The best fun imaginable
If the aim of any form of entertainment is to leave the audience wanting more, then the World Twenty20 that concluded amid such emotion at Lord's on Sunday afternoon was a success of the sort that ICC fixtures so often fail to serve up. In an era of crowded schedules and uncompetitive blue-riband events, here was an eye-opener - two weeks of the best fun imaginable, served up in thrillingly digestible portions, in front of packed crowds and rapt TV audiences. Soberingly, if this was the 50-over World Cup, the public would have long since tuned out, and we'd still have five weeks and 20 matches to go.
The tempo of the tournament was light and inviting, but crucially the cricket did not lack gravitas in the slightest. This was not, as the naysayers feared it would be, a bastardised slog-fest in which the game's traditional values were sacrificed at the altar of commerce and expediency. Instead we were presented with arguably the most open and exhilarating competition since multi-team tournaments began, a contest in which the unpredictability of the results had less to do with the alleged random nature of Twenty20 cricket, but more to do with a magnificently fluctuating tussle between bat and ball.
The dog-eat-dog results still read like a Mexican stand-off. The Dutch humiliated the English, who in turn eliminated the reigning champions, India, after sending the eventual winners, Pakistan, to the absolute brink. Australia, serial world champions over 50 overs, failed to make it past the first round, while an apparently shambolic West Indies surged to the semis at the expense of the team that had been beating them for three months solid, England. Sri Lanka, invincible until the final, were given the hurry-up just once along the way, by the unfancied Irish - who also dumped their supposed seniors, Bangladesh, out at the first hurdle.
Cracking entertainment, but no less random than a game of roulette, you might imagine. But when it came down to the final analysis, it was no coincidence that the two sides that made it to Lord's were those with the best and most varied bowling attacks. By hosting the tournament on England's sporty mid-season wickets, the organisers ensured that only the classiest cricketers need apply. A glance at the lists of the top run-scorers and wicket-takers spells the story out to perfection - the cream was obliged to rise to the top by the standards of the competitors, and the viewing experience was all the richer for that fact.
Jacques Kallis, Chris Gayle, Kumar Sangakkara and Kevin Pietersen, to pick a random selection of batsmen from the top end of the run charts, all enjoyed tournaments that enhanced their formidable reputations. Likewise Dale Steyn, Lasith Malinga, Ajantha Mendis and Umar Gul. This was a World Cup to savour - as unpredictable as the football version in 2002, but somehow more satisfying because of the pedigree of the performers that reached the knock-out stage. There were, quite literally, no Turkeys (or South Koreas) left standing by the end. The four semi-finalists - Pakistan, Sri Lanka, South Africa and West Indies (aka Gayle) - were by common consent the best in show.
Equally pleasing for a very different reason was the early exit of the big three nations. India, England and Australia all had fortnights to forget, and so forget about them the rest of the world did. Without their megaphone presence, the tournament was spared the indignity of endless and unflattering references to the two events that bookended it - the IPL at one end, the Ashes at the other. Instead Lalit Modi went into hiding as his brainchild was blamed for causing burn-out, while the Aussies went to Leicester, from where they emitted scarcely a peep that could enable the British press to deflect attention from the matter at hand.
It really could not have worked out more perfectly. International cricket came into this fortnight with more problems than the administrators would care to address - Pakistan's pariah status being merely the most visible of the issues. The fortnight ended with the status of the minnow nations enhanced, as Ireland and Netherlands identified a form of the game which enables them to compete in spite of their unequal terms, and then, of course, there was the poignancy of the People's Final at Lord's, a moment when the point of the sport was reasserted after too many years of being ruled by the balance books.
Other endangered species emerged blinking into the daylight as well. The lost art of wicketkeeping was best showcased by James Foster, whose stumping of Yuvraj Singh in England's nailbiting victory at Lord's was quite possibly their individual highlight of the tournament. And then there was the ubiquitous success of the spinner - mystery spinners, offspinners, legspinners, non-spinners. Four of the tournament's top six wicket-takers were of the slow variety, and that didn't include England's own Adil Rashid, who could yet secure himself an Ashes berth on the strength of the character he showed in his four-over bursts. And what an endorsement of Twenty20's credentials that would be.
It is, as Sangakkara said in the aftermath of the final, increasingly a bowler's game, and not just any old bowler either. Those with a yard of pace or a streak of nastiness found their niche at last, as Fidel Edwards and Ryan Sidebottom demonstrated in their tenderising of India's batsmen at Lord's, and Mohammad Aamer with his stunning first over of the final. Then there were the death-over specialists - Gul, Malinga and Wayne Parnell among them, men who could fire in yorkers at will and induce panic with their unhittable lengths.
The remarkable reduction in the number of sixes bears testament to Sangakkara's belief. There were 99 fewer than in the 2007 tournament, a drop of 37%, as the sloggers were crowded out of the competition by the ceaseless waves of attack. Inelegant thwackers, such as Andre Fletcher, Luke Wright and even David Warner all had tournaments to forget, while Tillakaratne Dilshan and his scoop shot soared into folklore precisely because his strategy met the needs of the hour. When Shahid Afridi produced the innings of his life in the final, he went 20 deliveries before risking his first boundary.
By the end of the tournament, even the women were attempting the scoop shot. Perhaps the most resounding endorsement of Twenty20 cricket as a spectacle came at The Oval in the second women's semi-final, when England's Claire Taylor and Beth Morgan paced a run-chase with such skill, precision and chutzpah that it was quite possibly the outstanding performance of the fortnight, and one which spoke volumes for the ubiquity of the format as well.
From the Netherlands on the opening night to the women on the closing afternoon, key aspects of the game that have been marginalised throughout cricket's long and often cliquey history claimed massive great chunks of the limelight. Looking back now, it is entirely appropriate that the opening ceremony had to be canned. Such sideshows were irrelevant because the cricket alone was the star.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo