April 25, 2013

T20 and Test cricket: not such enemies after all

When the shortest format came along, there were fears it would be at loggerheads with the five-day version. That has not turned out to be the case

The first big cricket match I saw at a ground was at the age of six on New Year's Day in 1973. It was winter vacation. We left home in Bombay on the Howrah Mail, I gazed out of the window in wonder as the country magically changed with every station, and then we were in Calcutta, where my father decided to give his cricket-mad son a treat.

It was a last-moment decision, so we had the cheapest seats, high in the rafters of the 90,000-capacity stadium. So high, I couldn't see the ball. It took binoculars for me to finally spot the ball being collected by an impossibly tall man with a shock of golden hair who was to become one of the most combative captains of England.

The next time I watched a match in a stadium was almost exactly two years later, in January 1975, at Chepauk. I sat in the Madras Gymkhana Club stand as India were playing West Indies. Few who watched that game will contest it was one of the greatest Test matches played at that ground.

On each day I would be dropped to the stadium by my father and delivered into a helpful acquaintance's care, packed lunch, water bottle, cap and shyness in tow, the fear of being a child among adults quickly dissipating on hearing the roar from inside as I climbed the stairs. Even today when I hear that roar, I run into the stands thinking I've somehow missed the most crucial moment of the game.

That game was full of roars, full of crucial moments. It was mesmerising, thrilling, to watch Viswanath, Roberts, Richards, Prasanna, Solkar, Bedi over four packed lunches (cheese toasties, aloo parathas, kabab rolls and egg sandwiches), lead India to victory! I still remember walking out of the stadium, feeling one with the crowd, silently agreeing with the animated analyses all around, experiencing for the first time that sweet mix of jubilation and peace that comes with victory. That feeling has never left me. Nor has that eight-year-old, heart thumping with excitement, changed much.

So it was with mixed feelings that I went to my first IPL game 33 years later. How would it be, I wondered, to watch a format palpably of a lesser dimension than Test cricket? What would it be like to cheer a team that was not India? What would it be like to watch players who had hitherto been sworn rivals playing in the same XI?

The short answer is not so bad, good even, and sometimes pretty exciting. The trick, I quickly understood, was to not compare. Driving away from the Chinnaswamy Stadium after a blinding Brendon McCullum knock thwacked the stuffing out of Royal Challengers Bangalore, I knew there was nothing similar between going to watch a Test match and going to watch a T20 game. Nothing. Not the time of day, not the number of spectators, not the food served in the stands, and certainly not the cricket. Once I understood that, it opened up a kind of enjoyment, the likes of which I am hard-pressed to parallel.

That the unique characteristic of T20 is that everything is in the moment could be argued by contending it's the same with 90 minutes of football. Not so. There are periods of probing, passing, teasing in football as the teams size each other up, or as they seek to regain rhythm after conceding a goal. In T20 every ball is a universe. Three dot balls and the run rate has climbed to unreachable levels, which, if followed by three sixes, suddenly means you're going to win at a canter. It's the perfect game for an age where reflection, steadfastness and nuance are endangered species.

Through the IPL we have grown to understand that T20 demands special skills from both bowlers and batsmen, but there is a growing awareness of how the migration of these skills can raise the bar in the Test arena

And so the IPL is here again, its mix of adrenaline and glamour well intact. We've already had the greatest knock in T20 history, two Super Overs, a few last-ball finishes, and the sight of a 38-year-old flinging himself into the air as if he was back in his debut game in 1995, to pluck a catch out of the Mumbai sky. While the beauty of all T20 tournaments is that they make you believe the impossible can be possible, the special pull of the IPL is that it holds that promise match after match for 54 humid, moth-filled, dew-drenched nights.

The greatest relief is that the IPL hasn't turned out to be what many said it would be, and that it has turned out to be what many said it wouldn't. In its first season I remember being on a panel of one of many sundry television debates on "What the IPL means for India". As is the case with any prognosis of an unfolding event in India, the debate was marked by the absence of a middle ground. Pundits saw irrevocably skewed cricketing scales. On one side of the scale was the overloaded crucible of T20 and ODIs, almost touching Hades as he sat in the underworld, leering at cheerleaders on satellite television. And the other crucible: soaring, weeping towards the heavens with its wispy weightlessness, carrying but a few Test matches, precious sublimate of joy for the gods.

Others saw a new social fault line inexorably developing between Indian cities. As if the country doesn't have enough divisions, now ready yourself for another, they said. Another faction saw the IPL as the beginning of the death of the best of cricket as we knew it. Such obscenely high player rewards for limited attention spans, suspect technique, short boundaries and defensive bowling would slowly but surely suffocate the production of technically-sound batsmen and naturally gifted bowlers who thrived on experimentation, they said.

What a relief to know none of these dire outcomes have been realised to anywhere near their fullest degree. A look at the international fixtures over the next 18 months show most cricket boards understand Test cricket is still the most respected form of the game. Various "greatest-ever" audience polls reveal voters referring almost entirely to performances in Test matches.

Crucially, I can bet a poll of players at the IPL will show the same. While a chance to (often dramatically) tilt the scale of one's income-generating capacity is a significant driver for players in this tournament, donning the country's Test colours continues to be the holy grail. R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja exemplify this in every dimension. Wonderful IPL players as they are, they have worked single-mindedly to mould their talent and work ethic to yield not-insignificant achievements at Test level.

Virat Kohli was the first to understand how badly he wanted to be a Test great. His ongoing metamorphosis from a talented, mercurial batsman to a gritty, patient, aggressive one is a thing of joy to us and an inspiration to his contemporaries. M Vijay looks to have understood this too. Cheteshwar Pujara was born with this understanding. And the country wonders whether it will ever coronate Rohit Sharma, who is yet to make his Test debut.

As for the inter-city divide, it was much ado about nothing. While it is natural that cities of a lesser cosmopolitan nature than Mumbai or Bangalore will seek to use their teams to cohere their identity, the fierceness of the loyalties has been watered down with the knowledge that after eight weeks it will be back to cheering for (and agonising with) the national side.

Over the last five IPL seasons we have grown to understand that T20 demands special skills from both bowlers and batsmen. But there is a growing awareness of how the migration of these skills can raise the bar in the Test arena. T20 bowlers have devised not one but many different kinds of slower balls; the accuracy of their yorkers has improved, as has the fielding and catching off their own bowling. Batsmen have tempered the impulse to stand and deliver with the desire to stay till the end. The ability to take sharper singles to upset a bowler's rhythm, a keener knowledge of field placings, and deeper concentration to shut out the music and noise between balls, have slowly begun to rub off on Test cricket.

Of course there are the obvious downsides. We have seen promising batting talents discovered in T20 disappear in the heat of sustained, hostile, short-pitched bowling in Test matches. The seemingly inexhaustible arsenal of a clever spinner over four overs lies exposed and spent over 120 balls against batsmen who have the whole day to wait. T20 may sometimes double-promote you to the Test level, but staying there requires a student to spend hours on extra classes.

At no point is anyone under the illusion that there is a compulsorily symbiotic relationship between the two formats. It's just that what seemed like two forms of cricket that would forever be inimical to each other have turned out to not quite be so. A bit like family members with polar-opposite personalities grudgingly accepting the good in the other.

Given the awareness that Test cricket is the mother-of-all that is great and good in this game, it's a decent bet cricket's future will be secure for generations to come. And that I'll be there to watch, rushing up the stairs as I hear the roar, convinced I have missed the defining moment of the game.

Rahul Bose is a writer, actor, and former rugby international for India