October 3, 2012

The A to Z of the World Twenty20

Two weeks into the tournament, a look at the highs and lows

My dear great-great-grandchildren,

According to my 100-years-at-a-glance calendar, you should be reading this letter sometime in the mid-22nd century. Since I fear you might never see it played, this is the story of the little game that could.

Once upon a long, long time ago, somebody invented a bat-and-ball game called cricket, though nobody has the foggiest idea who or why. For many, many years cricket matches lasted a long, long time, even when a vast number of those who could only afford to watch them at weekends began to find other ways to spend their time and money. Those privileged to watch an entire game were either exceedingly rich or "journalists", a curious bunch of hard-drinking freeloaders who not only believed it was their divine right to publicise what went on but had the barefaced cheek to criticise players infinitely superior to themselves.

One day it was decided to shorten some matches. Later it was decided to play parts of these matches at night, which meant even more could attend. Then, most cleverly of all, it was decided to make the contests so short that you could play three in a day and even an entire match in a single evening. Happily, this happened without completely destroying the traditional forms of the game, though many, many people did their very, very best.

This latest facelift saved the day. Originally it was widely believed that the name of the new brand, Twenty20, signified the number of "overs" that were bowled in "an innings" - i.e. how many opportunities a team had to score "runs". However, we now know it was a secret code: the 20 actually related to the number of minutes to which the authorities planned to limit each individual innings before the batsman's fate was left to the spectators, who would vote whether he should carry on. "There will be blood," predicted many, and so there was.

"Christians on trial" was somebody's bright idea as a name for this part of the show, but it was banned after an occasionally violent six-month trial at the European Court of Human Rights. Indeed, there was a punch-up between the England captain and the Indian prime minister that might well have led to the Third World War had the president of Pakistan not given a very, very expensive present to the president of what was then called "the United States".

To help you appreciate why my memories of T20 are so vivid, and why I get very, very angry indeed when anyone tries to take me to such a game now, here's something I wrote in my diary during the 2012 World Twenty20, long before the 20-minute rule came to pass. The names and many of the words may be unfamiliar, but I'm sure you will understand the moral of the story.

W is for wonder. Hard not to get slack-jawed when recalling the inaugural men's T20 international in 2005 - a year, lest we forget, after the women. That was the historic and wildly psychedelic night in Auckland when the hosts emerged in retro beige and bubble perms, whereupon Ricky Ponting lashed a match-winning 98 not out then confessed he had found it "difficult to play seriously".

O is for Oh, as in "Oh, Sanjay." Election to the Clairvoyant Hall of Fame is set to remain a forlorn wish for the normally judicious Mr Manjrekar following this painful stab at prescience as Pakistan began their fraught chase against South Africa: "South Africa will look to keep it nice and tight and not look for wickets." The ways in which this was horribly and almost irredeemably wrong are too innumerable to list, but it may be worth pointing out, for the record, that the South African revving up was Dale Steyn, a chap morally, ethically, psychologically, temperamentally and constitutionally incapable of bowling for any other reason.

R is for regal, one of the many purple-encrusted adjectives that spring to mind while watching Mahela Jayawardene, a fellow plainly allergic to haste and waste. A video showcasing that capacity to score mightily with shots of turf-hugging elegance would make the perfect virtual textbook. The aura, moreover, is like no other. Call it savage serenity.

L is for Lahiru Thirimanne, for guts and minor genius. Tim Southee's fifth ball of the final over in Pallekele found Thirimanne looking as if he could only make meaningful contact with the aid of a ten-foot-wide tennis racquet and an extremely high ladder. "I know," the Sri Lankan presumably thought to himself, "I'll shimmy so far outside off stump, he'll assume I'm going to have a chat with deep point, then surprise him with a nifty over-the-shoulder number, inches over short fine leg and miles over the rope." And so he did.

