Tony Cozier July 30, 2006

Stanford's 20/20 vision paying off

Tony Cozier

Crowds get into the party mood © Joseph Jones
No one, perhaps not even the billionaire originator Allen Stanford himself, could be certain what impact the first regional Twenty20 tournament would have on West Indies cricket.

The participation of 19 teams, big and small, strong and weak; the significant developmental grants to each, the mind-blowing prize money and the appointment of 14 past West Indies greats as directors guaranteed the interest of the players and those individual associations not so insecure as to feel threatened by the involvement of a private investor.

But the public had to be convinced and matches confined to 20 overs an innings had to be shown to be relevant in the overall scheme of things and not simply a glorified form of tip-and-run.

The innovative promotions and live television coverage have stirred interest, especially in those islands unable to boast of first-class status, far less superstar cricketers.

Theo Cuffy, the former Trinidad and Tobago batsman who has been Cayman Islands coach for a decade, noted that it was the first time people there had ever seen their team perform on television. It was a thrill that held true for more than half the others. After Grenada advanced to the semi-final, captain Rawl Lewis said there was a buzz about the tournament around Grenada he had not experienced since the island's world-rated 400 metres runner, Alleyne Francique, was on the blocks at the Olympics and World Championship.

It was a pertinent comment, for cricket is being strongly challenged as No.1 sport throughout the West Indies after the past decade of disputes, debt, and decline.

But Antigua itself, at Stanford's ideally suited grounds next to the airport, with its grassed banks and its floodlights, is where the effect of 20/20 cricket is best gauged.

Antigua's geographical location and its wide cross-section of immigrants from the cricketing Caribbean - along with the free entry - meant capacity attendances and noisy, good-natured, flag-waving support for most teams, Guyana and Jamaica most of all. One lady turned up for the Guyana-Jamaica semi-final bedecked in a dress designed as the Guyana flag. An entire family came in Jamaica colours, from head to toe. Indeed, the most striking change in the composition of the crowds has been demographic. Women and children have been by far the majority, a welcome new fan base for West Indies cricket.

Packing the stands in Antigua © Joseph Jones
As is seemingly mandatory at every major sporting event, there have been the side-shows of pop music (Chickie transferred from his usual base at the Antigua Recreation Ground) and live star turns, here by Beenie Man and Patrice Roberts.

Yet, none of this is especially new. The same has occurred wherever Twenty20 has become a part of the cricket landscape; in England and South Africa where the teams each have a mascot, captains are driven to the toss in limos and golf buggies, and dancing girls gyrate during the break.

The upcoming semi-finals and final in England have been sold out for weeks. County grounds that are usually as silent as cemeteries are filled to cacophonous capacity. Australia, New Zealand, and Pakistan have followed the lead with similar results. India have reluctantly joined the queue.

The first International Cricket Council-sanctioned Twenty20 World Championship is scheduled for South Africa next year. Osman Samiuddin, the Pakistani writer, informs me by e-mail that it has provided "a tremendous boost to the domestic game in Pakistan which has long needed just such an injection of money, energy and, most importantly, attention".

That's all quite fantastic, but what of the repercussions of such abbreviated, all-action matches on traditional cricket? Will it not create out-and-out sloggers and cowed, economy-minded bowlers?

A few fresh-faced youngsters have immediately debunked the former theory in the Stanford 20/20, and some more experienced fast bowlers have emphasised the truth that applies to bowling in all cricket: that taking wickets is the surest way of limiting totals.

Keiran Powell, the 16-year-old left-hander, and Tonito Willett, 21, both of Nevis; Chesney Hodge, the left-handed Anguillan who, at 15, is the youngest player in the tournament, and William Perkins, the Barbados-born Trinidadian, 19, have thrilled everyone with the purity of their strokes. No cross-batted brute force has brought them their runs. And Jerome Taylor, John "The Dentist" Maynard, Pedro Collins, and Nixon McLean made early inroads into opposition batting that proved decisive.

William Perkins collects his $25,000 Man-of-the-Match prize from Allen Stanford himself © Joseph Jones
Other attributes are being increasingly discovered in England after four seasons of the Twenty20 county tournament. "Hit-and-giggle has given way to plan-and-think and the repercussions are being felt beyond the realms of the (Twenty20) competition," Lawrence Booth wrote in The Guardian last week.

Leicestershire captain Jeremy Snape believes it has "changed perceptions of what's acceptable in run chases".

"Players have become much better at managing risk," he said. "They're hitting boundaries and accumulating twos with fewer problems. No longer is six-an-over out of the question as it once might have been in 50-overs cricket."

South Africans attributed their record 50-overs run-chase of 487 to beat Australia in an ODI earlier this year to the experience of three seasons of Twenty20.

Nor is it the batsmen alone who are using the urgency of Twenty20 to their advantage. Hylton Ackerman, the South African who plays for Leicestershire, speaks of bowlers "developing the ability to get batsmen off strike if they are playing really well" to get at one who has just come in or is struggling. It's a novel approach but it makes sense.

The weakest component in the Stanford tournament has been the running between the wickets. Prior to yesterday's quarter-finals, there had been 32 run-outs in the 13 matches. It's a part of the game they'll have to get worked out before long.

So is 20/20 here to stay or is it a passing fad? Will it be still going in 20 years time? Here is the answer given by Scyld Berry, the much traveled writer of the London Sunday Telegraph, in July's Wisden Cricketer. "It's the 50-overs game which might have died out. Administrators have tried in vain to soup-up 50 overs games with power-plays and super-subs but Twenty20 has done it already by cutting out those boring middle overs when batsmen push the spinners around for singles."

It's an interesting theory. In the meantime, the players are trying to get used to it in Antigua and a new fan-base has emerged to enjoy it.