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T20 is in transition – the World Cup is a glimpse into its future 


It was always easy to write disparagingly about T20 cricket, to look down on it as an interloper lacking in nuance and refinement. For cricketing snobs (like me), who believe Test cricket is the highest form of sport, and the “most subtle and sophisticated game known to humankind,” (to borrow a line from Ramachandra Guha), such derision came naturally.

It was highbrow v lowbrow, with the suspicion that there was no common ground — and that there ought not to be one. Never the twain shall meet, in other words. Each condescended towards the other. Writers of the older game found in it elements of fairplay, purity and an innocence that never actually existed, certainly not always. But the myth was useful, and it served the game well.

Writers of the newer game found consoling myths too. They talk of equality, meritocracy, democratisation, the hypocrisy of the ‘code’, the game bringing nations together. It was inevitable that T20, the new kid on the block would be seen as the future of the sport with less baggage to carry.

Sameness is prevalent

Yet there is a sameness to it which goes against T20’s stated intention of being different, of satisfying more senses than the longer game does. There is too the sheer number of matches, mostly forgettable, mostly forgotten. Kings and Giants and Super-something or the others constantly playing around the world — no name standing out, no team standing out — mean that it needs a particular bent of mind to keep up. What you can’t remember may not be worth remembering anyway.

Even the most ardent fan is often confused — did Chris Gayle make his highest score for RCB or for one of the other 27 teams he played for? Matches inspire statistics and then drown in them. A boundary is a boundary is a boundary. Aesthetics is for losers.

And then comes the World Cup in Australia. Fifteen years after the first tournament, T20 looks a different game. For batsmen, swinging in hope has been replaced by swinging with purpose. Bowlers who tended to have that haunted look common to sacrificial lambs have become aggressive and self-confident. Generalists who fit into teams in all three formats of the game are being replaced by T20 specialists who are playing a different game altogether. Competence in the 50-over format is no guarantee that a player automatically fits into T20.

A breed apart

There will be common faces across formats, but T20 specialists will soon be a breed apart. Two factors contribute to this. The obverse side of forgettability fostered by the large number of matches is the opportunity to distill the essence through jettisoning what doesn’t work and retaining what does. There is room for experiment in the franchise tournaments across the world.

The second reason, of course, is money. It does not guarantee success, but it attracts the more creative players and coaches. Making more money in a shorter period of time has been mankind’s dream, and sportsmen are no different.

The format is in transition, and if the World Cup is a guide, it is at a most interesting stage. Two former champions, West Indies and Sri Lanka failed to qualify for the tournament proper. In the first fortnight there have been delightful upsets, and possibly the greatest T20 match of all-time when India beat Pakistan. This, thanks to one man’s demonstration of the range of classical batsmanship. Virat Kohli’s 82 in 53 is comparable to Sachin Tendulkar’s double century, the first in One-Day Internationals, for showing us that the possibilities in traditional strokeplay haven’t been exhausted yet.

Greg Chappell wrote that Kohli’s batting legitimised the format. This is particularly interesting because Kohli is the one player who is Test match obsessed. The twain meet in him as it does in no other player.

This might be the minority view: but a World Cup played among different countries has a texture and quality that cannot be matched by inter-club rivalries. And perhaps not even by bilateral series.

This could well turn out to be the best of the T20 World Cups, as teams give a preview of where the format is headed technically and strategically. And, if all goes well, it could be the end of the disparagement too.



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