Cozier on Sunday

Cricket’s continuing evolution

According to Allen Stanford, Chris Gayle and a host of others, it is the game of the future but cricket’s newest and shortest format, the Twenty20, had proved itself very much the game of the present well before its second World Championship that started so sensationally at Lord’s on Friday and the Oval yesterday.

The latest David and Goliath act, puny Netherlands’ cutting down of giant England at Lord’s through the application of passion and basic, intelligent play, and the sensational hitting of Chris Gayle and Andre Fletcher that ambushed shell-shocked Australia at the Oval, have immediately reinforced the global popularity of Twenty20 in the seven years since it was professionally established on the county circuit in England.

It is a wonder it wasn’t initiated earlier. The instant success of one-day, limited-overs matches, also launched in England, was obvious in the first World Cup there in 1975. The format was repeatedly tweaked so that 60 overs an innings (in the first two World Cups) were reduced to 55, then 40 before settling on 50.

But why not 30 or 20 or, for that matter, 15? The shorter the match, the more accessible it would be to fans unable to spend an entire day, far less five as in Tests, watching. The more condensed, clearly the more condensed the action.

Finally recognising the potential, England introduced their latest, streamlined version in 2003, of 40 overs duration with a limit of three and a half hours.

The formula proved ideal. Grounds were filled with fans, many first-timers, who flocked in after work for an evening’s sporting entertainment, augmented by a variety of side shows.

The example was soon adopted, and adapted, with equal success in the Stanford extravaganzas in the Caribbean, the World Championship in South Africa and the Indian Premier League (IPL).

The pulsating events on successive days at Lord’s and the Oval, in front of multi-national crowds that filled those famous old grounds, contained most of the reasons for its magnetism and its confirmed place on the international schedule.

The first was close and tense throughout but, above all, it provided the massive upset always likelier the briefer the match.

After the abysmal West Indies performances against England in the preceding month, the second also came out of the blue – or, to be precise, a grey London sky, and featured clean hitting from one of the most devastating batsmen of the day and his promising young partner.

While the unpredictable West Indies, given their mood, are capable of defeating any opponent whatever the match, the Dutch part-timers – an advertising executive, a banker, a computer analyst and the like augmented by four pros – could no more dream of defeating England in a Test over five days, than Zimbabwe could of Australia, as they did in the first Twenty20 World Championship in South Africa two years ago.

Such shocks will become far fewer as the Dutch and other minnows, the associate members of the ICC, are granted more Twenty20 internationals.

And they will be as those who plan the schedules are increasingly seduced by its magic formula for massive profit.

The IPL is planning to expand into two tournaments a year (one in India, one somewhere else on the map), the ICC is looking at returns of 30 million pounds from the current World Championship in England, there is inevitably talk of an ICC-sanctioned league in America, and the Champions League, featuring domestic champions from eight countries, is scheduled for later in the year.

And so on and so very much forth.

It all adds to the appeal of the sport but it is accompanied by a general concern over the impact of such rapid expansion on Test cricket, for 132 years the bedrock of the game.

There is widespread doubt that it can survive the counter-attraction of latest development to its long-held primacy. It is increasingly seen as an anachronism in an age that has no time for a leisurely pursuit extending to five days, six hours a day.

Such pessimism is founded on the sharp decline in spectator interest. While grounds are filled to capacity for the shorter matches (2,000 had to be turned back for a mere warm-up Twenty20 match between India and Pakistan at the Oval last Wednesday), there are increasingly vast, unfilled expanses for Tests everywhere but in England and wherever England are engaged.

Gayle, the West Indies captain, is not the only one to speak of giving up Tests in favour of Twenty20, more precisely IPL, cricket. He has grown tired of the incessant grind after 82 Tests and nine years of international cricket.

Others who might otherwise have extended lengthy Test careers, such as the Australians Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne and Matthew Hayden, the New Zealanders Stephen Fleming and Scott Styris and the Sri Lankan Sanath Jayasuirya, have already found highly lucrative sanctuary in the IPL. More are certain to follow.

But what of those now starting out? Will they forego Tests, the true mark of a cricketer’s worth, for the riches of the IPL and other such competitions. Will young bowlers be satisfied with a limit of four overs and batsmen with, at most, 80 or 90 balls?

Gayle’s view is not comforting for those who hold Test cricket dear. Fidel Edwards and Dwayne Bravo, two of the West Indies’ young brigade, are more encouraging.

“Check any youngster, they’re not going to talk about Test cricket these days and that’s a fact,” Gayle maintained last week in a BBC World Service programme on the future of the game.

It was an assertion that contrasted with his two team mates, both fellow campaigners in the IPL.

“Test cricket should be No.1 for every cricketer,” Edwards said in an interview promoting the World Twenty20. “I love to play Test cricket. It’s the main cricket. Twenty20 is different and more exciting, and shorter as well, so you get more time off, but every cricketer should want to play Test cricket.”

After the medical staff ruled Bravo out of the recent Test series in England, but not the IPL, because his left ankle hadn’t fully recovered from an operation last August, his disappointment was obvious.

“I think everyone knows that Test cricket is the most important,” he said. “Everyone wants to play it.”

The reasons why were enunciated by England’s batsman Paul Collingwood in the same BBC programme that heard from Gayle.

“The longer form of the game tests more of your mental toughness, to get through the hard periods when you’re into the fifth day and you come up against one of the best bowlers in the world,” he said. “This is when you’ve really been tested to the limits and that’s why it’s called Test cricket.”

And that’s why it has existed for so long in spite of the exciting evolution of so many different forms of the game, of which the latest presents yet another challenge.

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