World T20: The shortest format is the gimme that is saving cricket

Among the enduring memories of the inaugural World Twenty20, one was provided by Kevin Pietersen. Having taken Zimbabwe to the cleaners in a group match by scoring 79 from 37 balls with some outrageous hitting that involved both the switch and the flamingo, he delivered his verdict.

“It’s a silly game, play silly shots,” he said. Over the years – and in fairness over the course of that tournament – Pietersen came to revise his opinion. Neither the shots nor the game are deemed to be silly now. It recalls the line from the great Bob Monkhouse: “They laughed when I said I was going to be a comedian. They’re not laughing now.”

But if Pietersen was the one supplying the soundbite in September 2007 he was not alone in his thoughts. Twenty20 had been around for five years by then, devised in England largely to revive an ailing domestic game. It had worked delightfully but it was still seen as an  appendage, and there were still those who doubted its durability as a form of the sport.

When the sixth World Twenty20 begins in India on Tuesday, with a match between Zimbabwe and Hong Kong, it is as the representative of a format that is lord of all it surveys in cricket. England, praise be, have a slender but genuine chance of  repeating their improbable and too frequently overlooked win in 2010, if they remain true to their recently uninhibited selves. 

The suggestion has been made that T20 – or twenny-twenny as it always seems to have been labelled as if estuary English were needed to describe an estuary game – could be the eventual saviour of club cricket, and it is unquestionably to be the main plank of a burgeoning women’s game. There remains a dilemma whether its real future in the big-time men’s arena is as an international spectacle or as a sequence of domestic competitions played mostly among city-based franchise sides. Probably, but not exclusively, the latter. There is a way in which, irony of ironies, it could yet come barrelling to the rescue of Test cricket.

During its brief lifespan there have been several key moments. The most recent was perhaps the Big Bash competition in Australia. On 2 January at the MCG, long since  in truth more a home  for Aussie Rules Footy than a cricket stadium, 80,883 spectators turned up for a match between the Melbourne Stars and the Melbourne Renegades. 

The Stars won by seven wickets and, emphasising the global, importantly cosmopolitan nature of domestic T20, Luke Wright of England made 109 from 63 balls (his team mate, Pietersen, failed for once). In their wisdom, the selectors have managed to avoid choosing Wright, one of the biggest, most uncomplicated sluggers around, for England’s squad in this world tournament. They may yet come to regret the oversight.

Wright and Pietersen played a full role in this year’s triumphant Big Bash. There was the undoubted sense from thousands of miles away that it was captivating Australians, but that it had arrived not only there but was achieving audiences outside the country. It was palpably exciting to follow. 

The Big Bash works both as a live spectacle aimed squarely at family audiences and as a television event where the producers have achieved the correct but frequently elusive balance between technical explanation and entertaining punditry. The chemistry, as TV loves to call it, works. 

Twenty20 is now a game of the people in a way Test cricket perhaps has never been. If that is a heretical statement, it comes from one who appreciates Tests as a companion in life and who was, finally, utterly transfixed by it in a match between England and Australia at Old Trafford in 1964 when Australia scored 656-8dec and England replied with 611. It was just about one of the biggest five-day bore draws of all time. Imagine that occurring now – both match and the being transfixed.

When the much-maligned England and Wales Cricket Board came up with the idea of Twenty20 it was a blend of desperation as much as market research. A shorter form of the game had been touted for a couple of years by the former Middlesex batsman, John Carr, who was with the ECB then and now, as director of operations. Carr’s brainchild was buttressed by market research, which was cleverly drawn together by a chap called Stuart Robertson in their marketing department. 

Early in 2002, Lord MacClaurin, the ECB chairman at the time and a former chairman of Tesco, decided to stage a brainstorming session in Valderrama in southern Spain. Scores of people connected to the game including journalists (this one among them) were invited. The idea for a new short form of the game was unveiled.

