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


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

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