August 25, 2012

'T20 has added a lot to the game'

Sunil Gavaskar talks about how innovations brought in by the shortest format are helping cricket break new ground

Late in the afternoon on a warm Sunday in New York, a car pulls up outside a shop in the Jackson Heights section of Queens. It's not too far removed from where Eddie Murphy arrived inconspicuously from the fictional land of Zamunda in a classic comedy from the 1980s. Today, a fitting and princely welcome awaits a legend coming to America to greet his adoring fans, with a troupe of bhangra dancers stomping to the beat of the dhol as he steps out of the car.

"That bhangra dance, it was really energetic. It was fantastic, very lively," Sunil Gavaskar said of the raucous reception. "If I wasn't restrained, I might have actually joined them." There were other crowds just like it in Dallas, Toronto, New York and New Jersey, where fans had the opportunity to meet Gavaskar, on a promotional tour. Visiting the United States brought back memories of his playing days, and occasional exhibition matches in the country.

"We actually played a few games of cricket here, way back in the '80s," Gavaskar said. "That was a time when there was no money in the game, so we all came in here and stayed with families. Because the economics didn't quite work out always for everybody, we would be maybe a party of eight people coming in from India and there would be three other guys playing from the local team and 11 of the club team. If the club had, say, 14 or 15 players, then three of their players would be part of the team that we were in. That's how we played a fair bit of cricket. We played in Dallas, Houston, New Jersey, New York."

The influx of South Asian immigrants into America over recent decades, and the West Indians who came before them, is one reason why the USA now generates more internet traffic on cricket websites than every country except India. But long before the internet, Gavaskar said, the interest was strong.

"Whenever these sort of teams travelled to the USA, like the teams that we brought in, there used to be massive crowds," he said. "We had India v Pakistan matches here. Obviously we couldn't call it India v Pakistan because our cricket boards would have objected. So it was an Indian XI v a Pakistani XI or an Imran Khan XI v a Gavaskar XI.

"The first time I ever played cricket in the USA was at Shea Stadium. It was the American All-Stars v the Rest of the World. That Rest of the World team was a pretty good team. Tony Greig was the captain, and we had Barry Richards, Alan Knott, John Snow, Majid Khan, Bishan Singh Bedi, and I think Farokh Engineer, so it was a very good team. "I would say there would have been about 14,000 people - that sort of gave you an idea of the interest.

"Now they are getting to see cricket. There is live streaming. There is a TV channel that is exclusively for cricket. Such TV channels wouldn't be feasible if there weren't enough people subscribing, so the interest level certainly is there, no question about it."

The sizeable crowds for those exhibitions were generated by fans raised on Test and one-day cricket. As T20 continues to spread its wings, many administrators hope that the format will become palatable to Americans outside the expatriate community. However, for any standard of cricket to prosper in the USA, Gavaskar believes that infrastructure is the key stumbling block.

"I think the most important thing for emerging countries like USA and China is to be able to get good pitches. I think pitches are so important because the pitches will give the club-level players the opportunity to play on surfaces which they don't have to worry about. The T20 game is about batting. For the spectators, the T20 game is all about watching the ball sail over the boundary into the stands, where some of them try to catch it. That can happen if you have good pitches. I think one of the reasons why cricket has not quite taken off is that a lot of the emerging countries don't have turf pitches.

"If you have good pitches, I would think 75% of the battle is won. To be able to build on that is what these countries need to do. There is an interest level there. I have seen it in the USA, and in Canada as well. The interest is quite massive and the cricket that they play on Saturdays and Sundays is quite intense."

"I think the most important thing for emerging countries like USA and China is to be able to get good pitches. The T20 game is about batting. For the spectators, the T20 game is all about watching the ball sail over the boundary into the stands. That can happen if you have good pitches"

Aside from the rise in popularity among fans around the USA, who might gravitate toward cricket because it can be condensed into three hours, corporate sponsors and media in the United States are also taking a greater interest. This year's World Twenty20, will be broadcast for free on ESPN3 in the USA. In turn, cricketers are getting increasingly better known in the country, which Gavaskar says is due to T20.

"For a sport that is not as internationally known as, say, soccer or tennis or even golf, I think cricket is getting the prominence that it is has got because of the T20 format. That's the one that has excited spectators, has gotten brands to come forward to get mileage for themselves through cricketers and through sponsoring events. I think T20 has certainly played a big role in making cricket, which earlier wasn't a career option, a very, very good career option now.

"It doesn't necessarily have to be playing the IPL or playing any of the other T20 leagues. I speak as an Indian. Even if you play in the domestic Ranji Trophy, with the kind of funds that the IPL has generated and which have now come into Indian cricket, a guy who doesn't play in the IPL but just plays Ranji Trophy is able to make a very good living. He earns a lot more than he would if he was working for a bank, an airline or the railways, which were the kind of jobs we did in the 1970s and '80s."

New on-field strategies have helped make the game more dynamic and helped make it grow more popular in the USA and elsewhere. As a regular fixture in the television commentary box, Gavaskar has gained an appreciation for the way all forms of cricket have transformed as a result of T20 cricket.

"The innovation that the batsmen have in playing some shots, the innovations that the bowlers have to resort to, to try and stop the batsmen from smashing them out of the ground, the back-of-the-hand bowling, the slower bouncers, the slower deliveries, the change of pace - these are all innovations that have added so much to the game.

"I just like to see the athleticism in the field. The fielding over the years has been outstanding. Also, the kind of physical training that they do. They are a much fitter and much stronger generation. So they hit the ball a fair distance more, they are able to last a little bit more. I love to watch that."

"I think I would have loved to have played T20. But on the other hand I'm very happy to have played in the time that I played in. Being in the commentary box gives me the opportunity to see the modern heroes, how the game is changing, how the approach and the attitude toward the game is changing. I can't thank the good Lord enough for having given me this opportunity to be able to travel around the world, meet different people and see the game that I love so much."

Sunil Gavaskar was interviewed in connection with MoneyGram's Ultimate Cricket Fan promotion, in which two people will be chosen to travel to the ICC World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka. More info here

Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jay on August 26, 2012, 20:03 GMT

    @YorkshirePudding & Grizzle: We can agree to disagree. I am not a fan of test cricket and you guys are not fans of T20. Fine with that. There will always be polarized opinions in that regard. If T20 is 'hit and giggle' for you guys, then test cricket to me 'drag and sob'. It's long, boring and way too complicated. It's a format that is OLD and cannot be embraced by new cricket playing countries. T20 is much more sweet on the eye and is a lot of fun. It can be easily understood by anyone who has never seen a game of cricket before. It provides every team with a realistic shot at winning games. In test cricket, the usual teams keep winning which is a poor advertisement for modern sport. A lowly ranked team has no hope in that format. The arguments against test cricket is MANY... but the arguments against T20 are far and few. The argument against T20s is usually about the money on offer. As if we all work in our jobs for free ha !

  • Rahul on August 26, 2012, 18:21 GMT

    @David pk. Not only this guy even any player from your country will do anything to play in IpL provided they get a chance

  • John on August 26, 2012, 13:11 GMT

    @Ashish_514: Gavaskar was only 25 when he made his momentous 36*, so I'm afraid you're just plain wrong. @Mark Demos: Yeah, right- and I don't know how to use a computer either, I still write letters. @Nigel Bradshaw and Cpt. Meanster: comparing the strategy in T20 with test cricket is like comparing cooking burger and fries with cooking a three-course gourmet meal. One requires a few basic cooking skills, the other requires careful planning, selection of numerous ingredients and a whole variety of skills necessary to make the different courses. The result is much the same, too; one is instant gratification but not very memorable and the other can be looked back on for years as a great experience. You stick to your fast food, I'll take the gourmet meal any day.

  • Hemant on August 26, 2012, 12:08 GMT

    Sunny says "I would have loved to play T20", yet, he is the one who score 36 runs in 60 overs in a World Cup .. funny Sunny!

  • david on August 26, 2012, 10:44 GMT

    this guy will do anything to keep his job in the ipl and his workings with the bcci hes so much out of his time and depth and for a cricketer who so played for himself.

  • Jason on August 26, 2012, 6:45 GMT

    @Ashish_514, OD games have been played since the early 60's at domestic level, and 70's at international level, however at club level OD games choice as people simple couldnt fit in 3 days to play 4 innings so they resorted to playing one innings of ~60 overs a-side games, which could easily be completed on a saturday/sunday on the village green.

  • Jason on August 26, 2012, 6:37 GMT

    @Cpt.Meanster, in the 90's the same was said of test cricket in regards to ODI's, yet it survived. Yet it is ODI cricket that is quite sick at the moment as its niether the purist form of the game (Test), or the ADHD form (t20). I'm sure that at some point T20 will replace bowlers with static bowling machines, bowling random Quick, Medium, spin deliveries. In the end T20 is hits and giggle fun to watch over a few beers after work, it doesnt even get interesting until the last 5 overs of a game anyway, yet if you want a game that can ebb and flow then tests have no equal as a team thats on top one day can be at under the khosh the next.

  • s on August 26, 2012, 5:55 GMT

    Cpt.Meanster: Fallacious reasoning this! If *any* team can win the game (irrespective of how good they are), then why does strategy play a role? The teams might as well just land up and hope for the best! For what it's worth, I agree with you entirely: in T20, winning has nothing to do with how good a team is. That is because 20 overs a side is too short to allow a contest to develop.

  • Dummy4 on August 26, 2012, 0:07 GMT

    "I just like to see the athleticism in the field. The fielding over the years has been outstanding. Also, the kind of physical training that they do. They are a much fitter and much stronger generation." End of the day, let us agree fielding in relation to batting and bowling has not the due recognition it deserves. Catches win Matches, yet "FIELDER" is never the Man of the Match ! I am a big cricket fan.

    1969-70. India vs. Australia. 5th Test at Chennai (then Madras). 1st day's play. Australian Batsman Doug Walters just then completed a chanceless century. The last over of the day. Bowler - Bishen Bedi. Penultimate delivery. Venkatraghavan, the customary gully fielder was moved to first slip. As the bowler delivered, the ball flew off the edge of Walters' bat. Venkat simply turned around 180 degrees behind to snatch the ball just before it could kiss the grass.

    If I could remember the qualitative ton of Walters, evenly I could recall the spark

  • KISH on August 25, 2012, 23:43 GMT

    ICC should combine ODI and T20I in one world cup of limited-over cricket. 2 points for an ODI win and 1 point for a T20 win. Then you could also have a 5-day final. That would mean, the teams should be selected in such a way that they can fit into all type of cricket. Maybe the 5-day final is farfetched. However, ODI and T20I can be combined.

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