September 25, 2007

Toast the success, beware of excess

The first world Twenty20 was an unqualified success but there is a danger of it being milked too much by too many



The ticket prices were more than reasonable and the spectators got their value © AFP

At the last press conference of the ICC World Twenty20, Malcolm Speed, the ICC chief executive, was asked if the lessons from the last World Cup, a gigantic failure, had been handy in organising this event. Speed sidestepped the question and launched a long spiel on the success of this tournament. You would grant him that. This was a tournament that did ICC, and cricket, credit. And yes, the organisers had learnt from their mistakes, and they must be applauded for it.

The ticket prices were more than reasonable and the spectators got their value, the security - a necessary aspect of major sports event - was not overbearing, the atmosphere was relaxed and the duration was just right, even though three matches a day sometimes tested us journalists. To top it all, the cricket was of high quality. The second semi-final and the final were perhaps the best we have seen in a tournament of this dimension. Perhaps it helped that Australia didn't dominate because it broke the monotony and a final between India and Pakistan provided that best possible drama.

Twenty20 is here to stay. Possibly it is even the future. Its capacity to draw new audiences is undeniable. The semi-finals and final were sold out long before the home team crashed out but the locals didn't stay away. That's because Twenty20 is seen as entertainment, a good way to spend three hours outdoors with a few friends and a drink, as much as it is seen as sport. It's a mild source of worry to you as a cricket lover but, on balance, it can't be but healthy. It would be naïve and stubborn to ignore the feel-good vibes the tournament created for the game in a country where cricket is not the sport of the majority, and where Test cricket suffers from audience indifference. It's perhaps pertinent to ask if the Twenty20 viewers can be migrated to the higher form of the game, but that's not the only question, not even the central one.

However, while cricket must celebrate the success of its third-generation tournament, it should be accompanied by a statutory warning. Inevitably, there will be a temptation to cash in and there is a danger of Twenty20 overplaying itself

I began the tournament with a mild sense of cynicism, which, I will now confess, was due partly to my reservations about Twenty20 as a form of cricket and partly to my personal experience of the last World Cup, which left me drained and dispirited. There was nothing to take from it barring Australia's overwhelming excellence and the occasional spark the Sri Lankans provided. Two good matches in a 47-day tournament, already turned sterile by overbearing officiousness, was going to test even the devout.

Of course it helped that the tournament didn't turn out be the graveyard for bowlers as had been anticipated. The first match felt ominous. Chris Gayle scored a sensational hundred, yet his team lost. But it turned out to be the only hundred of the tournament and there were only five scores of 200 and more, one of which was against Kenya. Bowlers had a far greater say than was feared, and that made the games absorbing.

India won the tournament because of their bowling and fielding. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who impressed everyone with his leadership on and off the field, said his bowlers and fielders made their score of 157 feel like 170. Just as well because India won three matches defending what would be considered sub-par scores in Twenty20. It wasn't that their bowlers were gifted wickets; RP Singh earned top-order wickets with swing and pace, Sreesanth bowled some scorching yorkers, Harbhajan Singh was canny and Irfan Pathan, who was last seen being carted around by all and sundry, varied his pace with a great degree of skill.



It helped that the tournament didn't turn out be the graveyard for bowlers as had been anticipated © AFP

Fittingly, Irfan was named Man of Match in the final for his bowling. If it hadn't been him, it would have been Umar Gul. Shahid Afridi, too, won the corresponding tournament award for his bowling. Daniel Vettori was the tournament's most economical bowler and third-highest wicket taker.

However, while cricket must celebrate the success of its third-generation tournament, it should be accompanied by a statutory warning. Inevitably, there will be a temptation to cash in and there is a danger of Twenty20 overplaying itself. Already, the world is abuzz with new initiatives. The Indian Cricket League might be stillborn but the International Premier League, mooted by the Indian cricket board and supported by the most powerful cricket bodies in the world, including the ICC, promises to be serious business and the Stanford 20/20 has been now granted legitimacy by the West Indian Cricket Board, bringing it to the mainstream. Allen Stanford has already announced a US$ 5million winners-take-all match between the Twenty20 champions and a Stanford XI. Speed says the ICC might dump one edition of the Champions Trophy to accommodate another World Twenty20 tournament between 2009 and 2011.

The challenge for the cricket world is to retain a sense of proportion. The basic principles don't change in light of the success of this tournament: Twenty20 is perhaps cricket's most entertaining format - the word 'sportainment' was used liberally during the tournament - but Test cricket remains the game's most supreme form. It provides the stage and scope for the game's highest skills and the 50-over game remains the game's financial driver (it's that simple, a game lasting 100 overs with four drinks breaks provides far more opportunity for television advertising). While the administrators seek to find space for the new baby in the already packed fixtures calendar, they must ensure that it is not at the cost of the five-day game, because the marginalisation of Test cricket would be tantamount to destroying the soul of the sport.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo and Cricinfo Magazine

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