We begin a new series where we have cricket conversations with some keen students of the game, all around the world.
The first topic we have selected is Twenty20 cricket. Too many people around the world think of poorly of this format. But is there something to be said for that?
Vic Nicholas is a Melbourne-based lover of Test cricket. He dislikes T20 cricket and has a spirited debate with Jaideep Varma of Impact Index about that.
: Why do you dislike T20 cricket so much? Test cricket has its space. Why can’t T20 have its own identity?
: Simply put, I love Test match cricket to the point that it is almost a religion for me. On the other hand, T20 was invented as a method to “dumb down” the game to make it more palatable for the non-cricket following heathens that inhabit this planet.
T20 was just cricket’s attempt at imitating baseball’s compact nature of starting and finishing within the time constraints of the average punters after work schedule. A game designed to fill in the time between dinner and sleep.
: It is not a question of co-existence, but rather integrity and representation. Cricket as I have understood it since I fell in love with the game as an impressionable five year old has always been a contest between bat and ball. But, the T20 juggernaut has been built around batsmen smashing hapless bowlers for towering sixes on pitches that resemble the major highways between capital cities.
In T20, the batsman is the prince – anything that may threaten his regal right to rule is quickly regulated out of the game by the authorities so as not to usurp the batsman’s lordly preordained right to dominance.
: Are you sure you’re not being too romantic here? After all, those highway-like pitches are plentiful in Test cricket too – and they’ve begun to inexplicably make their way in Australia, and produce soporific draws. There is nothing worse than a Test match on a featherbed. In T20, regardless of the pitch, at least you have a result. A boring drawn Test match is, without exception, the worst advertisement for cricket.
: Yes, you do make a valid point with regards to the nature of pitches.In Australia, more so than elsewhere, they have been stripped of their traditional character, having been turned into featherbeds designed to last five days without breaking up. But, why has that happened? Simple global economics dictates that Cricket Australia can only bank on two series-drawing crowds and the revenue from it. One of them is the Ashes, of course, and the other is when India tour.
Due to T20 ruining Test match techniques, the very real possibility of India being blown away inside three days in most Tests in Australia is a nightmarish scenario Cricket Australia cannot financially afford. Lost days equates to lost revenue from Indian advertisers and Indian TV broadcasting contracts.
The solution? Slow the pitches down so that they no longer resemble Australian pitches of yesteryear. Indian batsmen rack up massive amounts of runs keeping the stats-obsessed Indian public happy, and more importantly, tuning in. Australia is ultimately never really in danger of losing at home, so CA cannot be accused of disloyalty in their “reverse pitch doctoring”. It is as close to contriving a pre-determined result as you can get, and it makes me angry.
: But why is that T20’s fault? If you prepared nice, bouncy pitches or turning tracks (which are equally fair to both sides and do not deteriorate over 40 overs), then even T20 cicket can be a riveting contest between bat and ball, can it not?
: I understand where you are coming from, but to see modern day greats such as Dale Steyn treated as a human bowling machine calls into question everything I have always held dear about the game. In Test cricket with a packed slips cordon, the fast bowler is the one who commands respect, and it is the batsman who must be circumspect in the face of the onslaught. Does the batsman have the necessary intestinal fortitude to make it through the new ball period with the vagaries of the pitch to go on and play his full array of attacking strokes? Can he withstand a thorough examination of his courage when the fast bowler targets his ribs or his head?
: The age-old adage is true here too, isn’t it, that the best way to stop scoring is to take wickets? If Dale Steyn becomes a more defensive bowler in T20s (which he is), maybe that is a lacuna in his game or his team’s? Maybe he simply responds to the examination of Test cricket better than the hustle of T20? Maybe his T20 captain can set attacking fields for him since he is such a lethal wicket-taker?
And when it comes to batting, why can we not see T20 as merely cricket with the need to build an innings taken out? It then becomes a more urgent version of the sport – where natural talent is expressed without fear. That brings out a certain dimension that you simply do not get to see much in Test cricket that much, isn’t it? What is wrong with that?
: Well, nothing in theory. After all, David Warner burst onto the scene via T20 cricket and ultimately became an exceptional Test batsman, despite not compromising his style of play. Ian Chappell supported Warner’s entry into the Test team when no one quite saw him as anything more than a flashy T20 batsman.
: Virender Sehwag, Warner’s IPL captain at Delhi Daredevils predicted to Warner himself that he would be a very successful Test batsman, which flabbergasted Warner himself, as he had not even made a mark in first-class cricket at the time.
: Yes, I remember Sehwag’s prediction on Warner being publicized here in Australia. Though, it seemed somewhat far-fetched at the time. Long term, however, I am sceptical that T20 will act as a conduit to test teams.
: But if T20 is feeding Test cricket by providing talent like Warner, and innovative shots are being invented, and fielding standards are getting better, then why the problem? T20 cricket also has tactics, it reveals courage (often differently from what is revealed in Tests), showcases a lot of pure skill and rewards smartness. So, what’s the problem?
: My major concern centres on the fact that, rather than providing future stars for Test cricket, T20 has had the opposite effect and has deprived many nations of their best players as the lure of the IPL rupee for a few hours of franchise cricket is far more compelling to the mundane reality of five days of grind for a minimum wage playing for their countries. Case in point – Malinga and Jerome Taylor ruled themselves out of Test cricket for their countries due to crippling injuries, but not crippling enough to stop them giving their all for their respective IPL franchises. The continuing soap opera of Chris Gayle’s abandonment of the West Indies cricket has also left me in despair. Gayle, a modern cricketer by temperament if not by skill set, has chosen to dedicate his sporting life to being a freelance cricketer for hire. His priorities rest in looting easy rupees for a few weeks work. Depressing!
: Yes, perhaps I am more angry with the unequal economies of scale with respect to cricket, more so than T20 itself. It may be merely coincidence that T20 rose to prominence at the exact time that interest in the longer formats of the game were declining in places as far flung as the West Indies and New Zealand. To see the West Indies in particular virtually abandon Test cricket in favour of the fast dollars available in T20 is heart-breaking for all lovers of cricket. Success in T20 tournaments does not elevate West Indies cricket out of the doldrums; on the contrary, it highlights how far they have fallen that a watered down version of the game is all that the long-suffering cricket fans in the Caribbean have to hold onto.
: That’s one way of looking at it. Another is that they have excelled in another format of the game, which is great to see. So what if they excel in the shorter format for now – at least they are still in the mix this way. It’s not like their talent is not expressed in this format or that they win because of luck.
You know something interesting? Despite the notion that T20 is a flimsy format, where any team can win on the day, there are actually fewer instances of weaker teams (minnows specifically and also Bangladesh and Zimbabwe) beating stronger teams in T20 than in ODIs. For example, in the 11 ODI World Cups so far, leaving aside dead rubber matches (where the stronger team is often not motivated), there have been 15 upsets. Whereas, in the 6 World T20s so far, there have been just 4 upsets (not counting dead rubber matches, like the recent one between West Indies and Afghanistan). That’s a pretty huge difference.
: You are veering dangerously onto the path of looking for statistical justification to create relevance for T20 beyond it’s disposable consumable foundation! A simple analogy; McDonalds make some really tasty burgers. They are fast, the packaging is cool and they taste great – but they aren’t good for you, are they? T20 is similarly fast, packaged beautifully and can be a blast – but is it really what the game of cricket needs to prosper in the 21st Century? I am pessimistic with the monster we have created.
: But why isn’t T20 good for cricket? Why does it have to be at the cost of Test cricket? If they prepare sporting wickets in Test cricket, which provides an equal contest between bat and ball, and series are hard-fought, it will attract more crowds eventually. If that happens, would you still hate T20?
It doesn’t lack in skill or character – the T20 format. It’s worth asking why the above anomaly is there – why ODI cricket sees more upsets. Perhaps it is because, in the T20 format, there isn’t enough time for the stronger team to drop their guard and thus, the intensity of play within a shorter period of time favours the stronger side. Thus making T20 actually a truer reflection of the team’s relative strengths than ODI cricket?
How would you react if I told you that England is the side most susceptible to upsets by weaker teams in both formats? They have been beaten 4 times in ODIs (out of 15 upsets overall) and twice in T20s (out of 4 overall). As an Australian, surely you’d find something there?
: Schadenfreude has its place, of course, but the joy of watching someone like David Gower or Michael Vaughan in full flight in a Test match outweighs any parochialism that I may feel. Other than that, not to forget, the only world title England has won is in T20 cricket!
Illustrations- Vasim Maner