's Williamson and England's Joe Root. These players appeared to find a sweet-spot between many of batting's trade-offs: wicket preservation and scoring rate; strike rotation and boundary hitting; strength against pace and strength against spin.

In the early years of T20 many teams blithely assumed that the very best Test players would simply be good 20-over players. Royal Challengers Bangalore's batting order in the inaugural IPL was a perfect example of this misunderstanding. Bangalore signed the great Test batsman Rahul Dravid as an 'icon' player and then proceeded to build an entire batting order of similarly orthodox players at the auction: Kallis, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Mark Boucher and Wasim Jaffer, as well as the 18-year-old prodigy Kohli. This batting order was quickly exposed as lacking the requisite power: no team in the 2008 IPL hit fewer boundaries or scored at a slower rate.

As understanding of the realignment between attack and defence in T20 grew, batsmen became more adept at power-hitting. And so teams began to realise that having a batting order with more than one or two classicists was inappropriate for the demands of the modern game.

"At the start of T20 you'd have one or two hitters," recalled Luke Wright, who played more than 300 T20 matches in a career that started in 2004. "So in terms of setting a score you had to have one or two players really sit in an anchor role. And you don't really see that anymore: it is mainly hitters."

This evolution was turbulent. Understanding, particularly among traditionalists, was complicated by batting's primary statistical measure: the batting average. In longer formats, this was an effective measure of success or failure for batsmen. But in T20 batsmen could make a large number of runs while harming their team's chances of winning. This was a particularly acute problem for classical batsmen who were very comfortable playing long innings but who struggled to do so at a fast rate.

In the 2016 T20 World Cup semi-final, Ajinkya Rahane provided a perfect example of the danger of orthodox batsmen in T20 when he played a classic 'match-losing innings'. Rahane was a very elegant player - strong off the front and back foot, adept against pace and spin and a natural timer of the ball - and built a fine Test career. But he was also exactly the kind T20 was leaving behind.

Batting first at the Wankhede Stadium, a venue known for high scores, Rahane scored 40 off 35 balls - an excellent strike rate even in ODIs, but pedestrian for a T20 on a high-scoring ground - while quick scoring from the rest of India's top order saw them post 192 for 2 from their 20 overs. Rahane had faced 29% of India's deliveries and only scored 20% of their runs. He had scored at 6.84 runs per over while the rest of his teammates had scored at 10.08 runs per over. Rahane's long innings also prevented powerful lower order batsmen Hardik and Suresh Raina from even batting. West Indies chased India's target down with seven wickets and two balls to spare.

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According to the traditional batting average Rahane's 40 runs was a significant contribution - the highest batting average in T20 history for anyone with 1000 runs by June 2020 was 43.01 by Babar Azam. But Rahane's innings was totally out of sync with the match around it.

Perhaps it was revealing that Rahane's innings came in such a high-octane match. When the stakes were highest - in knock-out matches - teams could have a tendency to play more defensively. But such fear of failure meant they embraced suboptimal tactics: any team who prioritised minimising the risks of a collapse was liable to score too slowly.

It wasn't until around 2012 that meaningful data analysis started to become commonplace and not until nearer the end of the decade that such measures became publicly available. One such measure was CricViz's match impact, which sought to quantify the impact - positive or negative - of players on the scorecard. By this measure, Rahane's innings in Mumbai cost India eight runs compared to an average player batting in the same situation - comfortably the worst contribution in India's innings despite it being the second highest individual score.

As awareness of the downsides of innings such as Rahane's grew, so too did the concept of 'roles' in a T20 side. No role was more pivotal than that of the orthodox batsman. While an entire batting order of classicists was inappropriate there could, in certain situations, be value to one - or possibly two - such players, depending on the balance of the rest of their batting line-up.

"The most effective anchors - who maintained healthy scoring rates while not compromising wicket preservation - gave batsmen around them freedom to bat aggressively, because they were not fearful that their team could collapse"

The growth and rise of power-hitters meant teams were increasingly stocked with aggressive batsmen. These players were capable of scoring rates well out of reach of players like Williamson and Rahane but their attacking approach made them less secure at the crease and so prone to playing shorter innings on average. An entire batting order of aggressive hitters could, if several fired together, score huge totals but their one-dimensional nature meant they were also prone to collapse and could flounder in tougher batting conditions. In the 2019/20 Big Bash, Brisbane Heat scored 209 for 4, 109 all out and 212 for 3 in consecutive matches, a run that embodied the boom or bust nature of their approach.

The proliferation of big hitters lent justification for the presence of a counter-balance, a batsman or two who scored slightly more slowly but could do so more consistently. It was here that the skills of orthodox batsmen came to the fore.

Such players like Williamson lent stability to their teams. Their exemplary techniques and general robustness against both pace and spin meant that they could succeed in a range of situations and a multitude of conditions. In this respect these classical players resembled all-court players in tennis, who could succeed on a variety of different surfaces. Many of T20's new-age players, like McCullum and Maxwell, were particularly destructive in good batting conditions - which were commonplace on the T20 circuit. But on slower, lower pitches or on pitches that gripped and turned, their aggressive, swing-through-the-line approach was far less effective.

So, among most teams a very specific role emerged for the orthodox batsmen - the 'anchor'. These batsmen were tasked with holding the team's innings together and enabling the more aggressive players to bat around them. Anchors were generally deployed either as an opener or a number three; either way, they sought to bat for a significant period of the innings to provide stability. For players of such technical quality this part of the job was not a problem. Babar, for example, averaged 35 balls per dismissal - almost one-third of an entire innings.

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The bigger and more pressing challenge was scoring quickly enough. As T20 run rates rose, they dragged the lower limits of what was acceptable from orthodox players with them. In the first half of the 2010s, strike rates of around 120 were passable and strength against pace was sufficient - Australia's Michael Klinger, who played for the great Perth Scorchers dynasty, was the archetypal early anchor. But as the game changed that floor was lifted up towards strike rates of 130, which in turn required improvement against spin, and then in higher scoring leagues sometimes strike rates in excess of 140 were demanded from anchors. This shift quickly placed pressure on players of Klinger's ilk, amplifying the difficulty of the role. Kohli's evolution encapsulated the changing demands on anchors; he lifted his strike rate from 125 from 2008-2015 to 143 from 2016 to June 2020.

It was generally accepted that anchors would score more slowly than the innings run rate - but if they did so by much, they could become a drag on their team. These pressures were further accentuated by the belief among many analysts that wickets were overvalued in T20 and teams should bat with more aggression.

Yet, for all the scientific thinking applied to T20, elements to the anchor role were much harder to quantify. The most effective anchors - who maintained healthy scoring rates while not compromising wicket preservation - gave batsmen around them freedom to bat aggressively, because they were not fearful that their team could collapse. The benefits of the anchor's ability to rotate strike reliably, particularly scoring singles to ensure a more dominant batsman could move on strike, was also difficult to measure; such batsmen could ensure their most destructive players could face the most balls possible and, if need be, protect unreliable hitters from the opponent's best bowler. Perhaps most significantly, the very best anchor players brought versatility on a variety of pitches and against different types of bowlers and were savvy enough to adjust their games depending on the match situation.

These various benefits meant that an anchor could play an innings that could be seen - or even calculated - to have a slight negative impact, yet helped their team by empowering more destructive players. The best anchors were the ultimate role players.

At times, the role required forgoing their wicket for the greater good of the team. This acceptance was crucial because failure to do so could result in match losing innings such as Rahane's in Mumbai.

Williamson was one anchor who recognised the role demanded selflessness. 'I believe T20 cricket is, out of all the formats, the most "team" format of cricket,' he said. 'There are innings that I think we've all seen in the past where guys have put themselves maybe before the team situation. And then scoring a big score looks really nice but it might have actually been to the detriment of the team.'

Anchor batsmen were best seen as facilitating players, akin to playmakers in football: players whose contribution could be unobtrusive and sometimes hard to quantify, but who set up the game for their teammates.

Ultimately, the deployment of one or two anchor batsmen in a T20 line-up amounted to what behavioural economists described as 'defensive decision-making.' This is the idea that in medicine, the stock market and beyond, humans don't make decisions that are optimal. Instead, they make decisions to 'cover their ass', as Gerd Gigerenzer argues in Risk Savvy. These decisions don't necessarily maximise the chance of success - but they do minimise the chances of failure, a subtle but significant difference. Essentially, the selection of an anchor batsman often lower a batting side's ceiling - but it also raised their floor, and their susceptibility to humiliating collapses.

The higher the standard of cricket the more valuable anchor batsmen generally became. Anchor batsmen were particularly adept at dealing with the world's best bowlers and enabling batting sides to effectively navigate through tricky overs. And so a batsman like Williamson was better suited to the IPL, for example, than the T20 Blast in England where the lower standard meant less technically gifted players who batted more aggressively could thrive. In higher quality matches the class of elite anchor batsmen came to the fore. The best anchors were like all-court tennis players who could succeed in all conditions, observed Nathan Leamon, England's white-ball analyst. "A large part of their value is insurance against difficult pitches and protection against the best bowlers."

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Whether a team embraces the anchor role is a window into their broader approach.

Broadly speaking, the more a team focuses on batting in assembling their side, and the better a team's core set of batsmen are, the less need for a classicist. When ESPNcricinfo selected a T20 all-time XI in 2020, Kohli did not find a spot. "If we needed someone to bat through the innings, that sort of traditional player that franchises love, who can handle the best opposition spinner and take the innings deep, then Kohli is perfect for that," explained Jarrod Kimber who worked as an analyst for a number of teams. "The thing is that is not an 'all-time' position because of the guys we have around him." Essentially in a fantasy team the need to guard against the failure of the batting line-up is less pertinent.

England's T20 team between 2018 and 2020 was perhaps the closest example to such depth. With a potential top six of Jason Roy, Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow, Alex Hales, Eoin Morgan and Ben Stokes, England could not always find a place for Joe Root in the side. Although they lacked an anchor, the top six so effectively combined fast scoring and consistency that Root's skills were rendered less valuable. England also had depth below the top six, with even most of their bowlers capable of useful innings, rendering the reliability of an anchor player less attractive.

England's decision to move away from Root was enabled by the quality of their batting but was also tied to their bowling. Leaving Root out was an acknowledgement that they might at times need to score slightly over-par to win matches due to their comparatively weaker bowling, so had to stock their batting accordingly.

"Williamson was one anchor who recognised the role demanded selflessness. "I believe T20 cricket is, out of all the formats, the most "team" format of cricket"

At the very same time, a similar debate was going on in Australia who took the opposing path of selecting an anchor, picking Steve Smith ahead of more explosive batsmen D'Arcy Short and Chris Lynn. Australia were emboldened to do this largely because their bowling attack was particularly potent. Where England recognised they needed to score above par to win matches, Australia felt more confident defending lower totals, making an anchor like Smith more attractive.

A similar theme could also be discerned with regards to chasing and setting totals. Deploying an anchor when a team was setting a target raised the chance of a competitive total, ensuring that the bowlers had something to bowl at. Whereas chasing with an anchor reduced the team's risk of low totals but probably lowered their chance when chasing larger totals.

So the extent of a team's embrace of an anchor often illuminated a side's philosophy. The more bowling-orientated the team, the more likely they were to feel comfortable deploying an anchor. Any anchor's fate was tied to the style and resources of their team; Root would have improved many fine T20 teams - but, England's batting meant that they came to believe that he did not improve theirs.

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Williamson has shown how the best classical batsmen can evolve. He has kept the essential tenets of the game that have made him a phenomenal Test and ODI player, while adding tweaks to make his game better-suited to T20. While Williamson will never have the raw power of some new-age batsmen, he has developed a lap sweep shot against pace bowling that adapts his essential skills - his brilliant hand-eye coordination and timing - to the demands of T20.

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He has also become more willing to embrace risk. In a T20 run chase against India in January 2020, New Zealand needed 43 off four overs, two of which would be bowled by Jasprit Bumrah, the best quick bowler in the world. Rather than accept ones and twos against Bumrah, and target the other bowlers, Williamson, who was well-set, dared to try and take down Bumrah. Across eight deliveries from Bumrah in the 17th and 19th overs, Williamson hit four boundaries - including two whips through the leg side - to leave New Zealand needing just two from the final four balls before he was dismissed for 95. Somehow, India salvaged a Super Over. In the Super Over, Williamson again used his paddle sweep against Bumrah, hitting him for a six, before India chased down 18. The misfortunate end could not conceal how Williamson had given a brilliant distillation of how his batsmanship could thrive in T20.

And yet in the 2019 IPL, when Warner returned from his ban, Williamson could no longer command an automatic place in Sunrisers's XI. It emphasised how demanding the anchor role was, how it demanded players constantly refine their games and how vulnerable anchors could be to changes in strategy - in 2019, Sunrisers played on better batting wickets, targeting higher scores. Deeper batting orders, improved power-hitting techniques and evermore aggressive approaches are increasing the pressure on anchors to adapt or die.

In 2019, ultimately Sunrisers preferred Warner and Bairstow over Williamson. Through one lens, this could be seen as preferring two aggressive top-order batsmen over an anchor. But perhaps it was better seen as a glimpse of the future of anchors. At their best, Warner and Bairstow were two players in one, matching Williamson's capacity to consistently bat for 30 balls or more with a greater range of boundary-hitting options. And, like Williamson, Warner and Bairstow were adept at minimising dot balls and scampering between the wickets. Warner, in particular, essentially combined all the virtues of anchor players with a higher strike rate; from 2015-2019, he was top scorer in three IPL seasons out of the four he participated in, and second only to Virat Kohli's record 973 runs in the other.

By 2020, Warner could boast an IPL average of 43 and a strike rate of 142 - so his average innings was 43 from 30 balls, simultaneously anchoring and providing early impetus. It was a snapshot, perhaps, of what could be within reach for modern batting's elite: the consistency of the very best anchors, but without the trade-off of slower scoring.

Tim Wigmore is a sports writer for the Daily Telegraph and Freddie Wilde is a freelance T20 journalist @fwildecricket