Oh well, bring it on

Until a couple of months ago I was clear about where I stood vis- -vis Twenty20. It was a frivolity to be tolerated.

I recognised the crucial role it had played in reviving interest in cricket in England - though I believe the 2005 Ashes did more - and I was willing to concede that it had a place in the increasingly commercial world of cricket. But did I care about it as a form of the game? Yes, about as much as Bill O'Reilly cared about one-day cricket. If one-dayers were pyjama cricket, this would be "the briefs game".

Then I went and watched a game at a ground - not as a writer, as a spectator. West Indies were playing England at The Oval, and I took up an invitation from Cricinfo's head of sales, who had a few seats booked for his clients. After all, you must try everything once. Well, most things.

It was a gorgeous evening. The rains stayed away, the sun burst through occasionally and the ground was packed. It was just as well that the bar was just behind us. Guinness and Pimm's flowed liberally, as did runs from the bats of Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Marlon Samuels. I got up to buy a round and missed three fours. I didn't get up again till the innings got over. Of course, it didn't take long. At the break, I came to the guilty realisation that I had rather enjoyed myself.

The setting was perfect: I wasn't bothered about being a cricket writer, and the timing allowed me to squeeze the match in between work and a dinner engagement. I had experienced first-hand why the format had taken off the way it had: it had "made for England" written all over it.

But though I am far less sniffy about Twenty20 now, I am not yet a convert. My reservations centre around two fundamental aspects.

For the true lover of the game, Twenty20 deviates from cricket's central, most appealing qualities: the length, the leisurely pace, the turns in the plot, the contest between bat and the ball, and the individual contests within the team game.

And it also deviates from what we have come over years to believe are the central skills of the game. Admittedly this is less true for batsmen, who, as Mark Ramprakash, one of the most successful players on the English Twenty20 circuit, pointed out, can get by playing the same strokes, just more often.

Just why is it that in a 50-overs game we often find batting in the first 15 overs more thrilling than in the last ten? Because both batsmen and spectators are aware of the risks. There is an element of calculation and risk involved when a batsman like Sachin Tendulkar decides to take on Andrew Flintoff in the first ten overs of an ODI. Tendulkar's wicket at that point counts for a considerable amount. In the last ten overs, particularly when wickets are of little consequence, the equation is loaded completely in favour of the batsman, who literally has nothing to lose. Some have described Twenty20 games as the first and the last ten overs of 50-overs matches. That would be a just description if the batting side had only five wickets to lose.

Maybe cricket doesn't have to be the way we know it. Or more aptly, perhaps cricket is big enough to accommodate three varieties, each with its own distinct flavour and specialised skills. Who are we to complain if Twenty20 finds its own fan base and its own stars?

Worst of all, the game has no place for the traditional skills of bowlers. Perverse on the bowlers as it is, the 50-overs format usually affords a bowler the luxury of one proper spell at least, and if two bowlers are bowling well together, there is a genuine chance of wickets falling. In Twenty20, most bowlers are focused on avoiding punishment. And this reduction in the emphasis on wicket-taking skills can drag the greats down to the level of the ordinary. A game where Chris Schofield can be as good, or better, than Shane Warne can't be cricket as we have known it.

But maybe cricket doesn't have to be the way we know it. Or more aptly, perhaps cricket is big enough to accommodate three varieties, each with its own distinct flavour and specialised skills. Who are we to complain if Twenty20 finds its own fan base and its own stars?

The good thing about Twenty20 is that, unlike the condensed versions tried earlier in the form of Super Sixes and Cricket Max, it contains, barring the free-hit, no alteration of the rules. And because it does not lay as much emphasis on cricket skills, it could turn out be more proletarian, affording a slightly more even platform to the lesser teams - not to say that this is necessarily a good thing. Australia will still begin as overwhelming favourites, given their all-round superiority, but this version does give a team like Bangladesh, who can be good in bursts, a greater chance of causing an upset.

And though the ICC's zeal in organising a Twenty20 World Cup can be termed as opportunistic and driven by commercial interests - this will be the third World Cup in the space of 12 months (if you include the Champions Trophy, which is a World Cup in all but name) - it is a relief that the whole thing will be over in two weeks. Unlike the one in the West Indies, which is best forgotten like a bad dream, the organisers have resisted the temptation of stretching this one out. Watching back-to-back cricket matches might take some getting used to, but if we stick-in-the-mud types can rise above our hang-ups, it might even be fun. Bring it on.