With the IPL contest having entered its penultimate stage, the fight for the title also seems to be getting fierce. While for MSD, an IPL win would serve as the cherry on his coveted World Cup cake, KKR skipper Gautam Gambhir would be hoping to turn around his team's fortunes and thereby consolidate his claims for captaincy. For first time captain in the IPL Vettori, it might be a golden chance to resurrect his team and become impregnable once again, while the Master would be looking to lift the cup he'd almost laid their hands on last year. Who would have the last laugh, is difficult to say, what is clear though is that a victory in this IPL won't just bring to fore a superior side, but also a Captain, a cut above the rest.
So, what is it that would set a captain and his team apart from the others? Most certainly, good cricket, but more importantly, some smart cricket.
Since every over is 5% of the innings, the skipper must tread cautiously and think twice before throwing the ball to a bowler because with it, he might just be throwing away the game too. T20 is a lot about momentum and just one over of mayhem can lead to ultimate destruction. But since a bowler can bowl only 4 overs, you must keep rotating your bowlers and make constant bowling changes. Smart captains like Shane Warne use this handicap to his advantage as you'd often see him giving one over spell to four-five bowlers in a row.
If bowlers are radically different from each other with regards to their action or variety (spin or fast), it's only wise to play a few balls rather quietly to get your eye-in before launching an attack. And that's where regular changes keep the batsman guessing, for he needs to constantly reassess his chances and go-to areas. Yes, it also doesn't allow the bowler to settle in too but that's when a smart captain chips in. He'd give clear instructions with regards to their roles and set realistic goals. Warne wouldn't tell a bowler to bowl immaculate yorkers but would ask them to follow a simple plan with relevant field placement. It could either be bowling short or full which are obviously a lot easier to execute.
The knowledge of the weaknesses of a certain player in the opposition must also be exploited. Tendulkar showed elephant-like memory to open the bowling attack with Harbhajan Singh against Gilchrist. It was a master-stroke and paid off immediately. Similarly, using one over burst of Lee or Malinga against less experienced Indian batsmen, or bringing in a spinner when Pollard or Doeschate walk in is an equally smart move. It's demanded of T20 Captains to be pro-active, for there's hardly any time to react.
You can't constantly play around with the field in other formats but T20 gives you the freedom to be as innovative as you please. A sluggish captain might find it a burden but a smart captain would use it as an attacking option. MS Dhoni plotted Sangakarra's dismissal by some astute fielding changes. When Sanga was comfortable hitting down the ground, he brought the fine-leg inside the circle and induced a false shot by the Sri Lankan. Similarly, using the fielders at deep mid-wicket and square-leg inside the circle is another smart attacking option.
Most batsmen have learnt the art of clearing the front-leg to hit it over the short mid-wicket which used to be a vacant area earlier. But now with a man on the fence and square-leg inside the ring, batsmen are forced to hit it squarer which is tougher to execute. Warne would invariably bring the mid-off and mid-on inside the circle when Watson or Tait are bowling bouncers to challenge the batsman to clear them. While conventional wisdom would tell you to go towards square-leg or fine-leg, most batsmen fall for it and perish.
With losses hurting a lot more and victory tasting that much sweeter in the play-offs, it's imperative for the teams to get their batting order sorted. You can't afford to experiment with your opening combination with Saurabh Tiwary or T Suman anymore or swap your finishers like Symonds with Bhajji or Sathish. T20 is a really short game for a batsman to eat too many deliveries, since there isn't enough time to make amends. Dhoni may have sent Morkel and Saha ahead of him at times, but the play-offs would be a time to catch the bull by its horns and lead from the front. There's a time to promote and inspire others and there's a time when you must absorb all the pressure. This would be the time for the latter.