June 4, 2009

Why Twenty20 deserves its success

The 20-over version has caught the popular imagination, and the quality of the game hasn't been bad either. It reminds us that cricket is meant to be fun - and that that is an important quality for a sport

Englishmen have been playing 20-over cricket for yonks. As a youth, a hundred years ago, I turned out for various club sides in various twilight- or Sunday-morning competitions. Even by local standards, the evening leagues were somewhat social, but the Sabbath editions were combative, and the finals were held at the county ground and attended by sizeable and suitably sober crowds. No one complained about the brevity of the matches, least of all wives, veterans and youngsters - a breed whose brains cannot cope with dot balls. (As it has turned out, old-timers and teenagers still shine in these capers.)

Everyone enjoyed them; they were fun, a reminder that cricket was a game and that only life was truly serious, and that not always, for it too has its Harold Pinters and Noel Cowards. As far as recreational players were concerned, cricket had its traditions, but belonged as much to Georgian rogues as to Victorian preachers.

Although these contests were hectic, they did not shrink into parody. Nor were the exchanges mere skirmishes. Winning is winning. Cricket is cricket. By and large, the same players scored runs and took wickets, and for the same reasons - cunning, power, eye, pace, whatever. It was swift but it was recognisable. Cricket might have put on a red nose, but it was still telling a compelling story. And what else is sport except an opportunity to let off steam, pit one's skills against another, or else against a dartboard or golf course, and to take part in a drama whose outcome is unknown? At first sight it is child's play, and has always been treated as such by the constipated, but closer inspection reveals another outlet for the human journey.

Small wonder, then, that 20-over cricket took such a hold in England when the bright sparks decided to let county cricketers have a crack at it. Obliged to compete with a rampant and lucrative soccer league, cricket's mother country might have given up, but instead seized upon a local custom and dared to try it at a higher level. Notwithstanding its conservative reputation, canny ways, expense accounts and fondness for Yorkshire pudding, England has long displayed an ability to think up excellent games, and shown the mixture of respect and admiration needed to ensure that they change with the times without losing their essence. Doubtless it bemuses inhabitants of that odd land that other countries rapidly prove their superiors at these activities. Maybe England has forgotten the price that must be paid by those seeking high achievement.

And so the counties followed in the footsteps of clubs and junior sides by taking part in a 20-over competition. Although it was not long ago, no one had any idea about the public's likely response. As a precaution, only a few matches were arranged. But England had several advantages denied to other nations, not least long and glorious evenings - at the height of summer, visitors have been spotted shaking their watches as 9.30pm passes and still the sun shines - grounds located near the centre of busy towns, fondness for a convivial night out, and familiarity with this form of the game. Moreover Englishmen have always been good watchers of sport. As much can be told from the packed and mostly good-humoured Test crowds, some of them dressed in Walt-Disney outfits.

Nevertheless, even the most sanguine were taken aback by the swollen ranks of cheerful supporters that turned out for domestic matches. Far from starting slowly and gradually stoking interest, 20-over county cricket was a success from the first ball. Suddenly grounds were packed and cricketers relevant. And the players loved it. When Somerset won the trophy, their first Cup since 1983, the team was paraded around the local capital in an open-topped bus. Miserable Australians critical of India's celebrations after its Twenty20 World Cup triumph ought to have seen The Ciderman in that hour!

As far as can be told, the introduction of 20-over cricket has not ruined the game or weakened the England team. It's always tempting to blame every setback upon the latest innovation. But the problems faced by English cricket were deep-rooted, and included dubious leadership, poor coaching, callow thinking, greed and cultural decline.

I can still remember an Academy coach complaining that the indoor nets were not available from 9am, and balking at the proposal that his charges might start at dawn. On another occasion a school coach accepted that his most promising player was unfit and might therefore fall short of expectations, only to reject the suggestion of putting him through a demanding training programme. Needless to say, the boy did not make the grade, and the coach blamed everybody else.

Twenty-over cricket caught the imagination. And the cricket was not nearly as bad as had been feared. The idea that matches might be dominated by sloggers and other louts was quickly contradicted. Again, the second season of IPL told the tale. Critics called upon to choose the team of the tournament found themselves sifting through mighty Test cricketers.

Whatever problems may arise from 20-over contests have their origins in the fall of man. Alas, there is no cure for greed and selfishness. Even parliamentarians are not immune. It is folly to expect better from young and insecure sportsmen, many of them from humble backgrounds.

Recent 50-over World Cups have been tarnished by boycotts and inept organisation. Cricket might have put on a red nose, but it was still telling a compelling story. And what else is sport except an opportunity to let off steam, pit one's skills against another, or else against a dartboard or golf course, and to take part in a drama whose outcome is unknown?

South Africa was the first country to recognise that England was on to something. Learning from a rival, and a former colonial ruler at that, requires humility. Despite all the furore about quotas, and the patchy commitment to change, most of it emanating from a rich elite happy to pay workers a pittance, for all the complications that inevitably attend a bloodless revolution, South African cricket has made significant strides. At times it has been fraught and it remains incomplete - replacements for Makhaya Ntini continue to prove elusive - but without strain the current team better reflects the nation at large than any predecessor, and that is an achievement. By and large, goodwill has kept anger in its place.

Needing to widen its appeal, South Africa recognised the possibilities presented by 20-over cricket. It is fast, simple, eventful, and easily understood by people unfamiliar with the game. Moreover, spectators were made welcome, with lively music, refreshments, fun and games. Cricket has often taken its crowds for granted; now it treated them with respect. Before long, 20-over cricket had made its mark. Previously roars coming from the black students in the TV room downstairs in my South African home meant that Real Madrid or Manchester United had scored. Suddenly, they might just as well indicate that Yuvraj Singh had clouted another six.

India was slow to embrace the 20-over game. Did pride block its path? Or was respect for the game an inhibition? In any event, India seemed unwilling to send a team to the first Twenty20 World Cup. Not that they were alone in their reservations. The Australians remained snooty about it for longer than required. New South Wales went so far as to include local rugby players in its team for supposedly competitive contests. States played a couple of matches and crowds came along, but the cricket community retained its hauteur. It took defeat at the hands of a coltish Zimbabwean team in the World Cup to bring Australia to its senses. Afterwards, observing the excitement, absorbing the loss, Ricky Ponting said that they were had not given this form of the game its due, and intended to correct their mistake. India did eventually send a young side to the World Cup and it promptly romped to victory.

Twenty-over cricket has been lucky, and has deserved its fortune. Recent 50-over World Cups have been tarnished by boycotts and inept organisation. Followers of the game have been insulted by high ticket charges and sterile atmospheres. Contrastingly, 20-over cricket cast itself as the people's game - long may it last.

India's triumph ensured that a vast audience was hooked. Here were dramas. Larger-than-life characters, great cricketers, tight matches and brilliant exchanges all wrapped in the same package. How could it fail? The IPL followed as India took the initiative, and it too has succeeded, not least in bring players of all sorts and nations closer together. Long may that last as well.

Of late, Indian students have been viciously attacked in Melbourne. Just as well it is happening at a time when Australians and Indian cricketers are laughing together, slapping each other's backs and playing in he same side, and not a week after the acrimonious SCG Test match (perhaps now, those responsible for that debacle will grasp its full dangers).

Now comes the second 20-over World Cup. England deserved to stage the first instalment, but that honour fell to the South Africans. Now it is England's chance. As can be deduced from the topsy-turvy results from the two IPL seasons, it is impossible to predict the outcome. Certainly it'd be risky to ignore rank outsiders like Sri Lanka and New Zealand. Whatever happens, and provided the sun shines, cricket - shamelessly adopting the cliché - will be the real winner. It is okay to laugh as well as cry, to seek amusement as well as satisfaction, a lesson known by men as wise and gifted as Mozart and Shakespeare, and not to be forgotten by a game.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

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