D is for doh. Homer Simpson's fabled fulmination felt all too apposite when Darren Sammy elected to bat first against Sri Lanka. Of the previous five targets in the Super Eights, four had been chased down, as the next two would be, so Mohammad Hafeez was even dafter for opting to bat against India. Sometimes it's best to forget the science and just go with the flow.

T is for tie. The briefer the affair, the more likely the least probable outcome, but even though the second tie of the Super Eights was as humdrum as these things get, familiarity is breeding anything but contempt. The final, pre-extra-time over of that Sri Lanka-New Zealand humdinger was exquisitely taut, swaying back and forth as thrillingly as an episode of Breaking Bad. Who needs crystal meth to have a good time?

W is for Watson, Shane. He walks the walk, always has; now he can start talking the talk. The new Jacques of all trades? The original still has quite a few kilometres left on the clock but the Watson we're seeing now is half-elementary, half-elemental and wholly irresistible. In other words, the Anti-Flintoff: a batsman bent on maximising his talents, who knows that continuing to do so means resisting the urge to demand the ball every other over.

E is for ego, to be stowed in kitbag and never indulged. Over five days Nick Compton recently warranted, demonstrating that he has the mindset to make it at that level, "ego is evil". Quite what that makes it in the shortest form, one shudders to imagine. Every ball counts, as the promos have it, so there's no time to fret over averages or get stroppy with fielders. That's why, when your leading allrounder, foremost fielder and No. 1 stumper all occupy the same pair of socks, it isn't absolutely necessary to make him toss the coin, much less decide who bowls when. We feel for you, AB, we really do.

N is for nobility. After Rob Nicol introduces Akila Dananjaya's cheek to the harsh realities of playing with adults, he and Brendon McCullum decline to profit from the ricochet. Gentlemen, we salute you.

T is for Tanvir and Taylor, Sohail and Ross, authors of the direst drops to date. Neither, however, costs their team a bean. The moral of this story is open to dispute.

Y is for youth, a handier asset than suspected. Granted, Brad "The Whole" Hogg has been flying the flag for the nearly wrinklies, not to mention leaving a teasing poser hovering - will the Duke of Warneshire yet be lured back? Still, even without Junaid Khan, we've been graced with an abundance of bristling bum-fluff.

Freshest to the fore has been Dananjaya, whose first name apparently means "wise". And so he seems, beyond his 18 years, even if he hasn't quite mastered the bit about keeping one's hands together when trying to prevent a ball disfiguring one's face. Yes, there were shades of Imran Khan's early promotion of Wasim Akram in his sudden elevation, but let's quash all suspicions of a PR stunt by a host board desperate to fill seats for the cameras.

Selectors never take such leaps of faith lightly: the odds on looking exceedingly foolish are fearfully short. Think, too, of Pat Cummins, 19, coming on apace and even sidefooting Gautam Gambhir back to the hutch, of Raza Hasan, 20, trussing up Amla, Kallis and Gambhir with his leisurely left-arm lasso. Nor should we get blasé about Virat Kohli, who with every innings looks another inch more like the new Ponting: and he's still only 23. Not since Steve Waugh's icy glare has the game beheld such determined eyes.

2 is the number of times my jaw dropped: first at Kieron Pollard's surging running catch to deprive Jonny Bairstow of both a six and his wicket, followed, within the hour, by Andre Russell's gymnastic leap to turn Eoin Morgan's Mars-bound blow into a tight two. The last time West Indies boasted the planet's leading fielding corps, the Berlin Wall was still standing: pity the new Dooj seems such a distant dream.

0 is the number of times I've wanted to yell "Let's have some proper cricket." Still, once the Champions League's over, even those of us to whom T20 has become the guiltiest of pleasures will be craving a spot of peace and quiet. How fortunate, then, that from November 9 until December 18 we will be blessed with uninterrupted, unadorned, unabridged, red-blooded, red-ball cricket. A Test window at last? Maybe, just maybe, the guys in Dubai are finally getting the hang of this scheduling malarkey.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton