The Twenty20 World Cup is about to get underway.
And as India sends in a team comprising of virtual unknowns (Rohit Sharma,Yousuf Pathan), gladiators who have lost their way (Sehwag, Irfan Pathan, Harbhajan), first XI hangers-on yet to establish themselves (Gambhir), a man who writes letters to God and expects a reply (Sreesanth) and the legendary Ajit Agarkar(who can single-handedly turn the game for the opposing team with a regularity that only rivals Shoaib Akthar’s being sent home at the beginning of major tournaments), Indian fans (the ones that actually care to follow the tournament) can take comfort in the fact that 24 years ago, another such inexperienced motley crew of bits-and-pieces no-hopers went to foreign shores sans any hype and expectations.
And we all know what they did.
Unfortunately that is the only positive that I can think of, as one of the weakest Indian teams fielded in recent times, is sent to an international showcase tournament. And if that isn’t enough, they do not even have a practice game to acclimatize themselves to the conditions and to each other before being made to play a game where the format, breathless and blindingly fast as it is, dictates that unless you hit the ground running with all cylinders firing at full power, you do not really have any chance. Added to it is the sobering realization that even with the over-thirties not around, India will still be one of the weakest fielding sides in the tournament (sadly even our next generation players disturbingly mis-time their dives, drop dollies and consistently miss the stumps so as not to raise any hope of a vastly improved fielding effort), a crippling disadvantage in a game where, given the duration of an innings, it is even more difficult to cover up bad fielding with batting than is possible in an ODI. Finally our lack of quality all-rounders (our last great all-round hope Ramesh Powar just became round all over and isn’t of any use in this format except as a heavy roller) and absence of “death” bowlers who can spear it into the blockhole virtually assure us a ticket home before the semi-finals begin. Or perhaps even sooner (Scotland who we play first-up is a good fielding side with players having experience Twenty20 in the English league).
Many of you of course will say “We are not interested in Twenty20—it is not cricket.” I agree. A 20-over-a-side biffing competition, where the battle between bat and ball is reduced to the obscene flaying of heavy willow and where the subtle nuances of the passage of “quiet periods” are papered over by the need for continuous “entertainment”, is nothing but a bastardization of all that is great about the game.
Replace the “20-over-a-side” with “one day cricket” and the above sentence is exactly what our fathers used to say 30 years ago about the 50-over game. And seeing how one day cricket has over the years become such an intrinsic part of cricketing culture that virtually no-one questions its existence or value any more, it is nigh conceivable that Twenty20 will become as much a part of the mainstream in the near future.
Because as things stand, the time for Twenty20s has definitely arrived. For the last few years, domestic Twenty20 games in England have generated a significant amount of buzz, especially among a demographic that was almost totally shifting its allegiance to other games like soccer. The reason is simple: in today’s age even a one-day game is too long—the “three hour movie-style” entertainment over an evening that a Twenty20 game provides is just too convenient to be ignored commercially. And as plans for a multi-million international “official” league (the “official” being the most critical factor for its success as mainstream international players will participate) on the lines of European club football (how fans used to cheering for their country will emotionally connect with newly created corporate-sponsored teams remains to be seen) come to realization, ignoring Twenty20 is like burying one’s head in the sand.
There is, I think, another reason why Twenty20 may have become unstoppable. With a monumentally boring long-drawn-out World Cup 2007 marked by one-sided mismatches, organizational bungling and the crushing dominance of one side over everyone else, one day internationals as a concept is facing possibly the biggest challenge to its existence. Twenty20, due to its shorter length, not only makes it possible to have cheaper tickets and better prime-time placement but also, in a way, levels the playing field thus making cricket more competitive —a Shahid Afridi may prove as valuable as a Ricky Ponting, a Dimitri Mascarenhas could negate a Damien Martyn, a Gavin Larsen may win more matches than a Waqar Younus. Now for some of us “purists” this represents all that is wrong with the Twenty20 format but it is undeniable that this may provide more evenly contested matches (in a practice match, Australia was bested by South Africa) and consequently more “thrills”. [It may not be a coincidence that one day cricket first captured the popular imagination at a time the West Indies dominated the world, over-rates had plummeted and tedious defensive cricket had become the order of the day]
And as to the lukewarm response to Twenty20 in India, all that is needed to change it are wins by the Men in Blue—–remember that one day cricket took off in India only after 1983 and truly became a part of pop culture with the 85 Benson and Hedges Cup win. If Dhoni can do a Tunbridge Wells, if Yuvraj steps into Mohinder Amarnath’s shoes, if Sreesanth can shake his ass like the generously endowed Roger Binny, if Rohit Sharma becomes a Yashpal Sharma, if Hayden leaves an outswinger that then swings in and takes off stump, if Gilchrist top-edges a pull to midwicket, if Pathan can regain his mo-jo and Sehwag can blast the ball past his beer gut then who knows—-those who have come to scoff may very well remain to pray.