But it did not have a name. The audience was invited to supply suggestions. Some of them were jotted down on the back of fag packets. The name Twenty20, suggested by three people (all 80-odd have probably since claimed as their own), was adopted and in 2003 in England the world’s first competition started. It was an immediate success in a hot summer. The players embraced it, liking the intensity of the competition and its speed. They played it quickly too with new batsmen virtually running to the wicket and bowlers bounding back to their marks.

Hitting heights: World T20 finals

2007: India beat Pakistan by 5 runs (Johannesburg, South Africa)

2009: Pakistan beat Sri Lanka by 8 wickets (London)

2010: England beat Australia by 7 wickets (Bridgetown, Barbados)

2012: West Indies beat Sri Lanka by 36 runs (Colombo, Sri Lanka)

2014: Sri Lanka beat India by 6 wickets (Dhaka, Bangladesh)

Along the way, the English T20 game lost something. The ECB, having got lucky once in Valderrama, appeared to be writing plans for its development on the back of fag packets, which itself can be a difficult task when your head is stuck in the sand. But it meant a generation of players, this generation, was brought up with T20 as part of the furniture, indeed the centrepiece of the room. Jos Buttler, one of the most eminent practitioners, has recalled fondly visiting the Taunton ground as a schoolboy (he was 12 in 2003) and being entranced by it. For Buttler and his chums T20 and all that goes with it – the ramp, the switch, the array of different cunning balls to try to counter them – are second nature. 

Those heady early days made it inevitable that it would be played internationally. The first such match was between Australia and New Zealand at Eden Park in February 2005 when Ricky Ponting fell two runs short of making the first T20 international hundred (that honour fell to Chris Gayle in the first match of the first World Twenty20). 

The second match was between England and Australia at the start of the 2005 summer and England’s victory is generally recognised as having granted  them the assurance that allowed them to regain the Ashes in the epic Test series that followed.

India, however, remained resistant to its charms. In the light of subsequent events this is extraordinary, but they were suspicious of it, fretful that it might impinge on the precious one-day commodity that had transformed the game in the sub-continent after the 1983 World Cup win. This was as much a question of commerce as aesthetics. The thinking was that more advertising could be crammed into a 50-over game than one of 20 overs a side. What happened next was remarkable. India were extremely reluctant participants in the 2007 World Twenty20. There was some talk that they could hardly be bothered to turn up. Before the tournament India had played one solitary T20 international.

But they found they liked it and took to it. They found themselves in the final against Pakistan. Had Misbah-ul-Haq’s brave scoop shot cleared the field instead of being caught at short fine leg by Sreesanth who knows what might have happened? But the wicket off the third ball of the 20th over secured India victory by five runs and an entire nation was swept along on the crest of its wave.

The Indian Premier League was born not long after and if the quality of play in it has sometimes not been much to write home about the size of the pay packets and the accompanying razzmatazz have accorded it a special status. It feels like an event. The IPL might be tacky but, given the perfect start by Brendon  McCullum’s scintillating hundred in its opening match it has never looked back. 

The Big Bash, which appears somehow grander and less gaudy, has undoubtedly helped the cause of Twenty20. 

Twenty20 is now a game of the people in a way which Test cricket perhaps has never been.

 

But whither Test cricket? It seems unconscionable that bilateral tours between countries can continue on their present path. The world has moved on. Test cricket might be wonderful but it attracts audiences that are too small. T20 can help. The men’s game can and should steal an idea from the women’s game, invented for the purposes of series between England and Australia.

These combine tours so that points are awarded for a single Test match, for one day internationals and for T20s, of which there are usually three each. There are more points available for Test matches than for limited-overs matches. Could it be that historic contests such as the Ashes are ring-fenced from all this but that other tours are contests on the basis that the winner is the one that comes from playing across all three formats?

It would give greater meaning and context to both Tests and T20s (not to mention ODIs) and enthuse players and spectators. In between, the Big Bash, the IPL, the Caribbean  Premier League, the Pakistan Super League and whatever the ECB comes up with next can thrive on its own, given a decent level of competition. 

A World Twenty20 every four years can be a star on its own. If England can somehow contrive a run to the final in India the effect on the game here could be as dramatic as an Ashes victory. And “silly” would be the word furthest from anyone’s lips.

Comments