April 2, 2014

The World T20 roller coaster

Tantalising finishes, technicolor extravaganzas, and sport as opera - notes from an armchair

Dale Steyn enacted one of the most exultant exits from a sporting stage after dismantling New Zealand © Getty Images

While it is not unusual to see stories about the ICC in the Times law section, to be informed that it will soon "acquire jurisdiction over the international crime of aggression" was bewildering. Thankfully, the ICC in question turned out to be the International Criminal Court rather than the newly reconstituted International Cricket Cabal. The latter, as we know, actively encourages aggression, most vividly in the World T20, an arena where even dot balls are weapons, a world almost entirely cleansed of timidity, caution and pacifism.

From where I'm sitting, enthusiasm undampened by dew or power cuts (light-wise or even KP-wise), the Bangladesh big bash has been a gas, gas, gas. Highlights abound: Dale Steyn's ear-steaming inability to rest on his laurels; Krishmar Santokie's canny cutters and Sunil Narine's cat-like cunning; Rangana Herath, Imran Tahir and Amit Mishra disarming their detractors; Dwayne Bravo's salmon-esque leap to catch James Faulkner on the rebound; England losing to Netherlands, yet emerging as the only side to down Sri Lanka so far; the parallel women's event; Shikhar Dhawan's plaited ponytail, petite but daring...

Hell, there's even been some useful batting: the elegant brutality of Mahela Jayawardene and Glenn Maxwell, his heir apparent and dispenser of bittersweet reminders of how good Ben Hollioake might have been; the power of Alex Hales and Darren Sammy; the frisky footwork of ABD, Virat Kohli and Ahmed Shehzad; Ravi Bopara defusing Lasith Malinga's grenades with delicate glides; JP Duminy's off-the-shoulder improvisations.

Equally welcome have been all those thrills, spills, and polite bellyaches supplied by a Dutch-African-Australasian-Pakistani combo bent on redefining "mercurial". What kind of team chase down the unchaseable, then subside for 39, then nearly humble the Proteas, then humiliate England? A refreshing one that might have achieved even more with Ryan ten Doeschate ("140 characters not nearly enough to explain why I'm not playing, but no bitterness from my side," he tweeted, preferring, perhaps understandably, a better-paid gig for Otago). T20 - the Great Leveller? All we need now is for the IOC to get with the programme.

The first week of the "Super 10" produced three corking encounters - more than can be said of the corresponding stage of any World Cup I can recall. First up, Pakistan v Australia, which demonstrated that close finishes aren't the only path to memorability. Next came South Africa v New Zealand, an epic nip-and-tucker decided by Steyn's all-but unhittable last half dozen deliveries. Just about everything exhilarating about our endlessly innovative game was on parade here, most notably ABD's plunging catch off Kane Williamson, and that riveting Ross Taylor-Morne Morkel face-off. Spurting off with a tension-ridding roar, Steyn trumped Geoff Miller's arms-aloft sprint-off at the MCG in 1982 as the most exultant exit I've seen from a sporting stage. That Faf du Plessis should be suspended for tardy over rate seemed the very height of ingratitude.

Then came England v Sri Lanka, a tragicomedy that brought us famished Poms our first untainted celebration of native batsmanship all winter. Whether it was worth waiting until the new county campaign had kicked off is open to debate.

Here was sport as opera. Jade Dernbach's muted response to Tim Bresnan dropping Mahela was a study in external calm and inner mayhem - after all, he'd already downed the same batsman himself, so ranting at a far less damaging offender was hardly within his rights. Only fleetingly did his face betray the agony within: a masterclass in stoicism. When Mahela dropped Hales, and in the process did himself a mischief, the circle was complete. As the clincher soared into the night, the camera caught Bresnan pre-whoop: cheeks puffed, eyes popping, disbelief grappling with relief. For him and for Dernbach, all that guilt was about to seep away, extinguished in the replenishing rush of joy; now Mahela was shouldering it alone.

Only now could Michael Lumb, apparently denied by an over-cautious TV umpire, release all that pent-up fury at the catch off Mahela that was ripped from his and England's grasp. Only later did the ICC release the angle seen by David Boon, vindicating Steve Davis' doubts. Surely this should have been made available to viewers during transmission - or does the governing body see no need to protect the good name of its rule keepers?

How apt, just as the very existence of the IPL is being questioned, that we should be reminded of the delights of what some denounce as cricket lite

Word up
When it comes to the spoken word we Poms can be a right snotty lot - well, a hefty chunk of the world does talk our language, and none comes closer to a sporting lingua franca. Given that almost all utterances therein can be accurately predicted to the last misplaced consonant, watching a press conference not conducted in English can be a baffling experience; it can also be highly illuminating.

