April 8, 2014

Why T20 is about cricket's natural evolution

The shortest format is but a logical extension of cricket's bias towards batsmen, and our changing ideas about time

T20: not a corruption of an ideal form © ICC

In many ways, this is a piece I have meant to write for several years. The publication in these pages of a claim, made by the venerable Kartikeya Date, that T20s are not "really cricket", and the end of a spectacular World T20 means that there is no better time than now to make a case in defence of T20.

In his post, Kartikeya argued that "if cricket is a balanced contest between bat and ball, then T20 is not cricket because it has marginalised bowling to a point just short of extinction". My insight in relation to this argument perhaps comes from a different background than his, but I think there are some important points to be made from other perspectives.

For example, I have long felt that the contention that cricket - in its ideal form - represents a balanced contest between bat and ball is a fallacious one, which hides certain basic realities. I will admit that as a Pakistani fan, my arguments might be biased, but to me cricket has always seemed to be loaded unfairly towards batsmen.

Let us start with the score. The mechanism for determining the victor in a game comes down to the number of runs scored, while the loss of wickets is secondary. With the exception of Duckworth-Lewis games, and ODIs from a more anarchic age, if you make more runs than the opponent, you win, every single time. If you take more wickets, though, you are not guaranteed a win. A team that picks up one wicket can beat a team that had taken all ten. This is not to say that batting is harder or easier than bowling, but rather that when we think in terms of the way we understand a game, the number of runs scored is a more important piece of information than the number of wickets taken.

This is not a quirk but rather a manifestation of the game's priorities, and indeed where the power lies. Administrators, law-makers, captains, selectors and board members are preponderantly batsmen, a fact that is not without relevance.

Take a look at the laws. A batsman has complete freedom of his batting crease, but bowlers are subject to laws that restrict their use of the space between creases. Similarly, while bowling equipment has remained the same throughout history, batsmen are allowed all sorts of leeway - the use of heavier bats being the most egregious example.

One myth that the batting fraternity clings on to is that a batsman is only allowed one mistake while bowlers can make many, and that consequently it makes sense to provide legislation in favour of batsmen. Yet a glance at the modern game (any format you choose) shows that batsmen can repeatedly get away with mistakes, and are granted advantages from them. Scythed shots that reach short boundaries, edges and glances that feast on fielding restrictions, mishits that land safely, all are basic examples of how the notion that batsmen's mistakes cost more is overblown at best.

So the question then becomes, how does cricket retain this semblance of balance? I would argue that the game's balance has been redressed and maintained mainly (but not exclusively) through the innovations of bowlers. More importantly, these innovations have emerged out of desperation more than anything else.

The power and tradition of the game has always sought to preserve the status quo of batting's advantages above all else. This is a consequence of the game's inherently distorted balance rather than a conspiracy

We can start with Bodyline, which came as a response to Donald Bradman's brilliance. Then we have the West Indians and their use of the bouncer, a response to Clive Lloyd's desire to play to his squad's advantages. Following that, we see the emergence of reverse swing, an innovation to counter the slow, dead pitches of the subcontinent. And then we see the development of the doosra, which allowed offspin to be reinvented. What all these innovations have in common, apart from having been developed by bowlers with little recourse, is that each of these was soon legislated against, though most of these innovations arose as a last-gasp effort to redress the dominance of bat over ball. If retaining the balance was essential to the sport, then surely such a situation would not have arisen.

Instead, today rules exist to prevent Bodyline and bouncer tactics, while reverse swing took decades to be accepted and even now raises eyebrows. The same can be said for the doosra, which has made debating the length of shirt sleeves relevant. Contrast these to batting innovations, which are never generally considered to be much of a problem. Perhaps the most controversial was Kevin Pietersen's switch hit, which despite some murmurs received almost immediate official approval.

To say that all of these developments are a corruption of an ideal form is to be in denial. From where I see it, the power and tradition of the game has always sought to preserve the status quo of batting's advantage above all else. This is a consequence of the game's inherently distorted balance rather than a conspiracy.

But I am not a historian or a fastidious researcher, so perhaps there might be an alternative reading that I am missing out on. However, there is a second, and in my opinion more fundamental, argument to be made as well.

If we are to reduce this sport to its most basic tenets, it comes down to two things - the use of space and the use of time. The playwright and cricket tragic Imran Yusuf has argued that we also consider the use of angles as fundamental to the game. Space is constant across the game's formats and instances, while angles are related to the individual moment of each delivery and how it is played and fielded. Time, however, is what provides a match its context and narrative.

Much has been written about Test cricket's relationship with time. Sharda Ugra wrote, "Test cricket's individuality across all sport comes from its expansive, flexible canvas of time." Mike Marquese opined that "As the world's first and oldest modern spectator sport, cricket is marked by an earlier era whose patterns of leisure and work have long vanished. It keeps its own, archaic kind of time." However, we sometimes lose sight of how time is central to the shorter formats of the game as well. In fact, the changes in the formats have specific rules for bowlers/fielding side (quotas and field restrictions) but impact batting only in terms of time.

After an interview with Marqusee, the journalist Wright Thompson noted that "…cricket evolved to its current form as humans changed the way we interacted with time". It is clear that the observation holds true for all of cricket's formats.

In fact, if we go back to before the late 19th century (when "real" cricket was invented) we will see that the game's development has occurred as a response to the changing social conceptions of time. The advent of T20 is a logical outcome of how the game has developed. It has been argued that how humans measure time is a social construct. If so, then the development of newer formats is a reflection of how that construct has changed. To argue against T20s is to argue against globalisation, against Twitter, against flexihours and rolling news - romantic and admirable attempts but a denial of reality as well.

This is not to say that the balance between bat and ball has not been eroded, or even to say that T20 is not destroying many of the game's skills, particularly in bowling. However, such fears miss several important points.

A view of the reaction to T20s shows a similar narrative arc to how ODIs were initially perceived - a fear that Tests would die out, a fear that ODI cricket wasn't serious enough or was too commercial, a fear that it was a caricature of the game, a fear that a commercial and TV-driven innovation (World Series Cricket) would destroy the game's fabric. If we are to accept ODIs as part of the family, then there is no reason to delay the inevitable with T20s as well.

Moreover, as fans we must keep faith in the resilience and reinvention of the sport itself. I have little doubt that over the years bowlers will find new ways and new skills to reassert their importance. Yes, we will lose much of what we cherish now as we go into the future, but there will be something to gain as well.

Ahmer Naqvi is a journalist, writer and teacher. He writes on cricket for various publications, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here

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