More meaningful T20, please
As September wound down, batsmen held a silent requiem for the runner, bowlers didn't quite know whether to rejoice or despair at the prospect of having two new balls per ODI, and many of us were left wondering how on earth the captains were going to remember the latest Powerplay regulations without an almighty cock-up or two. And still the latest golden goose hogged the headlines - and for all the worst reasons. Which is a great pity, because the Champions League, wherein teams have demonstrated a heartening ability to defend pitiful totals, has actually been tremendous fun.
All the warts of the new world order have surfaced over the past fortnight. Hit by injuries to several of their home-based players before the Champions League, Mumbai Indians, astonishingly, were granted permission to field a fifth import. AB de Villiers did what can fairly be termed "a Sehwag" - a broken finger suffered during fielding practice for Royal Challengers Bangalore is likely to sideline him for up to six weeks, ruling him out of his first series as captain of his country's limited-overs sides. Tim May, the increasingly irritated and animated chief executive of the Federation of International Cricketers' Associations, revealed that Simon Katich and Ramnaresh Sarwan were two of "a number" of players who remained unpaid for services rendered in IPL 3, fully 18 months ago. And Geoffrey Boycott declared T20 to be cricket's answer to baseball - and not in a nice way.
All these episodes induced dismay. That those mouth-watering clashes between Australia and South Africa will be diluted is bad enough; that it stemmed from a fielding drill on behalf of de Villiers' Indian employers was yet another dismissive slap in the face for the international game. That the Champions League rules were broken for one of the home sides was almost as crass as the claim by the governing council (could its members be more self-aggrandising?) that this would "ensure the integrity of the tournament". To point out even one of the myriad ways this insults our intelligence would be to dignify it, so I won't. Suffice to say that Suryakumar Yadav, whose "injury" prompted the technical committee's decision, was well enough to hit an unbeaten 182 in an Under-22 tournament in Mumbai last Thursday.
The IPL fracas, meanwhile, is simply unconscionable. The main justification for the changing balance between club and country is that the players should be free to optimise the value of their talent; you know matters have gone seriously awry when the organisers treat contractual agreements with even less respect than Virender Sehwag pays Pakistani bowlers. In March, May called for a boycott of the Champions League because $6m of last year's prize fund had yet to be paid; in August, after the cheques had finally arrived - less 20% Indian government tax - the ECB insisted that this year's county representatives, Somerset and Leicestershire, receive the money to cover their costs from the BCCI before being allowed to participate.
Then again, how can those governing councilors and board officials not be emboldened when, as Suresh Menon recently noted, the BCCI so plainly sees an Indian players' association less as a valued partner than as the avowed enemy, "a trade union bent on reducing the employers' right to make money without distributing it fairly".
May claims to have repeatedly asked the BCCI and IPL to make good their debts; since he denies having received a reply, we can only surmise that he believes he is being ignored, which says rather too much - albeit nothing unexpected - about the way those entrusted with running our precious game, purportedly for the good of all, regard those whose sweat and talent are responsible for lining their blazer pockets. Cue the killer payoff: "We trust with the recent appointment of Mr N Srinivasan as President of the BCCI, and the appointment of Mr Rajiv Shukla as Chairman of IPL, that these two gentlemen will ensure BCCI will address these payments as a matter of urgency." Note the shrewd use of "gentlemen".
BY COMPARISON, BOYCOTT'S CONTENTION that T20 requires "lesser skill" was a minor irritant, though no less objectionable for that. To demean both cricket's biggest draw card and baseball in the same podcast was the work of a double-barrelled blunderbuss, more reliant on cliché than comprehension. And I'm not saying that solely because I'm still on a bit of a high from last Wednesday, which brought not only the single most thrilling night in Major League Baseball history, but the most fabulous passage of televisual sporting action I have ever beheld: four games to decide which of four clubs would snare the two remaining playoff spots. The upshot: a host of rollercoaster plots and heroic comebacks, capped by a heart-halting string of epic climaxes that defied most of the laws of sporting probabability - all in the space of 25 minutes. Better yet, with the Tampa Bay Rays overhauling the Boston Red Sox, the Poor Guys progressed at the expense of the Rich Kids, a distinctly un-American scenario and one with which cricket is even more unfamiliar.
To equate the skill levels of baseball with those required in T20 is not unreasonable, but only when those skills are fully and properly appreciated. The key to loving baseball is not to endorse the awful "Chicks dig the long ball" slogan of the steroid era but to wallow in the scarcity of runs, to realise that even singles are a journey. The best Major League pitchers almost invariably master at least four different deliveries; the athleticism of shortstops and outfielders, gloves notwithstanding, regularly takes the breath away; running between the bases is both art and science; and making fruitful contact with a small ball moving at 90mph while armed with a tapering tubular blade is widely reckoned to be sport's single trickiest art (even the best hitters collect ducks 60% of the time).
Boycott's main thrust, that pitchers and T20 bowlers both have essentially defensive functions, is well made but misleading. They are the sentiments one might expect of a former batsman. The fielding team in baseball is indeed known as the "defense" but, again, this is deceptive. Just as pitchers aim to bamboozle batters and hence force them into error, so the pie-chuckers look to confound and outwit: whether the upshot is fewer runs or more wickets/outs it takes the same skill, the same often wondrous skill, to execute their job. And unlike their counterparts, the bowlers are handcuffed by fielding restrictions.
By very dint of its brevity, T20 requires more speed, efficiency and imagination, of thought and deed, than either its father or grandfather. It encourages the development of new shots and deliveries, places huge demands on fielders and captains. Here is cricket at its most elemental, daring and draining. Here is cricket concentrated. So long as we balance it with the broader palette of T450, it should be treasured, both in its own right and as a passport to more aesthetic pleasures. The downside is the way it is run, as a headlong pursuit of diminishing dollars that pays no heed to tomorrow.
Avarice aside, T20's main obstacle remains its franchise incarnations and the havoc this wreaks with all those crusty old notions about the essential virtues of team sport. For me the international flavour of the Champions League, with its islands, states, provinces and counties all vying for the prize, elevates it far above the IPL, however diminished it has possibly been by South Africa's switch from provinces to franchises. In the IPL, support is widely determined by the team for whom a favoured player plays; the emphasis is squarely on the individual. That hoary old line about there being no "I' in "team" is a cliché for good reason. Besides, judging by the way camera-savvy spectators are forever being shown hollering or shrieking or mouthing messages to mum, the passion in the stadiums seems to be chiefly for the benefit of the viewer. It's all part of the act. Everyone's in on the sell.
As a consequence, the actual result appears to lag way down the list of priorities, judging by the apparent lack of hand-wringing over the locals' indifferent showing in the tournament to date (as of Tuesday morning Manvinder Bisla was the only homegrown batsman with 100 runs, while R Ashwin, the highest-ranked home bowler in economy terms, ranked 16th on the wicket-takers' list). Now this may be grist to my semi-Marxist mill, but sport owes its popularity to being the most nakedly, most brutally competitive art. Team games would have been more to Uncle Karl's liking because the collective comes first. Only, sometimes it doesn't.
The balance is wrong. However laudable the receptiveness to change, the constant tinkering with those ODI regulations is proof, surely, that the powers that be, for all their trenchant denials, are aware that the original golden goose is now a dying shark. So let's have more T20 internationals, lots more: there were 47 in 2009, 67 last year, but only 20 scheduled for this one, which would be strange only if you didn't suspect that some sort of deal had been struck to ensure maximum availability and visibility for domestic events. Let's have a three-game series per tour; even an annual World Cup: more games, please, where more people actually care who wins.
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton