Twenty20 Cricket vs Blitz Chess?

India have just made it into the T20 Cricket World Cup Semi-Finals.

Since I written about Chess in Cricket (Tests/ODIs)- the theory for the 20 over format is still to be developed. It is the beginner’s mind- as Zen followers would perhaps call.

Yes shorter versions are possible but…
So is this format a valid competition or just a circus of sorts?
Well, there are many ways to answer this and as I have hinted in my book, there are many ways to create shorter versions of any sport. Just reducing the duration (overs in cricket), may not be the answer. However, one thing is sure that the answer to the validitiy of T20 as a real competition, does not lie in the often cited argument -but flawed- that people said similar things about ODIs when they became popular the 1970s, and today we accept it as a valid variant of cricket (so we should accept T20 as well). Then why not have a 10over match after a few more years, and accept it as well?

The fact is that every sport has certain skills to be tested, and that test takes some minimum time depending on the nature of the skills.

How much is that ‘some minimum’ time?
For Olympic throw/jump events, it means a few attempts- typically 3 to 6, before we can spot the winner. This will last perhaps less than an hour (depending on number of participants). So why does this seem fine? Because what we are testing is ‘can’ the contestant maximize a feat. Six attempts may be enough to test that.

In contrast, Classical Billiards (the English sport, which Indians love just as much)- can be set up for multiple sessions of 2 hours each. Why this long? Well, in this sport the key thing is how the cueist can demonstrate delicate control of seemingly repetitive shots- again and again. Players often have breaks (unbroken sequence of shots) of 100-200 shots without losing control. This means that adequate time must be allocated for both players to demonstrate their abilities to repeat subtle sequences- typically at the top of the table (yes, they are messing this sport as well with 150 point formats).

In my book I have explained why a 5 day Test Cricket is not too much longer than a 90 mins soccer game (the logic is based on man hours involved. Cricket being a ‘one at a time’ participation- for batting and bowling, versus soccer being near simultaneous, means the man hours per player in cricket is not too far apart from soccer)….

In chess, they did have timeless games, and today Classical Chess is a few hour game- which is considered a fair test of depth of knowledge as well as spontaneous skills. There are Rapid and Blitz formats which last a few dozen minutes. Usually such games throw up errors – often from both players – as they have to beat the clock. However, like the ODI and T20 versions, there can be uncanny and exciting lines of play- tactical and often by instinct- rather than deeper calculation or positional depth. It does test what one ‘can go for’ even if it is not so sound in a longer format.

So is T20 like blitz chess?
As mentioned, there will be flaws and holes in games in this format like in blitz chess and there will be something nifty and brilliant as well- as we saw the clean hitting when Yuvraj launched six sixes in an over, just the last match.

But there is a fundamental difference between cricket and blitz chess. It is in the nature of skills involved. Cricket is not a symmetric format – batting and bowling are radically different disciplines, as compared to chess skills- where both players have the same pieces and attempt to gain material or attack the opponent’s king using skills to maneuver pieces which are same (although the overall approach for black and white is different, because white makes the first move).

Once we understand this, then we can appreciate that ‘the minimum’ time required to test certain skills will differ between chess and cricket (obviously we cannot test all classical skills in short forms, either in cricket or in chess).

a) The first fact in Test cricket is that scoring for a batsman is ‘dense’ whereas it is ‘sparse’ for bowlers. What this means is that batsmen – although they can get out on first mistake – have more options to score regularly such as a single, two, four or six, (and even legbyes), whereas a bowler in test cricket usually gets a wicket every 50-60 balls. Moreover, bowlers score no points for beating the bat or inducing edges or other instances when they got the better of the batsman. They have to get the better by some degree and then they may get a wicket. This is Test cricket.

Now in ODIs, bowlers do get 60 balls/bowler. This is a fair number of balls to ‘earn’ a wicket on their own merit, not by a batsmen’s blunder or rash stroke. So in an ODI, if a bowler bowls well, he can earn two wickets and get more due to pressure of dot balls. There is something in it for bowlers- in terms of economy and wickets. For batsmen, they have the same old scoring options, and can try to innovate once they earn their position by holding wickets and scoring briskly. ODIs in fact offer both batsmen and bowlers to exhibit those skills, which may not be of direct impact in Tests (economy skills for bowlers and few big shots for batsmen). But ODI has contributed to Tests indirectly. This is why Richie Benaud is of the opinion that he would welcome new versions of cricket if they enhance certain Test skills as well- such as accurate bowling, sound improvised shots, and athletic abilities in fielding- which ODIs did in some manner.

Now, let’s see where Twenty20 fits in.
A bowler gets 24 balls each (4 overs). This may not be the ideal ‘minimum’ number of balls a bowler can get a wicket, on his merit. Sure there will be days when a bowler does knock a few batsmen over (as RP Singh did brilliantly today against South Africa- those balls would have got him wickets in Test as well). But when pitches are not really juicy for bowlers, this format fails the test. Bowlers may get wickets, and so might the batsmen who bowl.

Whereas, batsmen still have ‘dense’ scoring options, just as regularly and perhaps a lot more since it may take them 2-3 overs only to ensure the wickets column is not falling apart. I think the regularity with which batsmen score cannot be taken away, since a scoring shot is a scoring shot, and there will be many in this format. However, there is a possibility to compress the scoring pattern a bit.

b) Does there have to be six different levels of scoring in Batting?
As I have explained in my book, since the scoring format – the numbers attached to a shot – was created in cricket over 100 years ago, it need not be valid with modern bats and smaller grounds – especially in a format where 10 wickets are squeezed in 20 overs.

Is a ‘six’ still six times more difficult than a ‘single’ (it must have been 100 years ago, and in a format where batsmen’s wicket was worth gold). Today, is a one-bounce-four, really twice as difficult as a well earned two? These numbers were created by humans, and just as we create compressed formats, we need to look again to the numbers we attach to the shots.

I like the fact that in Billiards and in Baksketball the points given are two and three for a scoring shot. It does not favor a particular type of shot too much. What if they made a three pointer in basketball worth 9? (this a long range shot into the basket from outside the ‘D’). The game would change for sure and Michael Jordan would begin to look mortal, averaging just 30 points per game.

This in my view needs to be addressed in compressed formats of cricket, since the risks on batsmen getting out are different from Tests and ODIs.

Ask your self- is a six worth 3 twos or 6 singles today. Likewise, should bowlers be given some more rewards, since scoring (wickets) is by nature, sparse in their art compared to batsmen (it was nice to note Harsha Bhogale hint that this format seems more exciting if there is something in the pitch for bowlers. This means that on such pitches wicket taking is not as sparse).

Blitz Chess is far more sound!?
As you can see, the unsymmetric nature of skills of batting and bowling, imply that the minimum time for compressed games should either be longer (50 overs seems good, as 60 balls/bowler is good) or some scoring pattern changes are needed or the games can be played as ‘pairs’ as I have suggested in my book.

Blitz Chess as it is now, is a lot more ‘sound’ since it still is chess skills on both sides, at a given time. A GM losing to a much lower ranked player is still not that frequent in any form of chess. In T20, we saw Australia struggle and also South Africa losing out after having a good tournament.

I have no problems with some of the flashy and ungainly shots in T20- that is the nature-, but there is too much weightage on a six or a one-bounce four, and not enough reward for a good over by a bowler.

Or talk to me for other short variants- just compressing a format is not the answer to the Television and Media era…

Mumbai, India

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