Twenty20: an earthly odyssey
And so we come to Wellington, scene of the final Test of 2008-09, the end of a long international season in sight at last. Such has been the torrent of off-field tragedy and trauma, infighting and ineptitude, so unerringly accurate the foot-shooting, it's a wonder we've had any inclination or energy left to appreciate that there might still be life inside the boundary. But that's cricket for you: it only stops for lunch, tea and terrorists.
Fortunately, notwithstanding the persistent imbalance between bat and ball, there's been much to hearten and cherish. Australia and South Africa have spent the past four months grappling like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, elevating their contests to epic proportions. Blink and you were bound to miss something unmissable. India's most complete series performance in years brought Australia's worst series defeat for two decades, as MS Dhoni embellished his reputation still further with an almost faultless audition to be India's captain for the next decade. West Indies showed signs of renewed vigour. We've seen the arrival of Jean-Paul Duminy, Shakib Al Hasan, Phil Hughes, Jesse Ryder and Peter Siddle, the anointments of Mitchell Johnson and Gautam Gambhir, the second comings of Dwayne Bravo, Simon Katich, Thilan Samaraweera, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Andrew Strauss. Sourav Ganguly, Matty Hayden, Anil Kumble and Steve Bucknor all departed, but the gains comfortably outweigh the losses.
The past week or so, moreover, has served as a microcosm. Wall-to-wall shows from Napier, Johannesburg and Bridgetown constituted an armchair fanatic's wet dream (provided, of course, the armchair fanatic does not support England or India more avidly than they love the game). Throw in the IPL's abrupt relocation to South Africa (who'd have imagined such a thing 25 years ago?), England's victory in the women's World Cup (who'd have imagined such a thing 25 days ago?), John Dyson getting his Duckworths and his Lewises in a twist in Guyana, and the latest phase of Kevin Pietersen's unwitting reinvention as a pantomime villain (who'd have imagined such a thing 25 weeks ago?), and it is hard to imagine even Oliver Twist asking for more.
One 30-hour period alone brought untold fun of varying hues: the second day from Napier, a Test with more than one delicious twist, followed by a first-class panto of an ODI from Barbados, and a stone-cold, 20-carat Twenty20 classic from The Wanderers, then back to Napier for a riveting day three. Cricket in all its shapes and disguises. For a few dizzy days thereafter, I was convinced that having three brands of the same sport was actually A Very Good Thing After All.
Napier was all about New Zealand zeal and Indian cockiness (Virender Sehwag's self-inflicted downfalls - six-and-out and four-and-out indeed - may well be the only recorded instance of a captain falling on his sword twice in the same match). Had they won, New Zealand would have matched West Indies' victory over South Africa in Port Elizabeth two Decembers ago, still the least probable and most refreshing in recent Test history. From Jeetan Patel's flighty offies to Brendon McCullum's mighty on-drives to Daniel Vettori's shrewd captaincy strokes to Ross Taylor's silky command at crease and slip, they delighted the connoisseur. That they owed most to the very antithesis of the modern professional athlete made it even more rousingly memorable.
The only un-joyous aspect of watching Ryder is that he evokes misty-eyed and melancholic memories of Colin Milburn. "Ollie" to David Steele's Stan at Northamptonshire, the Buddah of Burnopfield was a brutal batsman, surprisingly handy short leg and accomplished bon viveur, who lost his master eye at the height of his powers, wound up with a sprinkling of caps and gradually withered towards an early grave. Jowlier and pudgier than Inzy, wider than Gatt, even more unpredictable than Botham during The Queensland Years, Ryder may well be the man who finally compensates us tubbies for Milburn's unfulfilment.
Better yet, he has a couple of other useful arrows in his quiver. Suckering out Rahul Dravid was impressive enough; the soaring catch that polished off India's first innings defied gravity, probability and body fascists in one fell swoop. The impression of a salmon was uncanny, right down to the overwhelming pinkness. Even more promisingly, New Zealand's coach is now none other than Andy Moles, who during his Warwickshire days was not exactly renowned for his forbearance at bar or buffet. Empathy never hurts.
