April 22, 2008

Brutish and short

Twenty20 is seen as a concentrated form of the game, but on the evidence so far, it's more like a crude edit

The IPL centres around the profit motive and is concerned chiefly with the self-admiration of India's media and corporate elites © AFP

Friday was a big night for cricket. A large, noisy gathering toasted the success of the happy band of international cricketers called ... the Yarras.

Yes, it was presentation night at the club where I've been a member 15 years, and have an apparently eternal commission as vice-president. A genuinely global affair it was, too. Harry, our Kiwi clubman extraordinaire, was extravagantly toasted - deservedly so. Knockbax, our Yorkie quick bowler, told us we were all "roooobish" - deservedly so too. Aravind, in receiving the award for most ducks, narrated in hilarious detail the only innings in which he scored a run last season. Nashad, having won the bat raffle, touchingly described arriving from Dhaka five years ago knowing nobody in Melbourne; now, he said, he regarded us as family.

Bangalore was mentioned quite a lot during the evening, although only because two of our boys, Zameel and Ranjit, have gone home there to get married, whereupon they should be boomeranging back to us. Whatever else was happening in Bangalore that night - well, it seemed far away indeed. As Indian Premier League VIPs swanned around looking like they owned the universe, I sat on my couch carefully counting up the A$583.50 in notes and coins we cleared on our event - an amount that wouldn't buy you the g-string on a Washington Redskins cheerleader. The only thing that reminded me of the Yarras thereafter that night was that no batsman bar Brendon McCullum could break 20 in perfect batting conditions.

Since then, I've watched every ball of the IPL. I mean, most anything with a bat and ball is to my taste: I'd watch a Danish Rounders Test match. Some of it's been okay. It's always cheering to see crowds at cricket. It's fun to see the nifty and inventive strokeplay, even if in Robin Uthappa's case it seems to have left him incapable of anything else, and when Rahul Dravid played an off-drive against the Mumbai Indians I was overcome by waves of nostalgia.

Shaun Pollock's craftiness, Muttiah Muralitharan's ebullience, Ishant Sharma's cutting edge - no cricket lover could not enjoy these, wherever they might be on show. The old-fashioned feeling of the Knight Riders v Deccan Chargers was also a delight. Batsmen having to earn their runs? How 20th century! India's chaotic contradictions, too, are also worth savouring. Lotus-eating celebrities watch multimillionaire athletes and ... the lights go out. I can't recall whether it was while he was Kennedy's ambassador to India that John Kenneth Galbraith first considered the coexistence of "private affluence and public squalor", but here was too perfect an example.

The game's skills are massively rationalised in Twenty20. What we see in the main is not so much batting as hitting, not so much bowling as conveying. The batsman is assessed by the change his strokes are leaving out of six; the bowler is like the fall guy in a comic routine stoically awaiting the inevitable custard pie. To be great under such circumstances is next to impossible. The game is neither big nor deep enough

It's early days yet, of course, and nobody has the power of prophecy. "Hopefully it will be a massive success," Kevin Pietersen reckons. "And I think it's going to be, because you have so much money being pumped into it, and you have the best players in the world, so there's no reason why it won't be." But the ICC presented a similar argument ahead of 2005's Super Series, which became a bomb of Dambuster proportions, and the assumptions that players and money are all it takes to manufacture box-office gold are, well, assumptions. Nobody knows whether we will see more Twenty20 as good as last September's world championship final at New Wanderers, or more as pathetic as the fiasco in Melbourne ten weeks ago that couldn't last 30 overs.

Already, however, I'm struck by the fact that what I've enjoyed are those moments when Twenty20 has looked more like cricket rather than less. And this is a problem, because there simply aren't enough of them. Twenty20 is envisaged as a concentrated form of cricket, without the pauses and longueurs that test the patience and understanding of the uninitiated. But it's less concentrated than crudely edited, and what is missing are those aspects of the game that make it linger in the mind, that impress on the imagination, that take time to understand, that need effort to appreciate. It requires nothing of its audience but their attendance and their money. Apparently, the first episode of Shah Rukh Khan's Indianised version of Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? airs later this week. Pardon me for thinking that Khan's two new presentations have a few things in common.

The game's skills, meanwhile, have been massively rationalised. What we see in the main is not so much batting as hitting, not so much bowling as conveying. The batsman is assessed by the change his strokes are leaving out of six; the bowler is like the fall guy in a comic routine stoically awaiting the inevitable custard pie. For sure, the players are stars, personalities, megabuck entertainers. But to be great under such circumstances is next to impossible. The game is neither big nor deep enough. No thespian has achieved greatness from a career of sketches; no old master won admiration for a skill at silhouettes. Cricket has traditionally made welcome a wonderful variety of capabilities and temperaments. The swashbuckler will have his day, but likewise the gritty opening batsman, the middle-order nurdler, the doughty tailender; likewise, there are days that favour the purveyor of outswing, googlies, subtle left-arm slows. From the combination of 20 overs a side, flat pitches, white balls, and 70m boundaries, however, emerges what sort of cricketer? (In fact, you begin wondering which great past players would have found in Twenty20 a welcoming home. Kapil Dev, for sure. Maybe Sunil Gavaskar, when not in one of his obdurate moods. But can you see BS Chandrashekhar, Bishan Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna? Given the choice, would you select Gundappa Viswanath and Sanjay Manjrekar, or Sandeep Patil and Chandrakant Pandit?)

