Two different cricket games

In recent days, with the CPL centre stage in the Caribbean, concurrent with England/Sri Lanka Test matches in the UK, we are seeing quite a contrast in cricket compared to the sport most senior folks grew up with in the region reaching back to the Union Jack days. In that time, the only game in town was Test cricket, with games lasting 5 days, and there was no hurry to score runs. If you had six dot balls in an over that was because the batsman was taking his time to work out the bowler, and the bowler, too, was doing his own deliberate probing and scheming. Urgency was usually not the order of the day. In the stands, people would bring a basket of food (after all, you were there all day), and if there happened to be spells of three maidens in a row, the boys would repair to the bar, and the ladies would chat about the boys at the bar, while play proceeded. There was a low volume p a system, and numbers painted on tins told you the score, with the scoreboard often lagging behind reality. Some folks would read the newspaper or the latest scandal sheet (the Bomb in Trinidad); often the only sound you would hear was bat hitting ball; some people would actually fall asleep. Amid the athletics, Test cricket was a very social exercise, reflecting a more leisurely and, some would argue, more valuable way of life.

Fifty years later, we are dealing with an upstart version of the game that is in keeping with the more hectic, high-energy, immediate kind of existence we now have, and the game in town is T20, with the story done in 3 hours, and runs in a river (three dot balls is panic time). The stadium is jumping, alive with music, an electronic scoreboard, and dancing girls. People are dressed up in today’s flamboyant gear, many of them in face paint, carrying signs and waving flags or banners. To put it mildly, the atmosphere is festive.

20131020dave martins09As prominent people scoff at the hijinks in the short game – I heard an English cricket expert on TV say laughingly, “T20? I pay no attention to that; it’s a circus” – and young people steups at Test matches, I’m not sure which is the ‘better’ game, but it’s clear that we now have two crickets. I can appreciate the more demanding technical and physical needs of the longer game while seeing that perhaps the time and place for a 5-day match is probably incongruous for modern life. Ultimately, decisions will come down to economics, and the signs are already there that Test cricket may be the loser in that battle, and the devotees of that format may have to accept the passage of time in popular taste as lovers of calypso have had to do in the music arena. Whatever one’s position, and whatever changes we may see in the sport, it is abundantly clear that we now have two different cricket games before us, one long, one short, and it is also clear that, for now at least, short is what the crowds are flocking to in these various T20 presentations around the world.

Technically, not that much has changed in the two versions. The fields and wickets are the same. We still have spin bowling and swing bowling and fast bowling. The cricket bats may be sturdier, but they look the same; same pads; same gloves; same helmets; still two guys running between the wickets; still the most runs wins; a ball hitting the fence is still four runs. The critical difference is that the time for the match has been reduced from 5 days (Test cricket) to 3 hours (T20) and what that means is that we now have cricketers playing cricket in two different formats of the game. Of course, there’s a row. The Test devotees are adamant that theirs is the only “real cricket,” and the T20 crowd respond with a dismissive wave of the hand at what they describe “a boring game.”

A different format is, of course, in play and the critical difference of the shorter time has a significant effect. Every sports fan loves scoring, and in T20 scoring is the mission from the first ball. Indeed if you don’t get some runs in that very first over, it’s time for concern. Batsmen don’t have time to settle in in T20; bowlers have only a few overs so they bowl flat out from the first delivery. A run saved in T20 can mean game won or lost, and that produces some heroic acrobatics on the boundary, like Pollard’s recent fantastic saving flip of what looked like a certain six back to a nearby teammate. We are seeing those dramatic countdowns – 30 runs to win from 22 balls – that have audiences standing and cheering. The excitement courses through the stands with signs and flags all over the place, and the stadium erupts for a boundary or a wicket, with spectators mugging for the TV camera and the scoreboard flashing fireworks. You know instantly how long a six was, and the scoring rate ball by ball. In some grounds the batsman hitting a target in the stands gets a cash prize. The Englishman may have something with his “circus” description of T20, but many of the female sex and young people generally, who don’t have five minutes for the long game, are now coming in droves to the “circus” and have become ardent promoters of the event. If you continue to believe Test cricket is the supreme version, do this test for yourself: sit before your television set and watch the England/Sri Lanka Test series for 10 minutes, then switch channels for 10 minutes of the match in the current CPL show. Switch back and forth between the two games and you will see the difference starkly on the field and in the stands. With its tradition and highly refined talent and grandeur, Test cricket is a modern opera; T20 is a Caribbean fete. Test cricket is an exhibition; T20 is an explosion.

If you’re still in doubt about the hot cricket ticket today, come closer. Serious cricket people from both camps will tell you that when it comes to a bona fide cricket aficionado, Beverly Harper (you know, the Guyanese Ansa McAl boss) is the genuine article. The woman knows cricket history, discourses expertly about it, speaks of the sport as a religion, and will join the most heated cricket argument at the drop of a hat. She’s the real deal. So in last week’s CPL match at Providence, the television camera is panning freely around the revelry, and all of a sudden, full face on the screen, there is Harper, huge smile on her face, jumping with the best of them, grinning from ear to ear, and clearly head and shoulders into the melee. You Test match people had better recognize reality when you see it: if cricket fanatic Beverly Harper has joined the T20 hurricane, you know, as we say in Guyana, “boat gone ah falls.”

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