THE ONLY EXCUSE that can be made for England's near-record capitulation in Bridgetown was that the same team whose captain had just had the virtually unheard-of luxury of declaring twice in three consecutive Tests on deathly pitches was simply undone by life. The extra pace and bounce also ensured a pleasurable measure of justice. At least three cheers are surely in order for Fidel Edwards, whose tireless labours in the Wisden Trophy series had gone so scandalously unrewarded.
Rank injustice also befell David Hussey, whose manful attempt to take on South Africa single-handed at The Wanderers came so close to success. Instead, Albie Morkel confounded Australia with another of those innings he appears to be able to produce at will: short, sharp and increasingly shocking to opponents. Only Lance Klusener among batsmen of my acquaintance has had the wherewithal to change games so suddenly, or close them out with such unequivocal finality. The secret potion seems to be much the same: a deadly cocktail of intrepidness, desire and elemental force.
More than this, though, was the all-round impact of that Twenty20 match. Spin, pace and swing all had their say. Catches of the spine-tingling variety were gobbled up with the ease of seals swallowing fish. Best of all, four times in each innings the momentum shifted. Eight major plot shifts, in other words, in less than three hours. How many movies or plays not written by David Mamet give you that?
ALL OF WHICH, on reasonably sober reflection, makes it all the harder to foresee even a medium-term future for the ODI. With the exception of the recent Australia-South Africa series and that tragi-comedy in Providence, all the 50-over games I've seen lately have been defused and diluted by boredom or one-sidedness - between teams as well as bat and ball.
Almost completely devoid of longeurs, too short to test patience in any significant way, the briefest brand is coming into its own at international level. Here, or so the arbiters of taste and propriety would have us believe, was cricket as comic book, cricket as farce. If the snobs had had their way, the game would never have survived the poisonous clutches of the late fifties, much less conceded that Kerry Packer might have had a point about night matches. In its infancy Twenty20 may have come on like some time-spanning mix of the Keystone Cops, the Bash Street Kids and the Smurfs, but no longer can it be sneered at (unless, of course, England are playing).
We are steadily acquiring new terms and concepts, shifting our perceptions of possibility. With bat or ball, one productive over can make all the difference, just one. Captains have to earn their corn as never before, proacting and reacting as never before. One hundred and sixty, eight an over, has been confirmed as par. The honour of the maiden has been restored. South Africa were roundly berated for failing to score from 50 balls out of 120 in Centurion on Sunday, yet still won easily.
The last five overs are the new last 10 overs, and Morkel is the first international specialist specifically entrusted with maximising mayhem. The Shah Shuffle - a couple of paces to off, exposing all three stumps, at once daring and galling - is gaining in hipness. Laughter, too, has not been inconspicuous - and of the empathetic rather than the scoffing kind. Roelof Van der Merwe's free-spirited assault in Centurion certainly appeared to be a first: I certainly can't recall ever seeing an international half-century compiled with quite such disdain for textbook or fineries. Better yet, these games have afforded early glimpses of potential long before selectors would normally have countenanced. There have been plenty of misses, sure, but the ebullient David Warner and the bustling Yusuf Abdulla have been bonafide hits, as has Shane Harwood, whose bone-jarring pace, at 35, is one of the minor wonders of the age. Need we add that the relentless fielding, with its solo sorcery and its three-man search parties, has scaled unimaginable heights? Two words will suffice: Adam and Voges.
If Test cricket, at its best, is ritually likened to a mesmerising five-act play or an unputdownable novel, then its latest benefactor, at its best, brings to mind the American TV dramas that have been enlivening Sunday and Tuesday nights in Pomland these past few weeks, Damages and Mad Men. Clocking in at well under an hour, they exert an early grip, keep you pinned to your seat with elaborate plotting, variations in tempo, and small, subtly disclosed revelations. Seldom do they come remotely close to outstaying their welcome or leaving you wanting less. Give each side two innings and who knows, we might even conceive a new wave of Test followers.
Yes, I'm looking forward to the Ashes with barely bated breath, but if somebody offered me a ticket for both and asked me to choose, I'm almost ashamed to say I'd pick the World Twenty20 final. Almost.
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton