March 23, 2014

Can T20 get America interested?

Cricket learned lessons from baseball in devising its shortest format. Can it use T20 to break into the home of baseball?

This week I've been driving to the Sydney Cricket Ground to work - not for an 11-a-side game but one played by teams of nine men.

The famous old cricket ground has been transformed into a baseball diamond, complete with dirt base paths and a pitcher's mound, to host a two-game series between US major league teams the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks. This might seem like sacrilege on a ground that was home for many years to Don Bradman when he was the greatest batsman alive. However, it seems that this may not be the case, because back in 1932, when Bradman was touring North America, he met the equally famous George Herman "Babe" Ruth at another sporting cathedral, Yankee Stadium. During that meeting the Babe asked Bradman what impressed him about baseball and the Australian icon answered; "In two hours or so the match is finished. Each batter comes up four or five times. Each afternoon's play stands on its own. Yes, cricket could learn a lot from baseball… there is more snap and dash to baseball."

Well, some 70 years on, Bradman's wishes were granted. Cricket has learned a lot from baseball in devising a game that lasts around three hours; it's called T20.

At the same time as the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks are battling for supremacy at the SCG, many of the best cricketers are in Bangladesh, fighting for the right to be called World T20 champions. Already we've seen some upsets, and appropriately, one of cricket's great rivalries kicked off the main section of the draw, with India completing a comprehensive victory over Pakistan.

The rivalry between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees in baseball is often compared to India's and Pakistan's intense battles with each other. The big difference being the cricket rivalry has survived wars and terrorist attacks and yet still creates enormous interest in the two countries.

Apart from the time it takes to play a T20 game, one of the big attractions is that it's more likely to involve upsets than the longer forms of the game. One team only needs to have an exceptionally good over, or the other a particularly bad one, and the complexion of the game can change dramatically. The minnows are more likely to mix it with the cricketing superpowers in the game's shortest version.

In addition to the requirement that it satisfy the needs of a fast-moving world, T20 also affords cricket its greatest opportunity to globalise. It's impossible to sell five-day matches to major markets like the USA, Europe, Japan, and the parts of Asia where cricket isn't a tradition. However, there is an opportunity to have those regions embrace a short version of the game, and this is where T20 can play a major role in the development of cricket.

So while India and Pakistan continue their rivalry and other heavyweights like Australia, England, West Indies, Sri Lanka and South Africa join in the fight for the silverware, it's interesting to witness the development of Associate nations like the Netherlands, Ireland, Nepal and Afghanistan as they scrap for relevance in world cricket.

The one name missing from that list of Associate nations battling to mix it with the big boys is the USA. Their progress has been slowed by infighting amongst the various groups in their administration, but maybe the emergence of the fledgling but innovative American Cricket Federation will finally get the game in the USA on track.

There's no doubt that cricket's hierarchy would love nothing better than to welcome the USA into the main draw of a World T20 tournament. If that does eventuate, cricket fans could witness the reverse of the amazing transformation that the SCG has undergone, at one of the legendary homes of baseball, like Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator for Channel 9, and a columnist