I’ve changed my mind about Twenty20 cricket
Yes it’s vulgar; yes it has drunken crowds and dancing girls; yes it simplifies cricket. But so what?
Twenty20 cricket: an apology. Six years ago, when the bastard son of ‘proper cricket’ hit the scene, I wrote sneeringly that Twenty20 was ‘cricket for people who don’t like cricket’. But now I’m not so sure.
In fact, although it ought to offend my purist sensibilities, I’ve been loving the World Twenty20 tournament. Is it proper cricket? Probably not. Does it matter? No. When cricket-lite is this good, who needs the real thing?
The charge sheet against T20 reads like this:
1. It’s a slogfest.
2. It encourages cross-batted hoiks rather than correct strokeplay.
3. It’s gaudy and vulgar.
4. It’s got dancing girls and loud music.
5. It’s for philistines who can’t understand proper cricket.
6. Did I mention its vulgarity?
Do these charges stand up? T20 is undoubtedly a game which incentivises fast scoring. There’s no place for a stonewaller like Geoff Boycott in this form of the game. For batsmen, dot balls are a crime. But, as many sports writers have observed, T20 isn’t just about brute force. Two things have changed since the birth of the twenty over format six years ago.
Firstly, the players now take it seriously. Secondly, T20 has grown up. When T20 was launched there was a genuine fear that it would be a ‘batsman’s game’. As former England captain Mike Atherton admitted: ‘If I had one reservation about Twenty20 at the start, it was that bowlers could become little more than cannon fodder; bowling machines set up for the batsmen’s delectation.’ However T20 today is a testament to human ingenuity. Bowlers, hampered by fielding restrictions and limited to four overs a game, have been forced to evolve and innovate. ‘[B]owlers are like cockroaches – they survive and prosper no matter the conditions’, wrote Atherton. ‘So they have given us, to combat those disadvantages, bouncers, yorkers, reverse swing, slower balls, googlies, flippers, sliders, zooters and doosras.’ (1)
And, as bowlers have become more tactically wily, the batsmen too have had to adapt. In the World Cup it wasn’t necessarily the big hitters who thrived but those who could combine good strokeplay with bold improvisation. Sri Lanka’s Tillakaratne Dilshan was probably the batting sensation of the tournament. But he’s not your orthodox slogger in the Lance Klusener or Andrew Symons mould. The key to his success was his timing and wide range of strokes. Paddle shots, sweeps, reverse sweeps, deft late cuts and, most celebrated of all, the Dilshan ‘scoop’ or ‘starfish’ in which he ducked under a good length ball and lifted it over the wicketkeeper.
And, just as the sloggers didn’t dominate the tournament, neither have the spinners been overshadowed by the pacemen. As we have seen, the introduction of spinners has often changed the course of a T20 game. ‘[I]t is striking how Twenty20 is abetting the renaissance of wrist/mystery spinners’, wrote Vic Marks in the Guardian. ‘We know of Murali, Mendis and Afridi. We are now familiar with Saeed Amjal.’ (2) In the semi-final, South Africa looked comfortably on course to chase down Pakistan’s target of 149. But Shahid Afridi’s devastating four-over spell which yielded just 16 runs turned the game. Afridi claimed two wickets in four balls and instantly halted South Africa’s momentum. They never really recovered.
Another development which has delighted the purists has been the rehabilitation of the specialist wicketkeeper. In recent years the specialist keeper has become regarded as something of a luxury. Wicketkeeper batsmen have been all the rage. Adam Gilchrist has provided the template for every international team to copy. But, in Twenty20, specialist keepers who can stand up at the stumps are favoured. Stumpings are far more common in T20 than in the 50-over format. That’s why James Foster got the nod over Matt Prior for England. Prior is better with the bat but, in T20, you don’t need strength in depth right down the batting order as you do in Test cricket or the 50-over format.
So, some of the traditional skills like wrist-spinning and wicketkeeping have enjoyed their moment in the sun thanks to T20. And I lost count of the number of times the commentators remarked that a boundary had been scored with ‘proper cricket shot’. But let’s not over-egg the cake here. T20 has revived some traditional techniques but there is still one important ingredient missing. Patience. Proper cricket is a war of attrition. While T20 has its ebbs and flows and its own mind games, there really is no room for patience. Batsmen who can drop anchor and occupy the crease. Bowlers who have perfected the fine art of slow suffocation. That doesn’t mean T20 is wrong or heretical; just it’s a different game altogether.
What I like about T20 is precisely what the traditionalists hate: its vulgarity. Noisy drunken crowds, dancing girls, rock music. It’s just not cricket, is it? Well frankly, who cares? I’d rather a living, genuinely popular sport than a moribund sport that is withering on the vine. So what if the MCC bacon-and-egg tie brigade stayed away from the World T20 games at Lords? I’d rather a sport where the crowds were raucous, partisan and a little bit inebriated than one watched exclusively by a dying breed of conservative old farts.
The traditionalists also hate T20’s unabashed commercialism. The cricket snobs were aghast when cricketers were auctioned off like chattel to the new Indian Premier League (IPL) franchises. They choked on their cucumber sandwiches when the now disgraced Texan tycoon Sir Alan Stanford unveiled his plans for a winner-takes-all Twenty20 game with a million-dollar bounty at stake (whereas the England team who took part in the game just choked).
It used to be regarded as a gimmick. But it’s precisely because it draws the crowds and there is serious money at stake that professional cricketers now take T20 seriously. It might not be proper cricket, but I’ll be watching next time the T20 circus comes to town.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.
(1) Why Twenty20 could be cricket’s saviour, The Times, 18 June 2009
(2) Short and sweet – how the World Twenty20 proved the doubters wrong, Observer, 21 June 2009