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T20 – Spelling ODI Death

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No contemporary writer of fiction, on paper or film, could have dreamed up a better entry for any entity. T20 cricket has come with a bang, and caught the imagination of its biggest sample size of potential addicts, simply by making them feel good about themselves. The murmurs of match fixing, though very much present, are somewhat muted in the most significant constituency, simply because the temptation to enjoy a rare Grand Triumph is too much. An Indian world championship cricket win after 22 years – can anything else matter more?

The even more interesting facet, however, is what this new version can do to the older versions. By combining the most exciting phases of 50-over cricket (the power play and the slog overs), this compressed version packs more adrenaline per game than any other. It seems to render the middle overs in a 50 over game completely redundant, in terms of spectatorship anyway. Why on earth should anyone be interested in batsmen accumulating runs or a fielding side trying to contain the batting side, when less predictable and more spectacular options suddenly exist? On the other hand, why should a limited over match showcase skills that have far more meaning in test cricket anyway?

jaideepThis was always the problem with 50-over cricket, but since it was always pitted against test cricket, it got away with it. Now with a significant option like this emerging, conventional 50-over ODI cricket has no chance. There is a reason why there are 200 page books and 10 page articles, and hardly any 50-page books or articles. Or why there are 120 minute films, and 10 minute shorts, and no 25-minute films (not for commercial consumption anyway). The logic is fairly simple – if someone is going to invest energy and time into something, there needs to be something more substantial to justify that. If something is presented in a shorter format, it needs to be to-the-point and precise. The middle-ground has few takers. And, all of a sudden, 50-over cricket is that middle ground.

50-over-cricket was introduced to fundamentally extract more batsmanship excitement from the game. The rules were changed to encourage more boundary-hitting, the pitches were usually in favour of the batsmen, and the odds heavily stacked against the bowlers. Quite simply, T20 cricket does all these things better than 50-over cricket. And what 50-over cricket gives a scope to demonstrate better, test cricket does so the best.

One shudders to think of the impact T20 will have on ODI cricket, if the latter does not phase out. Totals of 350 will soon become as commonplace as 250 became in the mid-eighties. Two teams clobbering more than 700 runs over 100 overs on a regular basis will saturate the senses and reduce the batsman-bowler tussle to a master-servant equation, which is the worst thing that can happen to cricket.

Thanks to the pitches, this T20 championship also proved that bowlers had as much of a say in T20 cricket as batsmen. If not for that, Pakistan would not have reached the final. Nor would Daniel Vettori have influenced New Zealand’s progress or Stuart Clark Australia’s. Irfan Pathan won the man of-the-match award in the final, and Shahid Afridi won the Player of the Tournament, both for their bowling, which is also significant. It is also totally incorrect to say that T20 encourages wild slogging. If anything, this tournament has proved that wild slogging, or lucky hitting from tailenders, is never consistent enough to take a team past the finish line, not any more than it is in 50-over cricket anyway. The magical batting performances seen in this tournament, including the twoYuvraj specials, all came from top-class batsmen playing proper cricket shots for the most part. And it is equally notable that some of the key batting stars were battle-weary older men, not energy-bristling spring chickens (33-year-old Misbah-Ul-Haq, for example).

With the measures to reduce time between deliveries (like the new batsman walking in from the trenches rather than the dressing room) the shortened breaks, and the compact three-hour length of a match, the pace of the game has suddenly started resembling that of football or hockey. In fact, it is significant that a T20 match is even shorter than a baseball game. It wouldn’t be surprising if the US or Japan now finally recognized the superior range of skills cricket showcases vis-à-vis baseball, joined the bandwagon, and perhaps won the T20 world championship in 2013 or even 2011 (yes, it could happen that soon). By then it is feasible that lots of new nations, hitherto not conversant with the joys of cricket, would be participating on an equal footing with test-playing nations.
 
It is a bit facile to call Zimbabwe’s beating of (a somewhat rusty) Australia in the opening stages a fluke. The format of the game does enable less fancied teams to run stronger teams closer simply because of the shorter spans of concentrated brilliance required. So what’s wrong with that? Test Cricket is there to determine the undisputed all-round champion anyway (which is why it is time to hold a world championship of test cricket too), and the difference in quality between sides is much more apparent there. If T20 can globalize the game better than 50-over cricket can, that has to be a positive.

In any case, how can a more action-packed shorter version not be potentially the most popular one with a generation that is doing everything to compress and pack in more, and craving maximum excitement all the time?

The only way ODI cricket will survive in India is if audience preferences are manipulated for the sake of commercial interests; after all, commercial breaks through 100 overs far outweigh the same through 40. And the only way to prevent this ad space from getting shortened is by simply not having any international T20 matches. But with India’s triumph, will the audience quietly sit back and enjoy 50-over cricket? It’ll be interesting to see how much of a say the cricket-viewing audience really has in the next few months.

Ultimately, instead of trivializing the game, T20 will add a lot to cricket if the powers-to-be ensure that it is played on pitches where bowlers don’t feel utterly hopeless on. And if test cricket also unfolds on result-oriented pitches, these will be the two faces of cricket that will eventually stand the test of time. In fact, the gap between T20 and Tests will help both more.
 
Given all this, it is difficult to see 50-over cricket not being phased out pretty soon. It is the beginning of the end, surely.

 

 



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