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

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