The T20 format has dominated cricket since its inception in 2003. There were 536 international T20 cricket matches last year, which included a successful World Cup and a variety of domestic leagues. Although the format has only been around for two decades, it has seen many tactical changes. Loopy leggings are gaining popularity for their shortened version. This is evident in the explosion of mystery spin. The T20 game’s most notable tactical development was the rise and fall of the anchor.
The anchor is a crucial role in a game that is obsessed with big sixes and high strike rates. The anchor bats at a slower pace to stabilize the innings and rotates the strike to maximize the number of deliveries for the largest hitters. Sides were filled with anchors in the early days. England’s first T20 team featured Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss, who are fine cricketers but not known for their attacking abilities.
The position became more specific as the game evolved in the 2010s. Although big hitters became more popular, only a few players (typically three to four) would try to anchor the innings. JP Duminy is a good example. In his 81 matches of T20I, the busy South African averaged 38.68 and struck at a slower 126.24. He was able to complement the larger hitters like Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers. It worked and almost everyone accepted it. England had Joe Root, Australia’s Steve Smith, India’s Virat Kohli, and New Zealand Kane Williamson.
T20 cricket has changed a lot over the last five years. A few sides have chosen to abandon their anchor entirely and instead prefer more destructive options up top as well as in the middle order. Joe Root was one of the first victims of the cull. He was dropped in 2019. The strike rate of the Yorkshireman, which was only 126.30, was too low for England’s T20 side despite his average age of 35. Australia has also lost their anchor with Tim David, a 6-foot, five-hitting-machine from Australia, replacing Steve Smith.
However, many nations have remained loyal to their anchors. Despite his slow 123.01 strike rate, Kane Williamson is still a solid leader for the Kiwis. Virat Kohli is the ‘king of chases’. However, he is also known for being a dashing player, but he guides his team to victory at a steady pace. This is similar to Pakistan skipper Babar Azam’s slow style, which has been criticized.
The nations that have abandoned their anchors have made it clear: batsmen are improving and totals are growing; quick runs are essential, especially during powerplays. Modern T20 cricket is too slow for anchors to bat.
But are they? What, then, is too slow?
Shahid Afridi, Pakistan’s chief election officer, set the T20 stars as a benchmark for a strike rate north of 135 to be used as a criterion for selection. However, a strike rate of 135 may not be enough. For example, take England’s win in the World Cup final last year. Ben Stokes’ 52* heroic knock of 52* was scored with 49 balls, a strike rate of only 106.12. Stokes’ steady and slow knock was exactly what the doctor wanted.
Salt, Brook, and Hales lost their wickets in pursuit of runs that were not needed, chasing a paltry 138 to win the trophy. His team won because of Stokes’s experience and caution. The chase would have been easier if Root had been there to calm the nerves.
It’s not the first time that less-than-gung-ho batting has brought about success in a T20 World Cup. Marlon Samuels’ dazzling 85* (66), helped the Windies win a seemingly impossible title in 2016. Babar Azam was the top-scoring player in the 2021 tournament with a strike rate of only 126.25. Kane Williamson steered his team to the final at an apathetic 115.50.
These runs were not too slow for Williamson, Babar Samuels, Stokes, and Stokes. They were as fast or slower than their teams required. In the second two cases, they were fast enough for them to win the tournament. “Fast enough” is not a predetermined metric. There’s no single number that can determine whether a T20 game is good or bad. Stokes 52* (49) would be ineffective at an all-out location to Eden Gardens. Sometimes, however, patience and good technique can still pay off when the bowlers are at the top.
Modern T20 cricket has ample room for anchors. There are many situations in T20 cricket – tricky pitches, big boundaries, low totals – where batsmen who pace themselves can be invaluable. These situations and conditions are common in all tournaments. When the pressure is on, scores can be lower in knock-out rounds. Anchors are often essential at the business end of large tournaments.
The inclusion of an anchor can be a double-edged weapon. If a side chooses one, they run the risk of batting unnecessarily slow, chewing up the balls, while the more violent bats can wait. For example, take Virat Kohli’s 2022 World Cup campaign. In India’s historic, early-stage chase against Pakistan, King Kohli looked flawless. He began slowly with only 11 of his 20 balls before going wild in the second overs. With a series of powerful pulls, Kohli decimated Pakistan’s quicks. His sweep to Harris Rauf, which was a stunning example of timing and balance in his penultimate over, was particularly remarkable. India won crucially with this masterful hit. It was a perfect example of why and how a batter should anchor innings.
But, Kohli made a mistake 18 days later. With Rishabh Pan waiting for him, he limped to 50 from 40 balls in the semi-final. His slowness limited India to 168 balls, a target that was easily surpassed by England’s devastating openers with 24 balls left.
There is a risk when you have big-hitting batters on your team. Those who can adapt are the most valuable players. While I was able to distinguish England’s Test skipper by his smart batting in the World Cup finals, Stokes isn’t always an anchor. For the three lions, and franchise cricket, his role is to bat aggressively in the top innings and make quick runs in the powerplay and the middle order. Stokes adapts his approach to situations that require a more gentle touch.
Stokes may be the model for the anchor’s future. Players who can dig in when needed can also adapt their style to the circumstances. Joe Root is a Dubai Capitals player in the inaugural ILT20 league. It’s quite interesting. The Yorkshireman earned his franchise stripes by performing reverse sweeps and ramps-as-a-plenty during five games. He hopes to show that he can also up the ante regularly. In the Big Bash, Steve Smith was also a good player for the Sydney Sixers.
T20 cricket will remain a batter’s sport. There will be times when a soft touch is needed. Anchors are still very important in T20 cricket. Passenger space is not available. Without the ability to move through the gears, batsmen risk sinking the ship.