The Twenty20 Age Begins

This is the 33rd installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Monday has long passed, and the immediate elation around India’s victory in the Twenty20 World Cup has abated. Yet, I still feel excited, and certain of the historical significance of this win. In 1975, when the first One Day International (ODI) World Cup took place, it seemed like a tamasha to everyone, a passing fancy. Today, it is a huge deal, and West Indies are inscribed as its first winners. I’m certain that the Twenty20 World Cup will be as important one day, and India will be remembered as its first champions. That’s quite something.

My excitement is not just about India winning. I am as charged up about Twenty20 cricket, though it is a format I was initially suspicious of, being a purist in love with the intricate and elongated dramas of Test cricket. My preconceptions about Twenty20 cricket have been—forgive the cliché, but I can’t resist this one—knocked for a six.

I believed that it was a sloggers’ game, and that bowlers were doomed. That is clearly not true. Bowlers played a key role in every victory in this World Cup, and players like RP Singh, Daniel Vettori, Stuart Clark, Umar Gul and Irfan Pathan (in the final) showed that traditional bowling skills—as opposed to just pitching it full and hoping it doesn’t go for six—are central to this game. And slogging alone isn’t enough to do well—in fact, it’s an invitation to disaster, for canny bowlers will always lure sloggers out, and wickets hurt every team.

In the simplistic view of the cynics—and I was one myself—the three-hour version of cricket has no space for subtleties or nuance. I now disagree. Most other sports are played in shorter spans of time, and a 90-minute game of soccer and a three-set game of tennis have plenty of subtlety and nuance. Cricket has enough drama in its DNA to be enthralling in any span of time, and we got a demonstration of it during this World Cup.

Twenty20 cricket will evolve just as one-day cricket did. In the 1970s and 1980s, cricketers took a similar approach to an ODI as they did to a Test match. (Remember Gavaskar’s 36 not out in 1975, and Boycott and Brearley in the 1979 final?) It took time for players to figure out the game, for captains to develop strategies suited to 50 overs of play, for cricketers to work on skills tailored to this new form. Many of those—the quick singles, the sharp fielding, pacing a chase—transformed Test cricket as well.

Similarly, Twenty20 cricket has a grammar and rhythm of its own, with an increased urgency around each delivery, and players will soon adapt to it, and export those qualities to other forms of the game. There will be more 400-plus scores in one-day cricket, and an individual double-century is surely not far away. The mental framework of our international cricketers has been changed by Twenty20 cricket, and it will impact ODIs and Tests as well.

Contrary to what many expect, though, I don’t see Twenty20 cricket becoming the commercial heart of the international game anytime soon. This is simply because there are more commercial breaks in a one-day match. As long as ODIs have a following, cricket boards will schedule more of those, though that might change if ODIs go the way of Test matches in terms of viewership.

Twenty20 games can have a powerful impact on domestic cricket, though. At the moment domestic cricket, particularly in the subcontinent, has a negligible following. Most of us don’t have the time to watch domestic games, especially as the international calendar is so crowded. Twenty20 cricket makes fewer demands on our time, and domestic Twenty20 tournaments, if well organized and promoted, should draw healthy audiences. That will also expose newer stars to the cricket-watching public.

Speaking of new stars, a big reason why this World Cup was so important for us was that it gave us a snapshot of the future. The decision by the Dravid-Tendulkar-Ganguly trio to withdraw from the tournament was a magnificent one for Indian cricket, as it gave us a chance to see what a young Indian team, without the baggage of the past, would look like. MS Dhoni’s team looked united, confident, devoid of politics and happy together.

That does not mean that we should discard the older players, for we need them in the season ahead, and should persist with them as long as they merit their place. But it does invalidate the argument that we should stick with our legends because the newcomers aren’t good enough. This tournament showed that we have eager, hungry young players waiting their turn, and any seniors who underperform should be shown the door—respectfully, but without regret.

I’m suspicious of false euphoria, and wary that I might fall prey to it myself. But I can’t help thinking that exciting times lie ahead for both India and the game of cricket. What do you think?

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You can browse through all my columns for Mint in my Thinking it Through archives. And while on the subject, also read Do We Really Love Cricket?