Game changer

As T20 returns, in a game wired for worry, expect anxious looks back to a golden age

Does any game worry more than cricket?" asks cricket writer Gideon Haigh while introducing a collection of essays. If you have any doubt that the answer is anything but "no", pay close attention to the background chatter these coming days and you shall be convinced that his question is obviously rhetorical. For nothing is guaranteed to fling cricket's enthusiasts into paroxysms of despair as much as the start of yet another Twenty20 match. Beware, though, as the World T20 gets under way in Sri Lanka today — that despair can be catching.

There is a single question at the heart of this current spate of worrying that has been the background hum for the five years since India won the title at the inaugural tournament in 2007, and especially since the Indian Premier League (IPL) appeared to rewrite the club versus country (and by implication, a four-hour-long slam-bam versus a five-day contest of skill and strategy) priorities of many leading cricketers. It is this: is cricket, as we have known it, in danger of extinction? In the analytical grasp of the most conscientious worriers, the answer is taken for granted, and the question is better posed as this: how much damage will T20 wreak before folks see the light and abandon what are, in these purists' view, its fleeting thrills?

If only they'd stop worrying and learn to laugh at themselves. If only they'd see cricket as it really has been. Because cricket, even before a marketing genius at the England and Wales Cricket Board unwittingly launched the T20 era in 2003, was always wired for worry. Step back, and you have to chuckle at the audacity of cricket's expectations. Just by way of an example: a game born in England — England, where we just saw marathon runners brave the rain in pursuit of an Olympic medal — demands dry conditions for play to proceed. When we are done worrying about the weather and what that easterly breeze or that overnight dew may mean for the drift of play, we fret over the keenness of the contest. Let it not be too one-sided, please, or we will lose interest, and then what have you.

I mean, look what has already been done to one-day internationals (ODIs). Hockey and football have made play incrementally more racy by simplifying the rules. One-day cricket? To keep the viewer at the edge of her seat, the rules are always being tinkered with to be made even more complicated. Fielding restrictions, power-plays, bowling protocols... any wonder that she is choosing the simpler world of T20s?

In fact, no game is as fearful of its viewers losing interest as cricket. A half-empty Wankhede for an ODI in India, and a veteran like Sanjay Manjrekar will ask whether it's a signal that the format should be abandoned altogether. Scanty attendance for a Test match at Eden Gardens, and as thoughtful a cricketer as Rahul Dravid will recommend a neat split in the context for different formats: bilateral country-to-country tours for Tests along with a championship title, ICC-managed multi-nation one-day tournaments, and T20 domestic leagues.

Yet, we need not fear that Manjrekar's or Dravid's wise suggestions will even be picked for serious consideration. I have been a cricket fan for more than a quarter of a century now and from that first moment of fandom, the game has kept me acutely aware of how glorious it had been back in the day. To be honest, this edgy narrative of a game in danger of reckless change adds to its allure, it makes cricket not just any other sport but a noble cause. Except now when we hark back to a more innocent time, it includes that time, circa the 1980s, when we had actually been agonising about the direction cricket had begun to take. My limited point being, change steals over cricket — it is not coherently incorporated.

Why, right now, we would be happy to turn the clock back a mere five years, a mere five years since all these millions of gullible viewers mistook this gimmick called T20 for the real thing. Just erase these five years, and look at what you get: an approximation of the golden age of cricket, that age before the inaugural T20 world title was grabbed by India, setting the stage for the IPL.

Clocks do not turn back, alas. And neither will the imposition of club versus country comparisons shame players or viewers into abandoning the IPL. Nor will calling T20s entertainment and Test cricket sport amount to anything more than pointless sophistry, especially when cricket's greats have shown they will give their best to this shorter format too.

Cricket may be headed towards a disaster of five or ten-over cricket matches. Or it may not be. But it does itself no good by carrying on as if the distinction between a T20 record at the club level and one at the international level is as clear cut as one between a first-class record and a Test match/ODI record. It can certainly be debated whether the manner in which the BCCI has leveraged Indian television viewership is for cricket's good or bad, as also whether its IPL procedures meet the test of transparency. But it would be missing the wood for the trees — or the cricket for the T20 — to use that debate to persist with the old ways of compartmentalising the game.

T20 has demonstrated its viability. In its IPL excesses it has drawn the world's best, and even ensnared some of them from their national team calendars. This is what it comes down to. Its abbreviation and its club-and-country sprawl pose obvious challenges of how to read the records of individual players. Cricket's unique art has been to elegantly condense the essence of a career into batting, bowling and fielding statistics. Till now. The sooner it finds a way of intelligently incorporating T20 statistics into a player's overall career summary, the less it will worry.

Then again, by the time we sort out T20, cricket is sure to have found another issue to provoke anxiety. Some things will never change. Thankfully.

Mini Kapoor is contributing editor, 'The Indian Express'

express@expressindia.com

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