The argument is advanced that this need not concern us: we are assured that Twenty20 will be only one of cricket's variants. There will still be Test cricket, first-class cricket, 50-over matches. Yet with the animal spirits of the market liberated, how realistic is this? Already players are falling over themselves to make IPL hay, egged on by managers taking a fair clip themselves. The likelihood is that the objective of the majority of cricketers worldwide will become not to play dowdy old domestic cricket that leads on to hoary old national honours, the longer forms of the game that prepare the most finished practitioners. The economically rational behaviour will be to adapt their methods to maximise their IPL employment opportunities. Consider for a moment just who is closer to the role model of the moment: is it Rahul Dravid, the "Wall" with his 10,000 Test runs, or Yuvraj Singh, who once hit six sixes in an over? Who will a rising young cricketer earn more by emulating? If maximising individual income is what matters - and if any cricketer feels otherwise, he is keeping such a heresy to himself - then Yuvraj might well be the cookie-cutter cricketer of the next decade. Twenty20 has rightly been called a batsman's game, but it is a very particular kind of batsman: the type whose game is built on eye and strength. If a new Dravid were to begin emerging now, I suspect he would face a career as a second-class cricket citizen.

Will it be possible for cricket to produce the likes of Sachin Tendulkar after two decades of Twenty20 as the main event? © Getty Images

Nor is it economically rational for franchise owners to rest content with enterprises that are inactive for 46 weeks of the year. You don't have to be Einstein - hell, you don't have to be Napoleon Einstein - to realise that if the IPL contains even a glimmer of promise, it won't be stopping there: pretty soon cricket's schedule will have more windows than the Sears Tower. What then? What might cricket look like after 20 years of Twenty20-centricity? There will likely been a few more MS Dhonis; probably a great many more Uthappas. But can you imagine another Sachin Tendulkar, with the discipline to budget for innings by the day, with his defence as monumental as his strokes are magnificent? And what price a new Anil Kumble - brave, patient, probing, untiring - in a world measuring out bowling in four-over spells?

Of course, it is too early to tell, and perhaps it will all sort itself out - but that, I fear, is what it will have to do, because you know that nobody involved in IPL gives a toss about any of the foregoing. For it is an enterprise concerned chiefly with the self-admiration of India's media and corporate elites, where nobody much cares what's happening on the field so long as Preity Zinta can be shown clapping her lovely hands, and the long-term interests of cricket are of no significance compared to how quickly the Kolkata Knight Riders can be reinforced by the Benares Baywatchers and the Mysore Melrose Placers. Profit maximisation is the name of the game - and that goes for administrators, franchisees, players, managers, broadcasters and sponsors alike. The possible negative consequences for other countries or other forms of the game are of no account compared to the commercial, and doubtless also political, ambitions of the likes of Lalit Modi and Sharad Pawar. It is not even about giving the people what they want; it is about giving the people what Modi and Pawar want them to want, and can then make a packet out of selling them.

Exactly why the people deserve this is not abundantly clear. Perhaps it is an instance of what I once saw defined as the Golden Rule of Arts and Sciences: "Whoever has the gold makes the rules." But the contrast I noted earlier between the proceeds of my own humble cricket event and the IPL's was not merely a matter of quantum. All of the Yarras' hard-won $583.50 will go straight back into the game's beneficiation. Of what proportion of the billions raised by the IPL, I wonder, will that be true?

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • stholas on April 25, 2008, 18:34 GMT

    Tough crap. Get used to it. Cricket will never be the same, and it doesn't need to. Do you know why test cricket doesn't seem to be filling the grounds anymore? Maybe because people don't want to wait 5 days for a draw? I love all forms of cricket, but T20 will be the future, no matter how many articles are written against it. Get with the times or go quietly into the night.

  • James on April 25, 2008, 16:54 GMT

    There are a lot of things you don't test if you don't go for five games at five days each. Three-Test series don't tell me much. IPL is therefore somebody else's business. If enough money were put on it, I think the game could be shortened to one hit per batsman. Isn't that the real test of skill, being able to hit the ball out of the ground from any point, every time? Ultimately, I think the batsman should fire the bowler out of a canon. Imagine you and your group of punters being able to catch Shane Warne with his shirt one fire.

  • Ajay on April 25, 2008, 6:16 GMT

    Mr. Haigh's points are all valid. The greatest fear is that this abbreviated excuse for the game will end up cannibalising cricket itself.One T20 game will run into the next, till they are all a blur. The first thing to disappear will be the art of spin bowling, which has already seen such a decline, in this era of small grounds and bats that allow mishits to go for six. Will anybody in authority who loves the game wake up before it's too late? To expect this from any of the Indians controlling world cricket would be a pipe dream.The only hope is that an overdose and lack of brand loyalty, which cannot be built up overnight,will kill spectator interest in this farce masquerading as cricket.

  • Nick on April 24, 2008, 16:38 GMT

    Gideon- superb article, as usual. A lot of cricket fans seem to be debating the advent of IPL in terms of the quality of the cricket- and I agree with your comments, both positive and negative, on this front. However the real issues here are, as you say, to do with money and power. I fear that a lot of cricket fans are very naive about this, and will only realise what is actually happening to the game once it is too late (which will be in about 3-4 years' time, I'd guess). It's certainly a strange day when going to watch a county championship game feels like a subversive act, but, well, we're living in strange times.

  • parantap on April 23, 2008, 18:29 GMT

    You are right Mr Haigh ,we are watching what Powar & Modi want and not what we want .We dont want a multi-million dollar pajama cricket league . If we needed a legue so much why could not have all international teams plying yeach other in 5 match series home and away over two years .Even test matches could have been structured like that with 3 match series over four years and money would come in.I also agree that this t20 is no breeding ground for the Tendulkars or the Laras of this world.

  • leg_before_wicket on April 23, 2008, 14:30 GMT

    As for your comments on batting and bowling skills on display until now, I hope players, teams and owners are trying to win hard. If that happens, they will go with the best set of players. They will know that good bowlers and fielders can cripple or send all those hard hitting batsmen back. It is no coincedence that until now, McGrath has the best bowling economy among all the bowlers you have bowled their full quota of overs. His team has won both of its games. A low scoring Twenty20 game on a good batting pitch is not unlikey with some very good bowling, fielding and strategies.

    I wish your comments on IPL and comments on Twenty20 cricket were separated. The IPL part I hate while Twenty20 has great potential to be one of the enjoyable flavours of cricet. I hope Twenty20 cricket on this scale (in terms amount cricketing talent) can be played without the sight of movie stars and politians.

  • Ranjit on April 23, 2008, 10:20 GMT

    Good one Gideon. I couldn't agree with you more. A few more ugly sides to the DFL IPL that we could do without. These ones are outside the cricketing field.

    1. I do not know whether Pepsi is good or not, but blatantly endorsing Pepsi by commentators is definitely not good. Cricket must already be the ideal sports for marketing with breaks during bowling changes. We do not want any marketing during the game.

    2. Inviting celebrities to the commentary box. Akshay Kumar has done enough to sustain the egos of the stars at their mind numbing heights. I felt so bad for Tony Cozier who was trying to keep the conversation on cricket.

    3. The PA system during the chargers and daredevils game. It must have been terrible for Symonds to bowl the last ball of that expensive over with a guy at the mic bellowing through out. At one point, the commentators even ended up repeated his thoughts. We cannot blame the commentators this time, as the din would have affected their thought process.

  • Carmilla on April 23, 2008, 8:57 GMT

    I must admit I think that this IPL is a just an ego trip for the Indians and Indian players with a few money grabbing Ausies, SA's and Kiwis with perhaps one or two WI's. It is all the more awful when you see the spectators being kept behind wire fences and the ground being patrolled by Police and Army. This is changing the face of the Gentlemen's Game of Cricket altogether, I just hope it does not edge out a real Test Match, I was not for ODI's but did realise that the game had to have something in addition to Test Match Cricket and thoroughly enjoyed the WC. I was definitely not for 20/20s but here again accepted it because it is for the families and must admit have been to the WC in SA for the 20/20s. Never though will I watch the IPL. Now we have the Stanford League? Will there be a split and divide between the continents?? Carmills Fitt (Member of the ESCB and Barmy Army (quite mild to those hoards of Indians))

  • Seshan on April 23, 2008, 7:59 GMT

    Great article! While I confess I enjoyed some Twenty20 matches, especially the close ones, two points stand out in my mind. The first concerns cricket itself. The best matches I've enjoyed from a cricketing perspective are by far Test matches. Whether it was India vs England in Oval 1979, or the tied test in Chennai against Australia, there was a beauty in the duel between bat and ball. Twenty20 is good dessert, but health and fitness come from meals.

    Secondly regarding the IPL - your comment is spot on. The BCCI has rarely focused on cricket's well-being. The money hunger simply recognized that a fusion of Bollywood, Indian business and cricket can only extend the BCCI's existing wealth. India's premier sport following the American way of managing sport appears to be a natural extension of other aspects of urban India which mirror the American worldview.

    The pity is the much of the beauty of traditional cricket is lost on the baseball-type audiences.

  • ParthaSarathi on April 23, 2008, 5:55 GMT

    Exactly why the people deserve this is not abundantly clear. Perhaps it is an instance of what I once saw defined as the Golden Rule of Arts and Sciences: "Whoever has the gold makes the rules." But the contrast I noted earlier between the proceeds of my own humble crick

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