Cricket is confused. It wants the money – and how – and it wants to retain its purity. It wants it all. At every turn in the past week, players and administrators have offered more or less the same answer to the same thorny question as though sharing collective, if limited, responsibility for where they are going – they love Twenty20 but they could not live without Tests, and togetherthey can co-exist.
It has been fascinating to hear, first in Bangalore and then here in Delhi yesterday as the IndianPremier League circus packed its television rigs and moved on. But when the talking stopped for a moment, the tournament could simply not have had a more auspicious innings to grab the attention of the cricket world.
On Friday night at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, Brendon McCullum did what no amount of money or entertainment appendages could do. He played cricket from the gods. In 73 balls of selective destruction and brutality for Kolkata Knight Riders against Bangalore Royal Challengers, he supplied the reason for this tournament's existence, the prospect that it could, just, become the most enticing series in the game.
The innings, the highest in all T20, killed off the match but (just this once) not the occasion. By the time Michael Hussey made an unbeaten 114 from a mere 54 balls yesterday afternoon, however, the mood shifted. Hussey too batted wonderfully – on a flatter pitch and smaller ground – but he put Chennai Super Kings way ahead of Punjab Kings.
Nor was it close in Delhi later. At least there was all but a full house of 40,000 and the bowlers had a look-in. Glenn McGrath, looking as though he had never been away, and Farveez Maharoof were wonderfully controlled in establishing Delhi Daredevils' ascendancy over Rajasthan Royals (this is another reason for confusion: sorting out the pecking order of the aristocracy). The Royals, also running dreadfully, were restricted to 129 for 8, too few for even Shane Warne to manipulate a victory. The Daredevils won in 15.1 overs, Gautam Gambhir, the World T20 final hero, at last reminding us that Indians can play this game.
The captains' hardest task may be in making their teams gel because in any accepted sense they are hardly teams at all, a fact that may not escape the public. They are packages bundled hastily together. That is but one of the anomalies of the tournament.
Warne has fashioned a career, a life indeed, out of making cricket a piece of theatre, and this stage could have been set up with him in mind despite his 38 years and burgeoning waistline. He is the only non-Indian captain here, but they will probably become more commonplace if the fans take to the concept of following a city team.
Another anomaly, of special significance to the England and Wales Cricket Board considering what is riding on it for their members, is the T20 Champions' League. When the IPL was announced last September it was as an ancillary to the Champions' League, which was to feature the top two T20 teams from India, England, Australia and South Africa, with a top prize of $2 million (£1m). While this has been put into the shade by the $20m offered by the Texan billionaire Sir Allen Stanford for one game between England and West Indies, it could still turn a county cricketer's head.
Trouble was that when the IPL took off and India's richest industrialists and Bollywood actors hitched their stars and oodles of rupees to its wagon (McCullum could hardly have done more to justify $700,000 for six weeks), the Champions' League was sidelined. The ECB were here in force last week to drag it back on to main street.
Their chief executive, David Collier, confirmed the Indian Board had asked England to organise it. They have to find a date, identify a venue, write the regulations and invite the teams. The Indians possibly lost interest because they worked outthat without stars – and county cricketers do not fall into that category – it would hardly have support from anywhere.
"There are some problems with 2008 scheduling but everyone wants it to happen," said Collier. "It's a big ask to launch it at the same time as the IPL but it has broadcasting and sponsorship value. A number of sponsors I'm sure would be very, very interested. The prize money could come out of broadcasting and sponsorship revenues, much more than spectator revenues."
It begs the question of who might watch the tournament and offers up the prospect of Kent Spitfires Supporters' Club organ-ising a charabanc outing to Dubai, the ICC headquarters and hot favourites to be hosts in October. That would depend on the Spitfires retaining the Trophy,of course, which they will be trying hard to do, partly because of the £2m and partly because their chief executive (see below) thinks the days of the Championship are numbered.
If T20 is being kept afloat on a sea of cash, that hardly matters if, firstly, the players understand that it is also proper cricket and, secondly, that some accommodation continues to be found for longer forms. All the cricketers in India for the IPL have recognised the allure of the T20 dollar and offered thanks, while emphasising their rectitude by pledging their troth to Tests. It is the man who swears enduring fidelity to his wife and still enjoys a bit on the side.
There is no point in trying to occupy any moral high ground, less still in attempting to preach. The game satisfies the cravings of a modern audience while still paying appropriate homage to the great creation that brought us here. The Indian Premier League was bound to be invented, if not in India, then in England (they wish, oh how they must wish) or Australia, whence came World Series Cricket as delivered by the television mogul Kerry Packer to begin the last revolution 30 years ago.
For five years since it revived the county game, it has been obvious that T20 had something. The World T20 in South Africa confirmed its status both as a compelling game in its own right and as a slice of showbiz – and because India won it and because India is still the economic powerhouse of the sport and easily its most populated territory of any consequence, the next step became inevitable.
There were other reasons, chiefly self-protection, and so after eight frenetic months it was born. India and its brash new board, who took control two years ago, deserve credit for the sheer logistical organisation involved in the enterprise.
The next step is to ensure its popularity. The Chinnaswamy was full on Friday and what an atmosphere it was; they talk of the great European nights at Anfield – well, multiply that threefold. Mohali had empty spaces yesterday, and Feroz Shah Kotla here in Delhi was close to full capacity last night.
But it will be a fortnight before we know whether Indians have taken to it. They adore cricket (though not in the numbers they once did, for young middle-class Indians have distractions too) and worship T20. This a severe test of their idolatry, and so high are the stakes that all cricket depends on it.