Created in order to boost crowds at county grounds, T20 cricket was viewed as nothing more than a bit of a novelty. It wasn’t expected to be a sustainable format and it wasn’t even expected to be a serious format. Yet, here we are, 18 years on since the inaugural Twenty20 Cup of 2003 in England: a cricketing world that has been inarguably forced to evolve by T20 cricket.
T20 cricket is often either credited or blamed, dependant on your viewpoint, with the current state of Test match batting. Some would suggest the loss of a sound defensive technique and overly-attacking mentality has led to a poorer standard, like Ben Stokes’ first innings shot in England’s collapse at Headingley against Australia in 2019. Others would suggest the ability to play innovative shots that access areas of the ground that weren’t considered in the past has allowed some of the greatest innings of all time to be played, like Ben Stokes’ stunning second innings effort in England’s run chase in the very same game.
Whether it be a change in technique or a change in mentality and whether that be viewed as a good or a bad thing could be an eternal debate and discussion. One thing that is often almost universally agreed upon when analysing the influence of Twenty20 cricket on Test cricket would be the increased run rates in Test cricket.
The Test match run rate in the 1970s averaged out at 2.69. That increased to 2.86 across the 1980s and 1990s. However, since the turn of the millennium, the run rate has been consistently above three per over and it averaged as high as 3.22 in the decade from 2010 onwards.
Of course, correlation does not mean causation but it is evident that the average Test match run rate has increased with the rise of Twenty20.
More than half of the 31 Test match triple centuries have been scored since the millennium year. Of the 16 that have been scored since 2000, only two have been scored by players who didn’t feature regularly in their international T20 side or have a Test match strike rate of 70+. White-ball greats such as Dave Warner, Brendon McCullum, Kumar Sangakkara, Chris Gayle and Hashim Amla are a part of that illustrious list.
In 113 years, there were fewer triple centuries than in the past 20 years. Those 20 years have, as mentioned, coincided with the formation and dominance of T20 cricket and almost every one of those triple hundreds in the last 20 years have been scored by naturally fast-scoring or white-ball players. So, there are various other factors at play but the ability to score quickly has improved since 2003.
However, the idea that T20 cricket is the sole cause and reason for an increase in Test match run rates is reductionist. It ignores the natural evolution over time of batsmanship but also ignores the ability for single players to change the way the game is played.
Michael Slater and Mark Taylor’s opening partnership for Australia has often been credited as being the crushing blow to most of their opponents; it was viewed as a real example of the gap that Australia had opened up – particularly with England. No matter the format, no matter the tactics, no matter the era; scoring quickly and not getting out will remain cricket’s batting ideal.
Between Michael Slater’s debut on June 3rd, 1993 and the first ever T20 match on June 18th, 2003, the Test match run rate in Australia was 3.02 while all matches involving Australia went at 3.06 runs per over.
In 18 Test matches in 2021, the average Test match run rate is 3.05. In a T20 World Cup year and despite an apparent heavy influence on Test match run rates, there have been fewer runs per over this year than there was for Australian Tests across a ten-year period between 1993 and 2003.
Therefore, it could be argued that the reason for the noughties increase wasn’t primarily due to the influence of T20 cricket but could mainly be down to a ‘golden era’ of Test match batting.
One third of the players in the top 60 highest batting averages played in the 2000s. Almost every major Test playing nation has boasted a side that has a couple of players with potential to be in their nation’s all-time XI. Whether it be Smith, Kallis, Amla, De Villiers for South Africa. Sehwag, Laxman, Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly for India. Hayden, Ponting, Gilchrist for Australia. Strauss, Cook, Pietersen for England. Jayawardene, Sangakkara, Dilshan, Jayasuriya for Sri Lanka.
A theme throughout those sides, though, would be the impact of a ferociously innovative player that thrived or debuted in white-ball cricket. De Villiers, Sehwag, Gilchrist, Pietersen and Jayasuriya have all been credited with changing ways in which cricket has been approached via ultra-aggression combined with simply audacious talent. All five began their cricketing career before T20. Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest they influenced T20 and therefore Test cricket, rather than the other way around.
Regardless of whether it has come from T20 cricket, and there remain legitimate reasons to believe it has, the increase in Test match run rates is affecting the Test format on quite a deep level. Potentially looser shots in order to increase the run rate has led to wickets falling more quickly and therefore Test matches finishing early. In a roundabout way, those run rates have led to the calls for four-day Tests.
As mentioned, there has been a dip in the run rate in 2021. This could be something that continues to happen as the white-ball game continues to evolve and the need for white-ball specialists grows, therefore polarising the formats and leading to red-ball specialists. For example, five of England’s potential Test top six (Burns, Sibley, Crawley, Root, Pope) do not currently play international or franchise Twenty20.
In conclusion, the influence of T20 cricket has been evident throughout the last 18 years. There has also obviously been an influence on Test match run rates in particular, however the fact that this has coincided with teams ‘catching up’ to the Australian way of playing as well as a plethora of world class batsman; it seems to be something that is overplayed. There has been a change and an evolution but to suggest it is due to Twenty20 alone ignores several other factors.