February 22, 2016

The world T20 created

From international disaster to game-changer, cricket's shortest format has come a long way in the last 13 years

The T20 storm has changed cricket's environment completely © Getty Images

On June 18, 1846, a form of cricket that had, in a few recent years, become a wild, crowd-pleasing favourite, reached its revolutionary peak. During an unforgettable afternoon at Lord's, Alfred Mynn, "the Lion of Kent", faced his friend and team-mate Nicholas Felix in a single-wicket match that became one of the most famous ever played. Each man was a star. Mynn was the prototype fast bowling, big-hitting allrounder, a giant of a man beloved of the crowds that followed him, and apparently unbeatable in this short form of the game. His opponent, Felix, was a tiny, dashing left-hander, a student of batsmanship, inventor of the first ever bowling machine and the first pair of batting gloves, and a writer, painter, teacher and renaissance man to boot.

Each was given two fielders. As was customary in single wicket, a bounds was drawn horizontally across the field from the batsman's popping crease. Any hit going into the bounds - effectively behind square - could not score a run. Mynn had two distinct advantages in single wicket. The first was his bowling, delivered roundarm at high pace, the ball leaping or shooting off the notoriously poor Lord's pitch. The second was his batting: he favoured powerful straight hitting. By contrast, Felix bowled underarm lobs and batted waspishly.

The first innings were brief. Felix splintered his bat trying to get off the mark and was bowled next ball. He then caught and bowled Mynn for 5, a bullet of a straight drive that Felix admitted he held on to through self-preservation. Felix batted again. In a mano a mano duel that held the crowd enraptured, he faced 247 deliveries and, with remarkable skill, struck 175 of them. Because of Mynn's pace, which barely faltered, most went into the bounds. Felix scored just three runs, plus one wide, and was bowled as he felt Mynn at last begin to weaken. He lost by a single run, and the high drama of the match meant that a second game was quickly arranged. It was played at Bromley, the crowds luxuriating in specially erected marquees as Mynn triumphed once again.

In a sport that has always been in thrall to tradition, the IPL appeared like Kubrick's obelisk, triggering a shift in evolution

Single wicket's brief, bright boom soon ended. The expansion of the railways meant that it became easy and cheap to transport entire teams around the country, and Mynn and Felix became enthusiastic members of the best known, William Clarke's All England XI. Cricket coalesced around XIs and the County Championship became the game's pre-eminent contest. Yet the sport's need for novelty, its knack for reinvention, remained.

Like single wicket, 20-over matches were hardly new. As a junior I played scores of them. They were perfect because they fit into summer evenings and weekend mornings. They fit into the lives of the kids who played and the parents who ferried them about and umpired and organised. Twenty-over matches fit until you got too old to play them, and then they disappeared for more "serious" cricket, because cricket could only be serious if it was longer.

The now-famous flash of intuition that Stuart Robertson had in 2002 as the ECB searched for something to replace the Benson & Hedges Cup (and how ancient that name feels now) fulfilled cricket's love of novelty, but it did something more important too. It fit the game back into the lives of people who wanted to watch it. In our cash-rich, time-poor era, here was a format that would accelerate to meet the lifestyle; that would provide an anachronistic sport with a rocket ride into the new century. With it would come the greatest revolution in the game's techniques since the introduction of overarm bowling, and a financial impact that warped the fabric of power, but all of that happened because of one thing: time.

At first, on the field, time seemed like the enemy. Professional cricketers had not played 20-over cricket for so long, and they were so used to the rhythms of 50-over innings and 90-over days that they played the first season or so in a kind of shock. While everyone knew what a good score was in certain conditions and on certain wickets for the existing formats, no one seemed to have a clue how many they should make, or what the bowling strategies should be, or what kind of players would be the most successful in what positions. They had yet to absorb the 20-over game's internal rhythms. Where the 50-over format had essentially been worked out to the point that it could almost be played by rote, T20 seemed to have mystery and surprise. Players weren't sure how to react to the novelty, so they laughed.

T20 No. 2: new format, same rivalry © Getty Images

It was quickly apparent that the format was about cramming a long game into a short span, "pouring a quart into a pint pot", as the old saying used to go, and that the drama would not build symphonically over the rise and fall of hours and days but instead would be fleeting and intense. Because the game was short, it seemed at first to lack gravitas. There were moments when things could have gone either way, when big players like Ricky Ponting were saying that they couldn't take T20 seriously - that it would always be a hit-and-giggle format. Yet from that first game in England, county pros got the buzz of playing in front of large, excitable crowds, crowds that immediately gave summer evenings a spirit of fun and adventure. The inaugural finals day, at Trent Bridge, sold out.

