The first ever T20 international match between Australia and New Zealand in 2005 was played in quite a light-hearted spirit. Both the teams wearing jerseys of their respective countries dating back to the 1980s, the Kiwi players sporting wigs and fake moustaches, Glenn McGrath bowling underarm towards the end of the New Zealand innings and umpire Billy Bowden showing him a mock red card are some of those funny memories that defined the contest.
Although Australia won comprehensively by 44 runs after posting 214/5 batting first, the casual way in which they approached the match made it clear that they didn’t think this format would stand a chance to be a regular fixture in the near future.
“I think it is difficult to play seriously. If it does become an international game then I’m pretty sure the novelty won’t be there all the time,” the then Australian skipper Ricky Ponting had said after the game.
Little he would have realized that, as a format, T20 Cricket would go on to achieve something way more than just being called a casual format of entertainment. More than the players and the game itself, the T20 format was something which was solely made for the fans in order to make the game more attractive and also to create an appeal among wider masses.
But, it didn’t take long for it to become a format that demanded to be played seriously from a ‘nothing serious at all’ format. Soon, it became a format that demanded expertise, unique skills, X-factors, situational awareness and versatility from the players rather than only traditional abilities defined by the early laws of cricket.
While other teams realized the changing nature of the format and evolved with time, Australia’s progress was pretty stagnant. Although they continued to prove themselves to be a force to reckon with in ODIs and Tests, Australia couldn’t turn out to be as dominant in the shortest format of the game as they had been in the longer ones over the years.
Despite coming up with some fabulous performances in particular T20I matches, they always faltered whenever it mattered the most — like in Series deciders or in knock-out rounds of tournaments. They haven't ever won a World T20I tournament yet whereas teams like India, West Indies, Pakistan and England have all won it at least once.
The reason behind their inability to produce meaningful results was mainly due to their hesitation to look beyond certain big names who were stars of the longer formats but not as good when it came to playing in the shortest version of the game.
On Friday, however, Australia produced one of the best T20I performances with the bat chasing down a total of 244 runs with ease.
It turned out to be the T20I version of the ODI match between Australia and South Africa in Johannesburg back in the year 2006. The only difference being Australia were at the receiving end that time as South Africa chased down their mammoth total of 434 whereas this time it was Australia who completed the Himalayan task of chasing down 244 runs in 20 overs against a powerful Kiwi bowling attack.
They also won the previous three matches in the series quite comprehensively without any hiccups at all. And mind you it's a team that is devoid of big names like Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazelwood and others.
So, what is the reason behind their sudden T20I surge?
It seems that the Australian selectors have finally realized the need to change with time. Some crucial structural and strategic changes in the composition of the T20I squad has made them a force to reckon with in recent times. And that is evident from their unbeaten run in the ongoing tri-series featuring England and New Zealand as the other two teams.
The change has not necessarily been replacing those big names with just alternatives but they have made the changes according to the structural and situational needs of the team.
The inclusion of T20 specialists like D’Arcy Short, Ashton Agar, Billy Stanlake and Andrew Tye who have been fabulous in T20 leagues around the world has worked wonders for Australia. Although the success after including these players might seem like an accident as they got a chance only as some big names were rested, the shift in the batting position of Aaron Finch from the opening spot to middle order suggests there was a lot of strategic brilliance associated in the whole move as well.
More than an accidental success, it seems like something pre-planned or rather an experiment that worked out well and thus has marked the beginning of a new era in T20I Cricket for the Aussies.
Each and every player in the team now fits the bill as they meet the versatility required in the T20I format. The absence of Steve Smith has been a blessing in disguise for them as it has often been seen at times that he can be quite a slow scorer in T20Is. He is a decent T20I player, but there are definitely better players who deserve to be in the squad more than him at least in this format.
Having both Chris Lynn and Glenn Maxwell in the middle order has given Australia the luxury to go all guns out in the middle overs. And the presence of someone like Finch after them in the batting order, who can play both the anchoring role and the big hitting role as was evident from his stint with the Gujarat Lions in the middle order during IPL 2016, gives the team the much needed freedom to do so. His shift down the order has given a player of Short’s caliber a chance to feature regularly in the XI. And he proved himself with his match-winning knock of 76 off 44 deliveries on Friday.
Moreover, all these players along with David Warner have both big hitting and anchoring abilities which enables them to play according to the situation of the game and change gears whenever needed. So that has given them quite some freedom in the batting order as players like Smith, Mathew Wade and others were quite one dimensional.
In the bowling department as well, they have let go the big names of Hazelwood and Starc who were pretty one dimensional as well. They were fit to bowl at particular stages of the game but struggled during other stages. The inclusion of Tye, Stanlake and Kane Richardson who are capable of taking wickets and stemming down the run flow at any stage of the game gives Warner the luxury to bowl any of them at any stage. The very concept of a new ball specialist or a death over specialist is pretty much outdated at present. And these bowlers are just showing that with their equal prowess at all stages of the game.
Moreover, all-rounders like Marcus Stoinis, Agar and Daniel Christian are players who can do as much damage with the bat as they can do with the ball. So, the team now looks composed of elements that back up each and every other element. If things go wrong with one, there is always another player who will put his hand up and save the day for them.
It is this very versatility in each and every role that is working wonders for the Australian team. The structural and strategic changes are auguring well for them and they would like to cap it off with a victory in the final of the tri-series. Not only that, they would look to maintain the same momentum in the coming time ahead if the selectors choose to be as bold as they have been with their decisions in recent times.