Friday, September 28, 2007

CRIKEY: Falling in love with Twenty20 cricket

In 1977 Test Cricket purists were praying hard for the umpire to stick his finger up when the Australian Cricket Board led by Robert Parish sought an injunction under the Trade Practices Act to stop the late Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket Pty Ltd from continuing with this Limited Overs sacrilege. Three decades later, one day cricket has become a permanent fixture. Meanwhile, the ACB litigation only rates a minor mention in undergraduate law textbooks.

I have to admit that my interest in kirkit (as my very Indian mum calls it) lasts about as long as the latest Billy Birmingham CD. Up until around 1am this morning, I felt much the same way about this Twenty20 stuff as Gideon Haigh felt when he wrote his column published in today’s The Australian. Here's a taste ...

Andrew Symonds came straight out and called Twenty20 "a frustrating game because you can be beaten by the lesser sides", which "have to be good for a shorter period of time". In this they echo their captain, Ricky Ponting, who last year confessed: "I don't think I really like playing Twenty20 international cricket" ...

Cricket lovers underestimate this philosophical shift at their peril. Cricket has traditionally been a game for players, with everyone enjoying the scope and the time to show their own special skills. But this length, breadth and variety have made the game difficult to mass market.

When one-day cricket brought the spectators' understandable desire to see a result in a day into calculations, that balance was disturbed. "In cricket, the players are the boss," observed Peter Roebuck. "In one-day cricket, the game is the boss."

In Twenty20, that boss totes an MBA and a BlackBerry, and his concern is chiefly ratings rather than runs or wickets. Indeed, the format originated on the marketing whiteboards at the England and Wales Cricket Board four years ago as a means of attracting cricket
"tolerators": sports watchers averse to the game who might consider going if it was shorter, sharper and noisier.

A novel idea, this: to redesign a game to the specifications of those who don't like it, rather like creating art for consumers who prefer pornography or composing music for listeners with a taste for cacophony.

But the practitioners' acquiescence is bought by an arrangement reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock's principle for dealing with actors: "Pay them heaps and treat them like cattle" ...

Cricket will make a great deal of money in the short term, money it has no obvious need for and will mostly waste, and it will be left a coarser, crueller, crasser game as a result. Now that the Twenty20 world championship is over, another proverb comes to mind: be careful what you wish for.

Surely the notion of having a decent game of cricket while giving each batting side 20 overs is the stuff you’d more likely see in the under-12’s inter-school competition than in international first class cricket.

But by the early morning hours of 25 September, I'd well and truly changed my mind. Not even the incessant coughing of a newly-acquired Sydney flu (now I know how the horses must feel!) could stop me from being glued to the idiotbox watching India and Pakistan battle each other in the Twenty20 final in South Africa.

This was a game whose result simply couldn’t be predicted until some overweight South Indian lady in the sari started singing. The game had more 6’s than Helen Clarke on an episode of The Chaser. For me it felt fabulous watching an international strike bowler with a name like Irfan. Geoff Lawson’s Pakistanis (among them a chap named ... wait for it ... Yasir Arafat!) batted valiantly.

Twenty20 cricket has combined a host of features from other spectator sports – the loud pop music of basketball, batsmen and coach sitting on the sideline benches (as opposed to walking to and from the dressing room) as in soccer, and breaking open the bubbly at to celebrate victory as in the Grand Prix. There were even chicks dancing on small stages like cheersquads , though they were probably just trying to impress Bollywood heartthrob Shahrukh Khan who made a guest appearance. And I never thought I’d see the cricketers engaging in a rugby-like scrum.

By over number 19, Pakistan were chasing only 17 from 8 balls. Then some dude called Umar Gul was bowled for a duck. His replacement then hit a boundary. The first delivery of the final over was a wide. Then Pakistan’s Misbah hit a six. The fat lady waited until the 3rd last delivery before singing loudly together with thousands of Indian fans in the Johannesburg stadium as Misbah was caught out after hitting 43 runs off 38 balls. India won by a mere 5 runs.

At the presentations, Shoaib Malik thanked
... Pakistan and people across the Muslim world.
Why bring religion into it? As if Muslim cricket fans would only support Pakistan. A rather silly presumption, especially given that India has a bigger Muslim population than Pakistan and two of its players (Irfan and Yusuf Pathan) are the sons of a muezzin (the mosque official who chants the call-to-prayer five times a day).

Sadly, Ritchie Benaud wasn’t in the Central Missio ... whoops ... Commentary Position. Indeed, none of the Pakistani and Indian commentators were wearing any daggy creme, ivory or beige blazers. I’m just waiting to hear what Billy Birmingham will do with their names.

I can’t wait to see the Indians play here this summer. Will they out-do the Aussies? Or will we go down to Zimbabwe again? Who knows? If this Twenty20 final is anything to go by, we won't know until the fat lady clears her throat!

A shorter version of this was first published in the Crikey alert for Tuesday 25 September 2007.

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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