Perhaps the first symbolic moment came the following season, July 15, 2004, when T20 debuted at Lord's - 27,509 watched the Middlesex-Surrey derby, the biggest crowd for a domestic game outside of one-day finals for more than half a century. And it wasn't just Lord's. Australia's first T20 game, in January 2006, between Western Warriors and Victoria Bushrangers, sold out the WACA.

T20 international No. 1 remained behind this curve. New Zealand played Australia at Eden Park in February 2005. The teams styled it out in retro kits, Hamish Marshall wore a wig, and New Zealand held a moustache-growing competition. At the end of the New Zealand innings, Glenn McGrath pretended to pull a Trevor Chappell and bowl underarm.

"Twenty20 was one wicket away from international disaster," ran the report on this website of Ricky Ponting's 98 not out, a rescue act that ensured Australia stuck up a large and entertaining total rather than a damp squib. After that, "the pace barely dropped, but the style will be rigorously debated".

"I think it's difficult to play seriously," Ponting said.

Where the 50-over format had essentially been worked out to the point where it could almost be played by rote, T20 seemed to have mystery and surprise. Players weren't sure how to react to the novelty, so they laughed

Again, though, the crowd: "sizeable", according to the Almanack.

And this from Peter English: "Is this how the game used to be enjoyed? When fun twinkled in [the players'] eyes and there was emotion in their faces. When spectators in the top tiers spotted their favourites by mannerisms instead of numbers…"

Then came the second T20I, a game that showed that the format could fit into the wider narrative of an international summer. In front of a raucous and packed Rose Bowl, the intensity of the England team and fans unsettled the touring Australians, who were skittled for 79 in pursuit of England's 179 (and were at one point 31 for 7). A wobbly Australia subsequently lost to Bangladesh in an ODI and by the time that immortal 2005 Ashes series began, England had at least smelled a little blood in the water.

Two other matches feel vital to the transformation that was coming. The first of those was India's win over Pakistan in the final of the inaugural ICC World T20, a match and a tournament that echoed the 1983 World Cup win in its repercussions. India were now masters of a form that they were about to seize ownership of. The second came on April 18, 2008, in the first match of the Indian Premier League, when Brendon McCullum's thunderous and portentous 158 made the failure of the tournament and the concept almost impossible. Lalit Modi's irresistible synthesis of glamour, money and sport - "cricketainment", as Matthew Hayden drolly dubbed it - somehow fit the moment: everything was right, from the state of the game to the state of a thrusting, forceful new India.

Modi both embodied that and cleverly - albeit archly - made money part of the process of the event. The auction, in a single day, allowed the market to value players in a different way than coaches and selectors always had. Around the globe, baffled (and then very quickly delighted) cricketers were awoken by phone calls from their agents: there is a lovely moment in the documentary Death Of A Gentleman, where Chris Gayle describes to camera his reaction on being told how much he'd be making for six weeks' work. Here was a man who earned, he said, US$1000 for playing an ODI for West Indies, now getting that for around a minute's batting in franchise cricket. "I'm like, 'How much?'" he says, holding an imaginary phone to his ear.

What will the ideal player of the future look like? © Getty Images

In an interview for the same film, Kevin Pietersen calls Modi "a genius". For the professional, whose entire career had always been in the hands and eyes of others, this monetary value of their skills was a powerful, freeing force. It became a separation of church and state proportions: from it the concept of the freelance cricketer emerged. It is a different kind of playing life, one of oddly named teams in distant places, of endless flights and hotel rooms, somehow contemporary and sad and more reflective of the real world than the bubble existence of the Test player.

Franchise teams changed the culture of the international game. Players who had been opposing one another for years in their national sides found themselves working closely together and forging strong bonds. It redefined the atmosphere in which cricket was played.

These were the by-products of Modi's scheme. At the centre of his vision was a brief, bright, bold competition that dominated its six weeks of the calendar; that burned as a beacon lighting the way to the future. It was a cult of personality, yet that personality was not Modi's but the new India's, unrestrained and exciting, vivid and powerful.

In a sport that has always been in thrall to tradition, the IPL appeared like Kubrick's obelisk, triggering a shift in evolution. It's easy to become entangled in arguments about its effect. What is inarguable is its value - estimated at more than US$7bn - and its power to generate money - the 2015 season was worth $170m to India's GDP. These sums had their dark side, their warping effect. The ECB, searching for a response to a tournament that didn't fit well with the northern-hemisphere calendar, fell for the fraudster Allen Stanford and his winner-take-all jamboree (never trust a man who helicopters his money around in a Perspex box). Unlike West Indies cricket and cricketers, England had the financial clout to bounce back.

Single wicket had been a betting game, a gamblers' day out, and players were known to be "bought". Sharp practice - tampering with the ball by loading it with mud, bowling wides before wides were penalised - was present too. These things appear seeded in the game, and T20, with its "every ball an event" philosophy, appears particularly susceptible to fixing. Franchises have their transient mix of players and attendant hangers-on that make them vulnerable - claims against the ICL, IPL, BPL, and most recently the Ram Slam, haunt the format.

Single wicket fell prey to changing times and the external forces of society. T20 appears so in tune with the coming years that it's hard to see the same obscurity descending on it

Money has emancipated players, and the demands of the game have emancipated technique. The relative abundance of batting resources (teams can lose a wicket every 12 deliveries and still bat the innings) meant that risk could be reassessed. This was far more difficult than it sounded. Batsmen had 200 years of psychological weight to throw off. In answer to the challenge of scoring rather than surviving - an equation that 50-over cricket was still too long to shift as radically - a new mindset was born, an extension of Virender Sehwag's famous "see ball, hit ball".

New horizons opened up. New shots were conceived. (Without T20, would anyone in their right mind have done what Tillakaratne Dilshan did when he dropped to one knee and scooped a ball travelling at 80mph towards his face?) No area of the field was safe. Bowlers were faced with a new truth: the "good-length" ball was nothing of the sort any more - it was simply fodder to be blasted out of the ground. Even the bat itself responded to this urge, resized and retooled for the new century, ultra-light and as disposable as a razor.

Bowling has replied with dizzying variety if not overwhelming success. At its best, T20 is a batsman's game. Yet bowling is better defended than ever before. Outfielding has become as souped-up and turbocharged as batting. Catches that would have been unthinkable even conceptually 30 years ago are routinely held on (and above) the boundary ropes of the world; fielders hunt in packs and pairs; athleticism is at an all-time high.

T20 cannot exist in isolation. One hand washes the other. Test match cricket was accelerating before 2003, but some of its new dynamism must be attributed to the mind and abilities of the modern cricketer. The surprise is that the changes seemed to take longer to filter into the 50-over game: the last World Cup was the transitional moment, and it's no surprise that New Zealand, under McCullum, were in the vanguard of change.

It's easy to sit here and point out these things in hindsight. Single wicket fell prey to changing times and the external forces of society. T20 appears so in tune with the coming years that it's hard to see the same obscurity descending on it. But how will it look in 20 years' time?

Such has been the impact of T20 that all of cricket is its target now © Getty Images

Like all sports, its participants will get bigger and stronger and faster. They will also inhabit its natural rhythms as the first generation of players who have known nothing but T20 cricket takes over.

But perhaps they will get more unnatural too. The format's need for physical power makes it susceptible to some form of doping ("guns get runs" is a current credo). A drug bust somewhere along the line is inevitable. Fixing at any and all levels will be a threat as long as betting on the game continues.

In football, the best club teams are multinational giants that play to a standard higher than the international game (it's generally accepted that, for example, Barcelona would beat almost every national team were they to play them), and maybe that will happen in cricket too. The big franchise players certainly spend more time playing domestic T20, and the calendar may wither further the amount of international fixtures.

And how will the ideal player look? Ultra-specialist hitters, sons of Gayle, or fast bowlers, sons of Tait, may hire their own support teams just as tennis and golf stars do now, to maximise their potential and their earnings. But the future seems to point to allrounders as the most valuable assets - a glimpse at the team England fielded for their recent 50-over game against South Africa saw David Willey, a man who has scored the eighth-fastest T20 century of all time, batting at No. 10 and opening the bowling. In the 2016 IPL auction, two of the three dollar millionaires, Shane Watson and Chris Morris, were allrounders, and Yuvraj Singh, the third, bowls too. Mitchell Marsh, Carlos Brathwaite and Colin Munro all sold early, as did keeper-batsmen Jos Buttler and Sanju Samson - two skills are better than one on the open market. Just as Mynn, the fast-bowling, big-hitting allrounder, was unbeatable in his day, so the future still looks a lot like him: impossibly big, daunting to face and thrilling to watch, a heightened hero for our ever-accelerating times.

Jon Hotten blogs here. @theoldbatsman

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