May 5, 2008

Too legit to quit

The first two weeks of the IPL have proved that while Twenty20 is far from perfect, it is a valid form in its own right with its own unique attractions and pleasures
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The IPL has seen young players like Suresh Raina and Piyush Chawla enhance their reputations © Cricinfo Ltd
 

The complaint has become so common it is losing its impact. Twenty20, grumble the purists, is not proper cricket. What they really mean is this: Twenty20 is not four- or five-day cricket. It is to the Test match what the Washington Redskins cheerleaders are to Rudolf Nureyev. Its lack of depth, they argue, means it lacks intrinsic value. No, Twenty20 is not so much a game loved by the fans and - ask them! - the players. It is the bastard offspring of bastard offspring (one-day cricket) and will lead to ... Ten10? Five5? Yes, one day historians will look back at overs seven to 15 in Twenty20 and deem them as tedious as overs 16-40 in the 50-over format. Well, maybe they will. But one thing is for sure: hysteria and snobbery should not cloud what we've seen in India over the last fortnight.

What has become clear is that Twenty20, at its most thoughtful, is a lot more than a bunch of muscle-bound openers with large bats taking advantage of small boundaries (though that is an undeniable part of its appeal to many). Scoff at "thoughtful" if you like, but the best teams are drawing up their plans assiduously off the field and applying them instinctively on it. One IPL backroom staffer told me this week that being a Twenty20 captain is the hardest job in cricket because the game changes shape from one minute to the next. At least in Test matches, he pointed out, you generally know who is going to open the batting for the opposition.

Is it any coincidence that Rajasthan Royals, led by the inspirational Shane Warne and backed up by the rigorous Darren Berry and the lateral-thinking Jeremy Snape, have made a mockery of their lowly price tags? Or that Royal Challengers Bangalore, with their coterie of expensive and exquisitely gifted Test cricketers, are just about propping up the table? Even in the opening third of the tournament, the sides quickest to adapt have been the victors.

It's pretty obvious that Twenty20 has to do without the drawn-out fascination of, say, Ryan Sidebottom's spell to Sachin Tendulkar during last year's Test at Trent Bridge. But does that detract from the pleasure, however short-term, of watching Warne toss a two-over-old ball to Yusuf Pathan, the offspinner, and instructing him to get rid of Adam Gilchrist? (He did the job too, and added Shahid Afridi in the same over for good measure.) Or the horror of seeing, in the same game, VVS Laxman toss the ball to Andrew Symonds, another offspinner, and instructing him to bowl yorkers? (Warne hit him for 16 in three balls.) Or even of watching Glenn McGrath and Mohammad Asif operate in clockwork new-ball tandem for Delhi Daredevils? The telling moments may be concertinaed, but they are no less telling for that.

There are things to criticise, but what international sporting event has ever been above criticism? The first 21 matches of the IPL have yielded just four genuine last-over finishes. Martin Crowe, chief cricket officer of the Bangalore franchise, told me in an interview that 45% of games in the Cricket Max format he invented - and which, in essence, is Twenty20's spiritual predecessor - went to the last over. Even when you consider that Cricket Max was played across four innings of tens eight-ball overs, this still leaves the IPL with some catching up to do.

There has also been some pretty ordinary fielding, especially on the boundary. But most of the cock-ups have been perpetrated by young Indians who have barely played in front of 400 before, let alone 40,000. And I wonder what effect the reduction of boundary sizes to the ICC-allowed minimum has on fielders: does the ball get there just that bit more quickly? Whatever, it surely isn't an indication of an uncompetitive league, as some believe. More like inexperience and nerves. That will change as Indians absorb the importance of athletic outfielding, traditionally one of the most neglected aspects of their game. One incredible catch by Ravindra Jadeja at the Chinnaswamy - eventually ruled not out because he brushed the boundary with his left hand - suggests the lessons do not need to take long to learn.

 
 
What has become clear is that Twenty20, at its most thoughtful, is a lot more than a bunch of muscle-bound openers with large bats taking advantage of small. Scoff at "thoughtful" if you like, but the best teams are drawing up their plans assiduously off the field and applying them instinctively on it
 

Now is not the time to harp about the shameless hijacking of the IPL by celebrities, or their prominence on the next morning's front pages. That seems to be as disproportionate and hyperbolic a staple of Indian life as football's Premier League is in England. And it detracts unfairly from what has been happening on the pitch, where there has been plenty to enjoy.

You might not have suspected it in advance, but several stars are in the ascendant because of the last fortnight. Happily for India, it has not just been the big-name overseas players who have risen fastest. Gautam Gambhir, Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Suresh Raina, Rajat Bhatia, Manpreet Gony, Ashok Dinda and Ishant Sharma have all been busy enhancing their reputations. And the Rajasthan quartet of Jadeja, Pathan, Siddarth Trivedi and now - from nowhere, it seems - the Tom Thumb-like Swapnil Asnodkar, have demonstrated the value of having an all-time legend to look up to and learn from.

If the cricket has at times failed to deliver the thrilling finishes the crowds are demanding, then the sub-plots have intrigued even this neutral. Chief among them is the unexpected rise of Warne and his merry men. The cheapest franchise at $67m, they have so far beaten each of the three most expensive: Royal Challengers Bangalore, Mumbai Indians, Deccan Chargers, each bought for upwards of $100m. That trio has so far managed five wins between them in 18 games (and three of them have come against each other). It is gratifying to think success cannot simply be bought, even when all the teams are starting from scratch.

The IPL also deserves credit for dealing swiftly with its three potential crises. The Eden Gardens fiasco (bumpy pitch, unblinding lights, schoolboy scoreboard) prompted an inquiry and a change of surface. Harbhajan's slap earned him an 11-match ban. Warne and Sourav Ganguly were docked 10% of their match fee for taking competitiveness to an extreme both during last week's game in Jaipur and after it. Perhaps only GA Pratapkumar, the umpire suspended for two matches following the claimed-catch controversy, deserves our sympathy: at worst, he was guilty of deference to Ganguly. A friendly talking-to would have sufficed.

More impressive than anything, though, has been the commitment of the players and, with the disappointing exception of Hyderabad, and to a lesser extent Mohali, the engagement of the fans. Yes, tickets have been given away, but they are always are in India to fill out the corporate boxes (a secret: this happens in England too). But the spectators have been encouraged through the turnstiles partly by the knowledge that their teams really are here to win, even if they are here to take the money too.


Money can't buy you points: Deccan Chargers, among the most expensive franchises, has been a bit of a dud in terms of results so far © AFP
 

The acid test will come if a franchise or two are out of the running for a semi-final spot by the fourth week. At the moment, though, the fans have bought into the players' performances. Professionalism has played a role; so too the fear of not justifying signing-on fees and the desire to impress foreign team-mates and opponents. Of course, the attraction of contracts yet to be signed cannot be ignored either: the sight of Chris Gayle collecting his fee for sitting on the Kolkata Knight Riders bench with a groin injury is bewildering. But the prevailing wind is blowing from a different direction. "All Warnie talks about is win this, win that, reach the semis, then the finals," Dimitri Mascarenhas said the other day. I wasn't the only one who wondered how committed the players would be. The answer is short and sweet: very.

And so what of the future? That's where the traditionalists' concerns hold more water. Gideon Haigh has already pointed out on this website that young cricketers might choose to turn themselves into money-earning Twenty20 cricketers instead of patriotic Test players. Already, men like Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly feel like fish out of Twenty20 water: will the likes of Jadeja, Asnodkar and Pathan really want to take all that trouble over scoring 10,000 Test runs and taking 400 Test wickets when they can make their fame and fortune by hitting it long and mixing it up?

Of course, this argument rests on the contention that Test cricket is still the pre-eminent form of the game and that it will rumble on as Twenty20 sprouts yet more wings. I think it is, and I hope it will. But it is going to require the national boards to offer increasingly attractive packages to their Test players. Not everyone will be able to manage it. Where the game goes from here depends largely on the administrators.

Lawrence Booth is a writer with the Guardian

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Martin on May 8, 2008, 23:40 GMT

    I've never been a huge fan of T20, but I have no hesitation in admitting the standard of cricket is exellent! The chance to Warnie as a captain has been a brilliant experience. A bit of food for thought, maybe the organisers should consider four day games next year.

  • Ramesh on May 7, 2008, 14:11 GMT

    Although cricket is a team game, it is also a duel the batsman is pitted against the bowler. The success of the IPL twenty20 games proves this. Here, cricket fans look forward with excitement to see how Gilchrist will tackle Warne and how Kallis will fare against Pollock. Before IPL, such fights were confined to the speculative fancies of the ardent cricket lover. Also twenty20 cricket calls for skills that are very different from those of test cricket. Where as in test cricket, defensive game is a legitimate option that could save or even win matches, this has very little place in a twenty20 match except in the rare instance when a team is 8 or 9 down with only 2 or 3 runs to score per over. In twenty20 cricket, the art is to score fast first and not getting out second. In test cricket the art is not to get out frist and scoring runs second.

  • Neil on May 6, 2008, 19:22 GMT

    One question lingers....Is there a place for the best of Ireland, Bangladesh, Kenya, Holland and Scotland in IPL or even ICL? If not, why? This is important as 20/20 is the only format that is likely to spread the game beyond the Test playing nations. I think IPL did great so far. But if they can work out a system to get in atleast 1 player from an associate(eg. Ireland) or fringe (eg. Bang, Ken) nation in every franchise then the league would be a true success. Players in Ireland have to skip work to play for their side. IPL money could help put an end to that, atleast for the top 2 or 3 players from that country.

