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6ixty: As cricket improvises and experiments, cricketers face unusual tests

With six-wicket innings in 6ixty, wickets will become as important a resource as overs again. But there's also incentive for batters to take risks. How will teams square this?

June 25, 2022 / 12:32 PM IST
Fans will be able to grant one-ball immunity to a batter once in an innings, in the experimental 6ixty format. This opens up a host of possibilities for sports marketing. (Image: Shutterstock)

Fans will be able to grant one-ball immunity to a batter once in an innings, in the experimental 6ixty format. This opens up a host of possibilities for sports marketing. (Image: Shutterstock)

The first edition of cricket’s newest format – the 6ixty – will be played in the West Indies this August. While it is not prudent to comment on its future until the first season gets underway, there is little doubt that no recent revolution in cricket has involved changes this radical.

In cricket’s early days, there were no laws regarding the size of a team. Single-wicket cricket (one person against another) used to be common in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Substantial crowds gathered to watch (and bet on) these matches, for they often featured champions like Fuller Pilch, Tom Marsden, Alfred Mynn, and Nicholas Felix.

Two versus two, five versus five – or even matches between teams of unequal size – were common formats as well. Then, as the postal system developed, cricketers became easier to contact; and as the British Railways reached every corner of the country, travel became easier. Teams of eleven became more convenient to assemble. Cricket found a structure.

Single-wicket, double-wicket, and other formats were played – but they were restricted to festivals or charities or other one-off tournaments. By the second half of the 19th century, cricket became a sport of eleven members a side, two innings per team per match, ten wickets per innings.

By the 1950s, cricket – particularly in England – was reduced to a drab affair, as teams focused on not losing. As draws became more and more common, public interest dwindled. Limited-overs cricket had been tried out around the world before, but in 1963, the Gillette Cup became the first national-level tournament.

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There were three significant departures from the previous rules. Every team was allowed to bat only once. They batted for a fixed number of overs (65 in the first season, 60 from 1964, 50 in later days). And finally, there was no concept of a draw: whoever scored more runs, won.

The elimination of the draw as well as the cap on the number of overs made cricket more fun. While still keen to take wickets, bowlers had no problem with simply restricting runs. Batters took more risks. More fours and sixes were hit than before. The fans returned to cricket.

As lives got busier, limited-overs matches had to be made shorter. Twenty20 (T20) was invented, the only significant change being a reduction of overs. The three formats coexisted peacefully. Newer formats were introduced over time. T10 halved even the T20 over count. The Hundred, introduced last year in England, allowed a bowler to bowl consecutive overs and changed overs to five-ball ‘events’ (instead of six balls), but it was essentially the same sport.

6ixty is fundamentally different from the each of these formats, for the batting side will now have six wickets (similar to the erstwhile Hong Kong Super Sixes), instead of the usual ten. Let us take out a moment to understand what this means.

A team innings typically consists of two resources, overs and wickets. It ends when a side runs out of either these. Overs were not a relevant resource until limited-overs cricket was introduced to cricket. As matches became shorter (from 65 overs to 60 to 50 to 20 to 10), overs became more and more important.

A team seldom loses 10 wickets in a T20 match, so they can take risks from the onset and focus on the other resource – overs. A T10 match takes things to the extreme, pushing batters to abandon all caution. However, with a six-wicket innings, 6ixty will force teams to make adjustments to that mindset. Wickets will become as important a resource as overs yet again.

Will that make cricket more defensive? Not quite, for 6ixty provides a bait to counter that threat. The Powerplay – the part of an innings when the field placement is more aggressive, thereby enabling quicker scoring – typically consists of the first 30 percent of a team innings in 50-, 20-, or 10-over cricket. 6ixty adds a twist. Here, the Powerplay lasts only two overs (20 percent). However, if a side hits two sixes in that phase, they ‘earn’ a bonus Powerplay, the timing of which they can choose. On one hand, by reducing the number of wickets to six, 6ixty is likely to force a side to value the wickets more. On the other, the Powerplay bonus will entice them to take risks. How they plan this innings will be an interesting study.

The other innovations – 30 balls without change of ends, losing a fielder for slow over rate – are welcome moves. They will almost certainly address cricket’s perennially unaddressed inability to finish overs on time.

That brings us to the last rule, which states: ‘Fans will vote for the timing of a “mystery free hit” where a batter can’t be dismissed by the bowler.’ There is nothing new about the free hit, a one-ball immunity for the batting side. However, its timing makes curious reading. Fans have voted in cricket before, but that has typically been restricted to awards outside live matches. Now they can take – not merely influence – strategic decisions during a match. The team management will have little alternative but to follow that.

Of course, fans will be able to do this only once per innings. The team still have 59 balls to them. They can also decide how to attack the free hit. However, if the concept gains in popularity, that count may go up. It will not be surprising if, in future, more decisions are taken by fans on behalf of the team.

Exactly who will be allowed to vote, when, and how, are not clear at this point. However, if anyone is allowed to vote at any point, the team with the largest fanbase is the likeliest to gain most from the new rule. This opens up an entirely new marketing strategy, where fans will be lured to sign up and vote for the team they support.

Interesting times lie ahead.
Abhishek Mukherjee is an independent sports writer. Views expressed are personal.
first published: Jun 25, 2022 12:25 pm
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