April 8, 2014

Where's the room for struggle?

T20 is a cruel format that doesn't give too many players a shot at redemption. Here it's easy to identify a villain and bury him

Yuvraj Singh's 21-ball 11 in the final was not even close to being his worst innings, or even the worst by an Indian in the tournament © ICC

Struggle makes sport human. Champions fighting vulnerabilities in full public view. A great tennis player struggling to stay alive in a match, looking desperate to rediscover his touch, trying to get around that suspect backhand, even as he loses the first two sets. A losing boxer fighting to take the bout into the next round. A batsman taking body blow after body blow in a Test match but not giving up his wicket. Cricket is one of the rare team sports that tolerates and has time for this sort of struggle. It even glorifies it. It isn't as quick as some other team sports to identify a villain and bury him.

It is possibly traditional cricket's drawn-out nature that allows what many might even consider an indulgence, this shot at redemption in the same game. Cricket has the space to look at performances independent of results, both individual and team. A shot can be appreciated even if it doesn't produce a run, a ball that goes for a six can still be considered a good ball. However, as the game gets crunched and the coverage gets closer than ever to the action, the pressure has been accentuated, the bottom line has become more and more important, and the pleasure and pain derived from the sport have become more instantaneous.

In the World T20 final, on Sunday night, we stripped naked one of the greatest limited-overs players of all time. With every dot ball Yuvraj Singh faced in his 21-ball 11, with every single he took once he fell behind the accepted strike rate, the groans got louder. The producer kept cutting to the restless dugout every ball; to Virat Kohli's face, looking for signs of annoyance or frustration. Kumar Sangakkara didn't appeal when the ball passed the edge - it might even have kissed the bat; and Darren Sammy tweeted when Yuvraj was finally caught at long-off: "Not sure this catch had to be taken." Great human drama, no doubt, but it was extremely cruel.

This was, in terms of ball-striking, not even close to being Yuvraj's worst innings, or even the worst by an Indian in this tournament. Only two nights before, Suresh Raina edged three shots for 14 runs in one over, and was hailed as having played a great cameo. Yuvraj, obviously struggling and under pressure from good bowling and a slow start in the big final, still middled more balls than he edged. Put aside the results, and then look at the quality of the two innings. T20, though, has no space for such niceties, unlike the other formats.

As the game gets crunched and the coverage closer than ever to the action, the pleasure and pain derived from the sport have become more instantaneous

This is a format where it is easier to identify, isolate and vilify the villain of the piece, as it were. Forget the stones pelted by idiotic fans at Yuvraj's house for a moment, but we all did acknowledge - despite being mindful of what a champion Yuvraj has been - that he cost India the match. And if you look at it in cold blood, he did, although it wasn't for lack of effort; it rarely is.

Stones have previously been hurled, effigies burnt, and inquiry commissions set up after losses, but these have been for and directed at teams, not individuals. Yes, Sunil Gavaskar was booed in Calcutta, but that was because he had dropped Kapil Dev. T20 now is highlighting the concept of the weakest links because it is easier for one man to influence the result. At the height of Match Ke Mujrim [loosely, "Culprit of the Match", an Indian TV show] in 2003, despite that nervous start in the World Cup final that India never recovered from, Zaheer Khan wasn't singled out as much as Yuvraj is being.

In the previous World T20 final, Lasith Malinga suffered a similar fate, going for 54 runs in four overs to one of the best innings we are likely to see in T20 internationals. He found himself isolated and had to switch his phone off for two days. Ravindra Jadeja was mocked when, much like Yuvraj, he could neither get out nor hit out during his 35-ball 25 when India were chasing 154 against England at Lord's. It is the only format of the game where struggling is frowned upon more than throwing your wicket away for, say, two runs off five balls, which is what Raina did in that Lord's match. Yuvraj backed himself to ride over this period, which is why he didn't play a crazy shot to get out, which is what eventually turned out to be the deciding factor. Malinga and Jadeja got a shot at redemption; Yuvraj might not.

Yuvraj and Jadeja are no Gavaskar and Geoff Boycott, who didn't respect a new format enough when they went infamously slow in the early days of ODI cricket. These are two players who have relished this format, are desperate to do well, but just don't have the room to struggle, to fight their vulnerabilities. It has happened to others too, and will keep happening.

T20 is a cruel, high-strung format, in which one player can bring the whole team down without actually being awful, but surely there must be a case for demanding such low margins of error and high levels of excellence from every player on the field? It is the nature of the beast. For the first time in its history, cricket has handed negotiating rights to the players through T20; the demands made are admittedly high, but shouldn't they be when the game is paying more than ever? Ironically, though, it doesn't always result in high-quality cricket or excellence.

When Paul Kelly, the Australian singer-songwriter, wrote a song about Don Bradman, he ended it around the Bodyline days. He felt he had abandoned the song. "Or the song had abandoned me." Much later, he realised that the song could not have done justice to the grandness of Bradman's comeback after the War. "Much better to leave him in the middle of uncertainty, crowded by the old enemy, at the point of his greatest vulnerability," Kelly wrote in his book, How to Make Gravy.

Today, though, we want struggling champions to, as quite a few writers of feedback have suggested since the final, get themselves out if they can't get on.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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