  • P. on May 6, 2008, 3:51 GMT

    IPL is an unqualified success, no use pretending otherwise. Its just a matter of time before new franchisees will clamour to join the IPL bandwagon and it is not inconcievable to have a 12 or 16 team league soon. Therein lies the danger. To sustain its success while accomodating new teams into its fold, the IPL has to find a formula to level the playing field as far as player pricing and selection go. A franchise salary cap could be a starting point to ensure that a handful of teams with deep pockets do not end up hogging the best cricketing names. Thats the easiest way to lose mass appeal among cricketing audiences.

  • Rimtu on May 5, 2008, 21:47 GMT

    Nice to see another convert (after Mr. Peter Roebuck). In all the hoopla it's easy to forget that not T20 but rather the IPL concept is a revolutionary one. No other cricket tournament or league had been formed such a way, until this and no other league could pay the cricketers such large sums of money in such short time. In this world money talks and as we've already seen Kevin Pietersen who takes every opportunity to show off his loyalty to England (his adopted country), wouldn't be able to turn down offers of millions of USD to be made in couple of months. There are many things to fix up, but there are many years to come and I am absolutely sure of it, the IPL 2020 (that's the year), is not going to look or feel anything like 2008. It ought to be better, but we just have to wait and see how much better. I am predicting a fruitful year of T20 cricket for the year 2020. I look forward to it. Cheers.

  • dvr on May 5, 2008, 19:03 GMT

    24 matches and I am getting fed up.At 67 and after following the game for nearly 60 years it is sickening to see this form of cricket ( if you call it cricket). Crass commercialism has already damaged every fine thing in our society such as art, music,the written word, the cinema and what have you and now it is the turn of sports. Can you imagine a football or hockey game finishing in 20 mins. With the present trend we could have 10 penalty shots from each team and decide the winner. All the finer aspects can be thrown into the dustbin of sports history. 5 day TEST is a love story. 1 day match is a one night affair. 20/20 is a RAPE scene/instant self gratification. The crowds always enjoys the RAPE scene. Obviously all the super stars are not sufficient to draw the crowds and so the semi nude cheer girls to safeguard the collections.

    Not one of the living greats has taken up for the cause of saving cricket and even if they have THE MEDIA has been completely bought out.

  • hattrick_thug on May 5, 2008, 18:42 GMT

    All evidence points to the fading away of 50-over cricket. The survival of both Tests and Twenty20 seems a given - Test matches for the large spectator turnout (though perhaps not in all countries), and Twenty20 for obvious fiscal reasons. I draw a similarity between this situation and that of Rugby Union/League. My other prediction is that players will make a choice between the two at earlier and earlier points in their career, resulting in the emergence of two distinct sports, with distinct sets of players, much as it is in rugby today.

  • Gopinath on May 5, 2008, 14:14 GMT

    Good read, very balanced and that too from an Englishman !!! I believe whatever form of cricket we come up Test cricket will always remain the most-eminent form of cricket that truly tests the skills and endurance of the player because, this may sound stupid, it is really hard. Anyone who thinks he is good at something would want to prove it at the highest level possible and in cricket that means playing test cricket. As long as there is quality cricket played I don't think we have to worry about the health of Test match cricket. For example when has a ODI series created as much interest throughout the cricket playing world as did the Ashes 05 ? But in the same vein even a die hard cricket fan will not be willing to watch a series like SA Vs BAN. It is up to the administrators to come up with a system to keep the Tests competitive. I don't like T-20 very much but it is helping in popularizing the game I love so I am for it.

  • Satish on May 5, 2008, 14:00 GMT

    Veryt well written article.. In the 2nd year of IPL, I would like to see more competiveness.. They 8 teams can be divided into 2 (geogrphically) like Kolkata, Deccan Chargers, B'lore and Chennai in one team, and Punjab, Delhi, Jaipur & Mumbai in other group. We should have the same format with each team playing others, but a win within the group will yield 3 points and win outside the group will yield 2 points. There should also be Bonus points for a win with a RR of 1.5 and also for fewer wkts lost.. They should make it intersting, where even if the team loses one or two matches, it should still be in the hunt till the end. I am also sure that the next IPL we will see some of the "oldies" like VVS, Gang, Tendulkar, Kallis, Dravid etc.. will be gone and new talents will emerge!!!

  • - on May 5, 2008, 13:23 GMT

    Yes, i agree with sray23. Not only Gony, but Raina, D Karthik, R Sharma, Chawla and maybe Gambhir will certainly be in the test team eventually, with the deparutres of Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman, Ganguly and Kumble.

    No chance test cricket will go. If it does there will be no Ashes, which is the foundation of Test Cricket. It is so good to watch Dravid and wonderful stroke makers bat. About Dravid fighting his " form slump" some may call it, he plays great shots e.g cover drives are so good too watch.

    Long Live Test Cricket and the IPL/T20 Cricket!!!!

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