June 17, 2009

The short format's big role

The purists may sneer at it, but Twenty20's most vital role will be in making cricket popular in places where it isn't

Twenty-over cricket is working wonders for the game. Forget about the greasy palms displayed by a handful of top players (the world is full of such types, and some of them run entire countries and even cricket boards). Forget also about temporary issues such as fitting the IPL into the programme. (Plain as day, the IPL is more demanding than anyone anticipated and that needs to be taken into account. But it's not to blame for every setback, individual or collective.) Focus instead upon the broader picture, cricket's place in a wider world. To that end, sense the sudden, growing excitement of youngsters glued to television sets in Papua New Guinea, Japan, Sierra Leone, Vanuatu and Afghanistan. Nor were these countries chosen at random. All have risen strongly of late and will be mentioned is this dispatch.

Or join the Europeans as they watch matches on their little boxes. Europe has seven divisions, each containing six teams. Listen with them to commentaries provided in Russian, Greek, Italian, Romanian, Serbian, French, Turkish, German or Polish. If the commentators are occasionally hard pressed to find the mot juste, they can follow in the footsteps of a Xhosa commentator, who, called upon to describe a match to an attentive audience back home and finding no ready translations for silly mid-off or short cover, came up with "under the nose" and "road block." Before long, ABC colleagues were copying him. The game is enriched by these fresh voices and eyes. Twenty-five years ago a Frenchman coaching a lowly team at a Sydney school unknowingly defined bowling figures in terms of runs and balls delivered, a custom that only came to light when an opponent was dismissed for 67, of which Jones was deemed to have taken 5 for 84. Now strike-rates are widespread. Mind you, he did also instruct his charges to use the back of the bat better to fool fieldsmen, a habit that has not caught on.

The success of this 20-over World Cup cannot to be judged only from its effects on the main players and the leading nations. Regardless of its outcome it will help to achieve the wider aim of strengthening the game where it has taken hold, and might even make converts.

Wisely cricket seeks to expand. Otherwise it will forever be contemplating its navel. Spreading the game is vital because the top countries are despairingly vulnerable to conflicts whose origins lie in ancient history. Because the game has only eight truly powerful performers, every row between them, or every internal complication, has an immense impact. Cricket remains at the mercy of forces far beyond its control. All the more reason to seek a more varied list of competitors. Then a few disputes, perhaps even the odd small war, can more easily be absorbed. Precisely because it is universal, soccer is not nearly as affected by the fallings out that inevitably occur between nations.

...Vanuatu took the series, whereupon, following local tradition, the players drove through the centre of town hooting their horns and were cheered by the entire nation, from the mightiest citizen to the meekest inhabitant

In any case cricket is a wonderful game, so why not give as many people as possible a chance to play it properly? Happily the ICC agrees and to that end has invested resources and sent coaches and managers to as many nooks and crannies as money allows. And it is working. Afghanistan's astonishing rise to ODI status has been noted. Ireland's improvement deserves further recognition, and is all the more praiseworthy because, having stopped pinching all their potatoes, the Poms are not sequestering their best batsmen, namely Eoin Morgan and Ed Joyce. For that matter Boyd Rankin's stint at The Oval indicated that sturdy pace bowlers can emerge from the wettest places. Holland is even stronger now than in 1989 when an England A team playing under some forgotten clown contrived to lose to them, a defeat that did attract a certain amount of attention. The aforementioned captain is grateful to Paul Collingwood for finally getting him off the hook. Scotland was rising until the clans started falling out. As PG Wodehouse pointed out, "It's never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine." Still it is time to consider a two-tier Test programme.

These nations have been playing cricket for decades and their progress has been acknowledged. But the game has taken a grip in more far-flung fields. As New Zealand cricketer Bevan Griggs recently discovered, it is running hot in Vanuatu. Writing in the latest edition of the ICC's East-Asia-Pacific magazine, Griggs describes arriving in Port Vila with plenty of enthusiasm but without any high expectations. Nor did the facilities, two artificial nets and a bumpy field, offer much hope. But the passion of the players was another matter. Griggs doubts that a Test team could have prepared for the forthcoming matches with more commitment than his charges. Vanuatu was due to play Fiji and needed a win to take the vital step from affiliate nation to associate member, a rise with considerable financial implications. Vanuatu took the series, whereupon, following local tradition, the players drove through the centre of town hooting their horns (normally an Indian custom) and were cheered by the entire nation, from the mightiest citizen to the meekest inhabitant.

After taking part in the regional qualifying event, Vanuatu also reached the last stages of the Under-19 World Cup, alongside Papua New Guinea, where a new Shield has recently been organised. After the regional Under-19 tournament, a "best on show" team was chosen and it included Raheel Kano, an offspinner from Japan. According to the indefatigable Ben Stinga, several wristspinners also emerged, including Viliame Yabaki from Fiji, Charles Amini Jnr from Papua New Guinea and Joseph Jacobs from Indonesia. The same ICC update announces that a new general manager has been appointed to cover the Cook Islands. Incidentally Japan's national team held its own in Division 7 of the World Cricket League, recently played in Guernsey. Almost all the players are locally born and bred. Alas, one or two of the emerging nations rely on immigrant families, which misses the point. Mind you, to an increasing and long predicted extent, the same can be said about England.

It's easy to scoff but big trees grow from small acorns. Sierra Leone's success in the African section of the Under-19 World Cup was another unforeseen triumph. Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Namibia are regarded as the local heavyweights. Kenya fell back due to dubious administration, but seems to be getting back on track. Always the trick is to find leaders willing to serve as opposed to take. Governance remains among cricket's highest challenges. When defeated governments refuse to cede power, and when that refusal is promptly protected by pragmatists at important African institutions, then a mere game can hardly hope to emerge unscathed. And that has happened in Kenya and Zimbabwe. Of course, it is a recipe written by scoundrels.

Tanzania and Uganda seem to be on the right track, with cricket at schools, an academy in place and grounds opening. Much has long been expected from these nations. But Sierra Leone? No one saw them coming. Can anyone confidently place it on a map? And yet its young cricketers have earned the right to mix with the best. Given the right leadership and sincere administration, cricket can succeed even on a continent dominated by soccer and preparing to stage its first football World Cup.

Twenty-over cricket has a huge part to play in this growth. Cricket ought to believe in itself, but it's no use trying to inculcate a love of opera by making all and sundry sit through The Ring. Nor is it any use getting stuffy about Twenty20. As played by the most talented contemporaries, it is a vibrant, tense, condensed version of the game. Think about the boys and girls crowding around their televisions in Papua New Guinea and Uganda. Don't tell them about Neville Cardus or Tich Freeman. Consider what they see. Fast bowlers sending stumps flying or forcing batsmen to duck bumpers (how the one-day game has improved since bumpers were brought back, how the batsmen have been properly tested, how impostors have been exposed). Here is an example to follow. Here was proof that cricket is a game for warriors as well as thinkers.

A few overs later they could observe apparently innocuous slow bowlers casting spells with their disguise and degrees of turn. What fun to see upright players left groping as the keeper niftily removes the bails. Or they can see the ball lifted out of the stadium, or perhaps appreciate a classical drive or delicate cut, or the sight of a pair scampering between the wickets. They might even like the agonising wait as the third umpire studies the evidence. And all in the space of a few hours, with a result guaranteed. At any rate it is enough to fire the imagination. Cricket ought not to turn up its nose at its own sales pitch. Rather it ought to be as excited as these budding players as they try to unravel a puzzle beyond even the best minds.

Except to participants and the more zealous nationalists (a dismal and destructive lot), the outcome of this Twenty20 world cup hardly matters. By thrilling youngsters from many cultures and countries, it is improving cricket's popularity and widening its scope. It is a worthy aim and essential to the game's health. In all its glories and vulgarities, Twenty20, and especially this World Cup, will advance the game in the places where it matters most.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Rob on June 19, 2009, 1:21 GMT

    T20 is great form of cricket and a way of introducing the game to non-cricket nations. Get rid of 50 overs or reduce the number of 50 over internationals because they're waste of space. T20 is all action but I must admit that T20 and 50 overs are fastfood for a world that has a short attention span. 50 overs is contrived and artiificial as is T20 too a degree but T20 is such a compressed form cricket that allows for the unpredictable to happen within the artiificial constraints of the game.

  • duncan on June 18, 2009, 19:03 GMT

    v good article with one however monumental flaw in it. PR argues T20 can be used to help cricket expand. the problem is cricket doesn't want to. there is not so much a glass as a diamond ceiling in this sport & once the likes of Afganistan & Uganda realise no matter how good they are they won't be allowed to sit equally at the same table as the elite few intreast will wane and they will fade away. this will then be used as it has always been as a reason not to expand the game.

  • atul on June 18, 2009, 13:42 GMT

    For me and many of others, progression of T20 is natural phenonmenon. You will ask why, simple, answer me a question. Have any of you played a 5 day or for that matter a full day match from age 10 to 15. My bet is that answer would be big "NO". The answer would be , that we have played a match of 10/15/20 or maximum 25 overs a side match most of the times.

    If this is the real scenario, then how come one should come to a conclusion that Test Cricket is the real cricket. I say that T20 is the real cricket, played by all and sundry since the time they start playing cricket for the first time.

    Like in many other fields we are made to believe that Test cricket is the real cricket, which I may say is not true.

    So please start celebrating the truth of life rather then loosing sleep over a non issue.

    Atul Jain

  • Roger on June 18, 2009, 12:30 GMT

    "If the snobby, Test - loving traditionalists get in the way, cricket will slowly decline, even in the current Full Member countries."

    Irishfan 'cricket' is already in decline at a rate which is escalating faster than anyone imagined. What hope have us 'snobs' got if TV generated revenue is the only motivating factor behind the so called promotion of cricket world wide. We've all seen what effect the Stanford approach had on developing the sport at all levels at grass roots level. The consortiums don't care an neither do the governing bodies. I'm just fortunate to have seen enought cricket in my life to keep a treasure of memories. This Ashes series will be the last of any consequence or interest.

  • Aditya on June 18, 2009, 12:25 GMT

    T20 cricket is pure entertainment, because the international cricketer has not figured out, how to play fate in a game of cricket. I believe, that T20 is completely unpredictable, hence, it's great value in entertainment. I only care for the international tournaments. The tenure of the T20 game is so short, that there is a great dilemma in the mind of the batsman, whatever the position the scoreboard exhibits. Chris Gayle when he bats like a demigod, does not have the time to think, about batting. I don't know what he thinks about, when he bats. If he does think, the next delivery, may bring his thinking to an end. It has been proved, that the bowler has a better chance in T20 matches, than he does in Test Matches, or One Day Internationals.

  • Bob on June 18, 2009, 10:23 GMT

    Good article Peter ( nice dig at yourself in there as well!). I think cricket definitely has to grow, with T20 format, and sooner than later. I think many young people, even in cricketing countries like India and Australia, might lose interest in a "global" sport contested by only a handful of teams, and turn to sports like football and basketball with global spread. It already happend in England, where they needed T20 silver bullet to revive cricket. I will hope in the next 10 - 20 years to see a T20 championship hosted in a country like US or China, with 20 or so teams competitively challenging for the title. If the snobby, Test - loving traditionalists get in the way, cricket will slowly decline, even in the current Full Member countries.

  • Andrew on June 18, 2009, 10:00 GMT

    Its all well and good that the ICC should consider to make t20 cricket a vehicle for actively spreading cricket to new territories but it isn't. there is more to spreading the game than televising it it new places (see american football) and then having a handful of expatriates from traditional cricket nations take it up in these new countries.

    Also its got to be recognised that for a country to fully mature as a cricket nation it has to develop structures to play all three formats of the game,as t20 is the easiest to faccilitate that is why it is the best first port of call when strting cricket as a new sport in a country.

    Finally time should hardly be a problem in introducing First Class cricket/and eventually test cricket, it certainly is not a problem for golf (a 4 day tournament) which has spread all over the world without even having to formulate any new 'time convinient' formats

  • john on June 18, 2009, 9:58 GMT

    This pub league rubbish is the death knell for test cricket in much the same way that domestic 1 day tripe killed county cricket. It isn't even cricket for goodness sake. look at it - one team in red the other in blue, white ball, played at night under lights and half the crowd drunk - it's football !! I was hoping that this garbage would have fizzled out by now, but sadly it isn't likely to as long as the media keep ramming it down our throats. The England test team will end up like the British Lions rugby team - touring one every 4 years or so. R.I.P. cricket

  • Roger on June 18, 2009, 9:15 GMT

    For a start, apart from the desire to produce revenue why does the game have to expand any more? Millions of people across Europe are devoted to say, curling, often seen by non-fans as a quaint peculiarity, yet there is no commercial push to promote it beyond its circle of followers. Let cricket be and stop suggesting that nations which have never had any cultural connection to the game need to develop it as a sport. But there is a basic flaw in the idea that pushing 20/20 will create popularity in cricket where it never existed. What it may do is create interest in 20/20 but how can people who have no knowledge of the longer forms be suddently enticed to want to learn about it? 20/20 is a tinselled by-product which has nothing really to do with the skills required to play and the insight necessary to follow test matches. Just take a look at the new format of this site to see where the sport is headed.

  • Shan on June 18, 2009, 6:10 GMT

    Test: Top 9 play Tests 1 qualifier from IC gets status every 2 yrs

    ODI: Top 16 play intl ODIs Top 14 qualify for ODIs WC every 4 yrs

    T20: Top 20 play intl T20s Top 16 qualify for T20 WC every 2 yrs

    (Test status comes with auto-ODI & T20 staus) (But for others: ODI status & T20 status r not inter-dependant) _________

    TEST cricket from 2013:

    - Top 9 nations hav Test status & play in Test league over 4 yrs (Each nation play 16 series(8x2) over the 4 yrs)

    - IC champions get Test status for 2 yrs (effectively become 10th Test nation) (Each yr they will be scheduled to play 6 Tests, all at home) (3 Full Test nations will tour to their nation to play 2 match-Test series each) (This matches r outside the Test league & doesnt effect it) (At the end of 2 yrs, they play the next IC champions in a 3 5-day match series, with winners earning the Test status for the next 2 yrs)

    If the quality of Tests increase, then one more nation becomes permanent & still IC champs get 2-yr temp status

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