John Walsh: Passion, drama, ecstasy – who'd have thought cricket can be such fun?

Tales of the City
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The Independent Online

I've recently taken up a strange, unfamiliar, late-night activity that would shock anyone who knows your humble scribe's aversion to sport, teams, scores or gratuitous running about. I've become riveted by the Twenty20 cricket on television. Night after night finds me glued to the screen, pulse racing, fists clenched, wishing I were there in the (unusually ecstatic and flag-waving) crowd. When did the game become so exciting, so refreshingly ungentlemanly, so passionate, so sexy?

When I was a kid, I did my best to love cricket. I slathered my junior bat with linseed oil before every Thursday-afternoon game, at which I would be dismissed in four minutes for a titanic two runs and would blub all the way back to the pavilion in the suddenly cold sunshine. I tried to empathise with Teddy Lester, the insufferable public-school hero of John Finnemore's books, who seemed to spend his life bowling "yorkers" and discussing "fixtures" with his yappy chums. I tried to hero-worship John Edrich, Fred Trueman and Gary Sobers, but it was more a theoretical devotion, as if to distant uncles, than true love.

At university, I liked the bolshy air of Derek Randall, who resembled Pete Townshend of The Who, and the way Clive Lloyd came onto a pitch insouciantly dragging his bat behind him as if he really couldn't give flying full toss about the game. But as for the game itself ...

My friend Robert mastered the art of lying on a sofa, watching cricket on TV all day with the sound down and Radio 4's Test Match Special supplying the commentary, between mouthfuls of Victoria sponge. I couldn't join in. I couldn't get cricket. It was something to do with the Forward Defensive Stroke. I never learned how to do it: how to angle your bat in that elaborate way, do that rather effete twist of your wrists and hips to offer a ladylike "No, thank you ... " to the speeding ball. It seemed, frankly, pathetic. If a missile is hurled at you, I reasoned, your chief response is to whack the thing into the next county, not to have it just subside in front of you. But it happened again and again. Johnson and Blofeld, the Radio 4 chaps, would murmur, "Vay fine defensive block from Tony Greig ... " and it would go on all afternoon. In baseball, I knew, a batter who was comprehensively foxed by the pitcher was allowed one final defensive "bunt", after which he had to drop his bat and run like hell. In cricket, a batsman could bunt all day, while the score stuck fast on 179, and nobody minded.

Twenty20 is like the answer to a prayer. The urgency to score that's prompted by limited overs is transforming; you can see it in the batsmen's eyes. When they've got to make 70 runs in five overs, when they have to make at least three runs per ball, no matter how impossible they know it to be, a mad gleam comes into their eyes, a gleam that says, "I'm going to make 36 in six balls. No, really, I am." They make bolder decisions about what strokes to play. They nerve themselves to make every ball count, even if it's flung at their feet at 156mph by Lasith Malinga.

Critics say it cheapens the currency of British cricketing stroke-play, all that whacking and slogging, that grandstanding pursuit of flashy fours and sixes. I say, thank heavens for that. Every Twenty20 cricket match is like a brilliantly edited version of the old-fashioned, five-day match but with added spice and drama and little chance of a draw, at least not in the old sense. And what's wrong with a bit of whacking? Some nations thrive on it. Until they were pipped by Sri Lanka for nine runs, Ireland played brilliantly on Sunday; the Irish prefer to wallop a ball rather than "edge" it to silly mid-off, or "glance" it to leg. Centuries of hurling heroics have created a race ill-disposed to playing forward defensive strokes. Forty-over matches are creating a new kind of cricket, in which the bowling is more furious and aggressive (see Mr Malinga), the batting more adventurous and chance-taking, the fielding more fleet and tenacious and the crowd more delirious, than has been seen in the game before. It's like watching a whiskery habitué of the Long Room being reborn as Luke Wright.

Can't we do the Test Match in 40 overs? But even uttering the words, I can hear the cricket world lift a gigantic forward defensive stroke against the very thought.