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The World Twenty20 belatedly blasted into life yesterday, as the Super Eights power-launched what has become a ten-day bunfight. For the third global tournament in succession, the last eight could have been predicted at least 20 years ago, as the first eight Test nations eased their way through a group stage that will live as long in the memory as a goldfish's tax return. Whilst this may raise concerns about the prospects of cricket ever truly extending beyond its historic boundaries as a global sport, even via the pimped-up high-speed vehicle of T20, what it has left us with is a week and a half of unpredictable high-stakes showdowns between old rivals, a rare commodity in any sport.
What do we know about the teams after the first week? Little more than we knew before the first week - in this format, on their day, or off their day, any of them could beat, or be beaten, by any of the others. South Africa, in essence, have not played yet - a facile ten-wicket defrocking of Zimbabwe and a seven-over microtonk against Sri Lanka offer scant evidence. All the other teams left in the tournament have both scored and conceded totals of more than 160, apart from Australia, who shipped 191 against West Indies but were well on the way to rocketing past it with ease when the rain intervened.
England look more likely to be bouncing up and down on the Being Beaten end of the see-saw, busily trying to work out which way up to read their How to Play Spin manual, but even they cannot yet be entirely discounted. An incapacitating dose of food poisoning affecting only mystery tweakers could easily strike at any moment. Or they could adopt the revolutionary tactic of giving more, rather than less, time at the crease to their best T20 batsman (or at least their best T20 batsman who is not cooling off on the selectorial naughty step [oddly located in a commentary box]).
The major talking point of the tournament has been the runaway success of yesterday's Super Over, or One1, showdown between the hosts and the Kiwis, a glimpse into cricket's rapid-fire future when the tedious longeurs of the T20 game are considered too much for the action-hungry TV consumer. On one level - with no boundaries and just two wickets in the entire match ‒ the Super Over match was eerily reminiscent of an entire day's play in a 1950s Test. On another, it was a joyous celebration of how intense pressure can leave the minds of hardened sporting veterans as scrambled as an egg in a bobsled careering down an erupting volcano.
Kumar Sangakkara, one of the greatest and most influential players in recent cricketing history, an ice-cool man of competitive steel in his 482nd international match (or 482nd-and-a-bitth match), gave a two-ball exhibition of wicketkeeping ineptitude that even Kamran Akmal at his most creative would have struggled to surpass.
First, he fumbled a straightforward take to allow New Zealand two byes - 14% of their required runs in one clumsy-handed bloop. Next ball, he shelled an edge from McCullum, dropping New Zealand's most likely six-tonker and allowing another unearned run, in one of the most clueless sequences of his stellar and largely clued-up career.
The McCullum drop completed one of the most error-strewn single deliveries that cricket has ever seen. Lasith Malinga, one of the universe's leading T20 bowlers, needing to concede fewer than nine in three balls, flang down a half-volley far enough outside off stump that it would have been called wide had not McCullum, one of the solar system's top T20 batsmen, slashed wildly at it, and connected with it enough only to (a) prevent it being called wide, and (b) snick a simple chance to Sangakkara, an undisputable cricketing legend with more than 500 wicketkeeping dismissals under his international belt, who, with hands as soft as a saucepan, clanged it. Amidst this mayhem of mistakes, it is a wonder that Umpire Taufel did not raise the finger and give non-striker Guptill out lbw due to sheer confusion, before awarding a free kick and telling the Sri Lankan fielders to stand ten yards away, giving Malinga 9.3 for artistic impression, and breaking down in tears.
This one-ball festival of universally achievable cricket had followed hot on the burning heels of the last ball of Sri Lanka's chase, when, with the hosts needing just one to win, Southee bowled a long hop, Thirimanne hoicked and missed it, Franklin shied at the stumps and missed, a throw that Taylor, with unpasteurised butter-fingers, fumbled at the bowler's end. Physics finally intervened to whip the bails off with a fortuitous ricochet, prompting the Super Over slapstick. Classic. I am an unashamed Test match devotee and lover of the classical aesthetic of cricketing tradition. But this was top-level international sport at its jumble-headed, panic-stricken, mistake-addled, incompetent best, entertainment fit to stand alongside the madcap climax of the 1999 World Cup semi-final when Australia and South Africa went throat for throat in cricket's greatest simultaneous choke.
The Super Over is the future. The over rate was not up to much, the tactics were curious - Why did Sri Lanka hold back Dilshan at No. 3, and why did New Zealand keep McCullum off strike at No. 2? Were they waiting for the latter part of the over, when the opposing bowler would be tired? ‒ and, personally, I would like to see a two-ball Powerplay at the start of each over to add a bit of variety and excitement to what will, no doubt, become a tactically moribund format, but this was competition boiled down to its essence. In fact, it was competition boiled down beyond its essence, to a crazed cocktail of skill and luck where nothing mattered but the result.
● Sri Lanka's innings in the curtain-raising T20 game that warmed up the crowd before the 12-ball frenzy of fun was one of the most educational in cricketing history. It began as a pitch-perfect object lesson in How to Chase 175 to Win a T20 Match. They then switched strategies to give the watching world a masterclass in How Not to Chase 62 off Nine Overs With 9 Wickets in Hand, culminating in a textbook demonstration of How Not to Close Out a Match by Scoring Eight off The Final Over. Four balls into this, Thirimanne launched into a one-man exhibition of How to Score Five off Two Balls, but could only sustain this for the first of those two balls, before putting on a scientific exposition of How Not to Chase One off One Ball. The world is a wiser place today.
● Whilst experienced, established T20 batsmen flourished in yesterday's Super 8 matches, a couple of unfamiliar bowlers have also prospered - West Indies' Samuel Badree, in his third T20 international after a ten-year career doing not much in West Indian domestic cricket, conceded 20 from four overs against England; and Akila Dananjaya, who was plucked from youthful obscurity by Sri Lanka after a no-year career, removed both New Zealand openers. This could prove to be a revolutionary new tactic - if familiarity breeds contempt, or at least, contemptuously spanking a proven international paceman over extra cover for six, then unfamiliarity clearly breeds uncertainty. By the 2014 tournament, expect teams to pluck supporters out of the crowd minutes before the start of a match to open the bowling. By the time the opposition have realised that 47-year-old Nigel is, in fact, an account manager for a stationery delivery firm, who has not played cricket since school, he will have sent down three overs for 15 and control will have been established.
● I may have given the impression in last week's podcast that the format of this tournament was to be admired and cherished. I admit I had not scrutinised it as thoroughly as I might have done. As it transpired ‒ with group position meaningless, no carry-over of points to the Super 8, and the gap between the Haves and Have-Nots of the cricketing world widening as the various T20 leagues give the former more and more experience, skills and know-how ‒ the first week of the tournament was made up of predictable hammerings and meaningless exhibition matches. Or, in the case of England against India, both simultaneously.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writerFeeds: Andy Zaltzman
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Andy Zaltzman was born in obscurity in 1974. He has been a sporadically-acclaimed stand-up comedian since 1999, and has appeared regularly on BBC Radio 4. He is currently one half of TimesOnline's hit satirical podcast The Bugle, alongside John Oliver. Zaltzman's love of cricket outshone his aptitude for the game by a humiliating margin. He once scored 6 in 75 minutes in an Under-15 match, and failed to hit a six between the ages of 9 and 23. He would have been ideally suited to Tests, had not a congenital defect left him unable to play the game to anything above genuine village standard. He writes the Confectionery Stall blog on Cricinfo.