He's celebrating his 30th birthday quietly in Mumbai, playing Twenty20 cricket for Punjab, but Dinesh Mongia could well be in for a career resurgence thanks to this form of the game. He's of course no stranger to career dips and ups. He's been in and out of the Indian team since he made his debut in 2001, coming back to the side for the 2003 World Cup and again almost making the cut for the squad that went to the West Indies to the 2007 edition.
He won't be happy with the 55 ODIs he's played, scoring 1196 runs at 28.47, yet believing he should have got a longer run. But when it comes to Twenty20 cricket, he's far and away the most experienced of all the Indians. With 29 Twenty20 matches, most of them for Lancashire and Leicestershire in England, he shades the bigger names like Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, who have barely wet their toes in this form of the game.
Surprisingly, though, even with all his experience, Mongia feels that playing Twenty20 is no different from 50-over cricket. "See, it's still a game of bat and ball," he told Cricinfo, after expressing surprise that someone remembered it was his birthday, which falls one week before the biggest birthday in Indian cricket, Tendulkar's on April 24. "The way I look at it, you still have to play your natural game. I like to go for my shots, so it doesn't really make that much of a difference to me."
Although Dinesh Karthik walked away with the Man-of-the-Match award in the only Twenty20 international India played, against South Africa, Mongia had a big role to play, making 38 runs in a tight chase. "It's not that serious a form of the game at the moment," said Mongia. "It's more a case of going out there and having some fun. It's not really the ultimate in cricket or anything."
But Twenty20 cricket is serious business in some parts of the world. The kind of attention it has drawn in England, where the game was conceived, is phenomenal, and it has done more to attract audiences to the game, especially in domestic cricket, than anything else. Twenty20 matches have been pencilled into the family calendars, and a game between the Leicestershire Foxes and the Lancashire Lightning, both teams Mongia has played for, is more likely to draw a full house than not. But Mongia doesn't see that happening in India. "Look, let's be honest, I don't really see that happening here. In India people only go to the ground for international matches," he said. "Of course it would be brilliant if people came and supported their teams like it happens in England. It's a huge difference playing in that atmosphere. But here, even with international stars playing, whether it is in the Ranji Trophy or Duleep [Trophy], we can't seem to draw crowds for domestic cricket."
|Since it is being held in India for the first time, people make so many assumptions and say 'bowl like this', 'bat like this'. People must first play and experience it and then decide how it should be played|
The game, which is still being played on an experimental level in India, has yet to evolve like it has in England. "The more you play and the more experience you gain, it will become easier to adapt and try different things. You need more time to think about it and more time to learn to play it," Mongia said, but stressed that there was no need to try and do things dramatically differently, adding, "skills and intelligence will make one a successful player".
One of the problems players have faced in this edition is going into the game with an approach of trying to hit everything out of sight. That, as Mongia correctly points out, is not the way forward. "Just like how one-day cricket became the shorter version of Test cricket this has become a shortened version of one-day cricket," he said. "Since it is being held in India for the first time, people make so many assumptions and say 'bowl like this', 'bat like this'. People must first play and experience it and then decide how it should be played."
Mongia has had his share of fun in the shortest version of the game, but the most amusing came when he was bowling for Lancashire in the Twenty20 semifinal against Surrey in 2004. Mongia had sent down two overs for just six runs, picking up a couple of wickets and his captain, Andrew Flintoff, walked across to him. "If you bowl like this you won't be too popular, the crowds will not come to watch this. People come to watch batsmen score runs," Flintoff said to him, obviously in jest. It might be all fun and games for the players at the moment, but Twenty20 is set to take root in India, and when it does, you can be sure it will be serious business, both on and off the field. And who knows, for someone like Mongia it could well throw a fresh lifeline. Already there are plenty of one-day specialists, who don't get a look-in in Tests. The day of the Twenty20 specialist is not far.
Anand Vasu is associate editor of Cricinfo