Twenty20: More than a game in so many ways
The T20 has been a huge success and today's final will be particularly poignant
Sunday 21 June 2009
Two teams blessed with sublime and inventive skills will contest the World Twenty20 final today. The arrival at Lord's of Pakistan and Sri Lanka should also be the final vindication of a form of the game that has not quite persuaded those who regard themselves as purists of its legitimacy.
But in the past fortnight, Twenty20 cricket has come of age while retaining the idealism and freshness of youth. It has demonstrated – not least through the two wonderful sides which have reached the final – that bowlers have a significant part to play in the construction and destiny of matches and that batting is not merely a less thuggish type of slogging.
The tournament has been entertaining and diverting. T20 is not Test cricket, it cannot be, nor ever will it be. But it contains a beauty and vigour of its own. The lack of close matches has hardly been noticed.
It has helped considerably that the players have not merely bought into it by so obviously caring but also by their craving to develop new and different ways of batting, bowling and fielding.
At the forefront of these delightful enhancements have been today's two combatants. They have evolved rather haphazardly but both teams recognised long ago that there was scope to do something different. Indeed, they took it further: they understood the necessity of it.
That alone is reason enough for Pakistan and Sri Lanka to be at the home of cricket today. But there is something else, something which adds an almost unbearable poignancy to the occasion. It is an emotional element that takes the match from the fascinating to the compelling.
The last time these two sides met was in March in Lahore, in the second match of a Test series. On the third day, the Sri Lankan team coach was approaching the Gadaffi Stadium when it was attacked by terrorists.
The team threw themselves to the floor as bullets riddled the vehicle and flew over their heads. Seven of them, including their estimable captain Kumar Sangakkara, were injured. Six policeman escorting the bus were killed.
The match was abandoned and cricket had changed forever. Then there is the state of the countries these sides represent. Sri Lanka, it hopes and prays, has seen the end of the bitter civil war that scarred the country for 20 years. The cricket team, Sangakkara fervently believes, can be an integral part of the healing process.
Pakistan looks increasingly ungovernable and as a direct result of the March attack it is unthinkable that any cricket team from anywhere will tour there in the short or mid-term. Yet their progress to this final has been greeted ecstatically at home, showing the world not only that there is a civilised face to Pakistan but also that cricket forms a fetching part of it.
Younus Khan, the side's engaging captain, comes from Mardan, in the north-west, fertile ground for the Taliban where it took two months for government soldiers to vanquish them. In squares around the nation, giant screens were erected to show the semi-final against South Africa and there was a huge outpouring of joy.
What it would do for cricket and society in the country is almost boundless. For a few precious hours people may be able to forget the bloody mess around them.
For the neutral observer, a victory for either side would be welcome on human as well as sporting grounds. These two teams have been wonderful to watch. They have arrived at the final by different routes. Pakistan have lost two matches, including a defeat to Sri Lanka, who have won them all.
At the start, Pakistan, although they were the most successful of all teams in international Twenty20, hardly seemed to have a strategy. They did not know who their best opening batsmen were and were not quite certain who should bowl and when. What a change there has been.
In the splendid Umar Gul, they have had the most thrilling fast bowler in the tournament (with Sri Lanka's Lasith Malinga running him close). Gul is a master of fast reverse swing and by holding him back until 10 overs or more have gone, Pakistan have hit on a devilish plan.
Opponents are aware of what is coming and understand that they may not be able to do anything about it. Such knowledge can affect the approach to what goes before.
But Pakistan also have one of the key spin bowlers in the tournament in Saeed Ajmal, who defies the perception that cricketers who play for Pakistan all come into the side as teenagers. Ajmal was 30 when he began and his wrong 'un has been one of the constricting treasures.
Pakistan have just about got enough out of their batting, though it has shown its traditional brittleness. However, if one of their blazing hitters, Shahid Afridi or Abdul Razzaq (a late replacement and resuming a career that seemed to have ended two years ago), comes off anything is possible.
As for Sri Lanka, they are masterfully composed. They have provided the batsman of the tournament, Tillakaratne Dilshan. If his contribution has been defined by his wonderfully executed scoop shot, the Dilscoop, he has given much more besides.
It has been a joy to watch him and Sanath Jayasuriya open the innings. Jayasuriya has had a quiet time of it (and why not, for he is 40 next week) but he redefined the nature of one-day batting 12 years ago. Now Dilshan has done the same: two frontier-busting pioneers from the same country.
And then there have been the slow men, Muttiah Muralitharan and, incredibly, overshadowing him, Ajantha Mendis. They have brought death by strangulation and, as with Gul, batsmen know what is coming and are powerless to resist. Mendis is bowling in a language that has not yet been interpreted.
This tournament has been a tremendous success for England, if not for their cricket team. There has been a perception, created by the Indian Premier League, that Twenty20 cricket should be based on cities, clubs and franchises. Maybe, maybe not. The IPL has some sway. But this fortnight has confirmed the place of the form in the international arena. It has been a hoot.
Top game Despite a strong list of contenders, Holland's victory over England in the opener shades it. To be part-timers and beat the hosts at the home of cricket in a nerve-shredder is the stuff of fantasy.
Top innings In terms of control, innovation and necessity, Tillakaratne Dilshan's 96 not out in the semi-final was magnificent in any sort of cricket.
Top bowling Against powerful spin contenders, Umar Gul's 5 for 6 against New Zealand in a match Pakistan had to win was controlled, fast swing bowling at its exciting best.
Top fielding A hugely honourable mention to Kyle Coetzer for his one-handed boundary effort for Scotland against South Africa but Shahid Afridi's running effort taking the ball over his shoulder, inches from the boundary, against New Zealand was stunning.
Top wicketkeeping Kamran Akmal's four stumpings against Holland and Kumar Sangakkara's leg-side effort off Murali in Sri Lanka's semi-final are deserving but patriotism, the last refuge of a scoundrel, demands James Foster's lightning removal of India's Yuvraj Singh.
Top moment Dilshan's Dilscoop which goes over the wickie's head, first unfurled against the Aussies, has changed batting.
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