Stage an ICC event in Asia and the exhibits are plentiful, especially during the latter stages. It's a bit like watching those Monty Python's Flying Circus episodes dubbed for German TV: you laugh a) because you're familiar with the original and can hence translate a goodly proportion by memory, and b) because it sounds more surreal than The Salvador Dali Radio Show.

Aside from "congratulations" and "thank you very much", three other familiar words were identifiable during Harsha Bhogle's interview with Umar Akmal after his sublime strokeplay had helped Pakistan outwit Australia: "management", "T20" and "positives" (the last might have been in the singular but as any student of f***ballese knows, the plural version is a key component of the Premier League press conference). That "management" rather than "team" is accorded this distinction appears to bear out the long-held suspicion that, for Pakistan's cricketers, the thorniest opponents are not Australia, South Africa or even India, but their own board and selectors.

Dhaka, Chittagong and Mirpur have laid on a technicolour extravaganza, albeit not always in a good way. Telling protagonists apart has been a tall order. South Africa in yellow shirts? Australia with green breasts? What acid trip fostered those proposals? Did no one anticipate the merging of muddy verdant-ness when the latter met Pakistan?

England's dayglo orange? Upliftingly if deceptively gay - in the old-fashioned sense - but Netherlands went down that road long ago; if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, better, surely, to go the whole hog and don matching flannels. Nattiest threads? New Zealand's dramatic blue-slashed black number wouldn't look amiss on a Milan catwalk (nor, for that matter, would Steyn's post-modern Mohican).

Beneath all this frivolousness, of course, lurks the despicable replica shirt scam. This brazen willingness to vomit on supporters from a great height needs to be exterminated with instant, extreme and absolute prejudice. Dare cricket lead where f***ball refuses to tread?

Flags of inconvenience
We abhor the ludicrous banning of "selfies" (for infringing Getty's precious photography copyright), but what of the 42-year-old ruling preventing broadminded Bangladeshis from flying foreign flags? More attuned than most to the vaguest scent of Pakistanophobia, Javed Miandad reckons this violates that snaky, slippery creature we fondly and nonsensically call "the spirit of cricket". For all the inherent personal contradictions in such an assertion, even his old pal Imran Khan might not disagree.

Singles and symphonies
"The great experiences are effortful. They require investment. It is not simply about listening to the Allegro in Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, it is about listening to the Moderato and Adagio too. This is when art, and sport, reaches a level of wonder. It is not a sip or a soundbite, or a précis designed for people who lack attention span. It is about breadth and depth."

Such were the sentiments expressed in the Times last week by Matthew Syed, newly crowned as the Sports Journalists' Association's columnist and feature writer of the year. We diverge once he starts talking Italian. Yes, Test cricket at its best is a symphony: Beethoven's 6th, Mahler's 5th, Schubert's Unfinished, though it can also be Pink Floyd's Echoes, Caravan's Nine Feet Underground or Yes' Tales From Topographic Oceans. T20 at its best is a classic 45rpm single - "God Only Knows", "My Girl" or "Unfinished Sympathy" - and no less worthy of repeated replays.

I'm not sure the composition of any of those hits required any less sweat, toil or inspiration, but even if it did, does that reduce their resonance? And just because they clock in at three minutes rather than 40, and hence demand less effort on the part of the listener, does that make them proportionately less satisfying? Some of the most unforgettable pieces of music might hinge on nothing more than an off-the-cuff riff - witness Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water", The La's' "There She Goes" or Chic's "Good Times". Ears and souls would be much the poorer if we eliminated either form.

The five-day play can be the most tantalising and exquisite of slow-burners, more Stoppard than Shakespeare; the two-acter can offer a turbo-charged, switchbacking, roller coaster ride both La Scala and Disneyland would die for. Only one major spectator sport offers two such delightfully contrasting products: not bad for a game besotted with old scores and older sores.

How apt, just as the very existence of the IPL is being questioned, that we should be reminded of the delights of what some denounce as cricket lite. When the context is a tournament rather than a league, with added nationalistic salt, snap and bite, not to mention a heftier quality quota, so much the merrier.

Never mind the snobby bollocks, here's sport's answer to the Sex Pistols: loud, profane and profoundly irreverent but still embedded in tunes you can whistle. Only the pretty vacant can afford to tune out.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His latest book is Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport