Offside, 24 July
Twenty20 is cricket for people who don't like cricket.
In March 1939 the longest ever game of first-class cricket was played between England and South Africa in Durban. After the tenth day of play the so-called ‘timeless test’ was abandoned without resolution because the England team had to catch their boat home. Quite what England skipper Wally Hammond would have made of Twenty20 cricket, in which games last less than three hours, is anyone’s guess. I suspect he would have been mortified.
Twenty20 cricket was conceived by focus group. Market research commissioned by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) revealed that the sport was not attracting young people or women (the county championship barely attracts anyone with a pulse rate, let alone young people and women). Even the one-day format, which was considered heretical when it was introduced in the 1960s, is now deemed too long and boring for the yoof audience who, it is assumed, have the attention span of gerbils (and probably gerbils with attention deficit disorder at that).
The solution was a truncated 20-over format with matches running from 5.30pm to 8.15pm to attract an after-work audience. Bowlers have to jog back to their marks to avoid time penalties, incoming batsmen have 90 seconds to scuttle to the crease, interludes are peppered with shouty PA announcements and bursts of loud music to chivvy up the crowd, and any spectators caught dozing off are forcibly ejected by stewards. Actually I made that last bit up but you get the idea: Twenty20 cricket is the Opposite of Boring.
Surprisingly, the widely anticipated storm of protest from purists, aghast at the dumbed-down slogfest masquerading as cricket, never materialised. Why? Quite simply because Twenty20 cricket put bums on seats – nearly a quarter of a million of them during the 45 group matches.
Indeed, much to the delight of the ECB cultural engineers, the women and children count was high (though the ECB is doubtless fretting over the under-representation of blacks, disabled people, and cross-dressers). There was, by all accounts, a good atmosphere at the games and the players enjoyed the novelty of performing in front of crowds. Even the cynical cricket journalists, although they sniffed at the vulgarity of the US-style razzmatazz, were pleasantly surprised to find that batsmen played proper cricket strokes and not just agricultural hoiks.
I don’t doubt that Twenty20 is good harmless fun, but is it really cricket? It looks to me like cricket for people who don’t like cricket. In other words, not really cricket at all. But then I was raised on phlegmatic batsmen like Geoff Boycott or Chris Tavaré who occupied the crease for hours and played every ball with an impeccably straight bat.
Proper cricket is a form of protracted psychological warfare. It’s about gradually wearing down your opponent, testing his patience, frustrating him, and enticing him into an ill-judged swipe. It is not meant for people with short concentration spans. Even the one-day game allows sufficient time for batsmen to play themselves in properly and score runs without resorting to cross-batted cow shots. Twenty20 cricket, by contrast, regardless of the technical quality of the strokeplay, is essentially all about hitting boundaries.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against new developments in cricket – the introduction of the six-ball over in 1900 was a splendid innovation. But it’s difficult to see the 20-over version as anything other than a glorified exhibition match. The fact that the inaugural Twenty20 Cup has pulled in large crowds is also irrelevant. One-day internationals and test matches still attract healthy crowds, proving that many of us still possess the patience to appreciate the longer game.
English cricket’s problem is that there is still too much mediocre, uncompetitive cricket being played at county level and until that is tackled the crowds are unlikely to return. However, the radical solution of reducing or merging counties and establishing a leaner and fitter elite competition, such as that proposed by Wisden editor Graham Wright in 2002, would certainly face fierce resistance from the counties.
Cricket has tried to rebrand itself before – coloured clothing, white balls, day/night games, piped music – none of which has succeeded in reversing the sport’s decline. With Twenty20 the cricket authorities have gone one step further and invented a different sport altogether. Maybe they should call it cricketball in order to distinguish the mutant from the real thing.
One of the reasons, I suspect, that Twenty20 cricket has been greeted with surprising warmth by the counties is that it offers the chimerical possibility of renewed popularity by bolting on a new tournament to the cricket season while leaving the antiquated county structure untouched.
And herein lies the real problem with Twenty20. Although superficially a radical innovation, Twenty20 is simply a dazzling gimmick that serves to obscure the pressing need for root and branch reform.
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