TWENTY20 was the makeover cricket so desperately needed and, almost fifteen years after its introduction, the sport is still benefiting from its flashbang face-lift.
It’s hard to remember a time before T20. As the cricketing calendar moves from the Big Bash to the World Cup to the IPL, the biggest dates across the globe are now reserved for reverse ramps and slow bouncers. New cricket fans are enticed by the fireworks of the shortest format; spellbound by the characters of the game; inundated with sponsors’ logos and tedious promotions.
Test cricket – the pipe-smoking elder statesman – sits a little more uncomfortably now, its status as the pinnacle of the sport called into question for the first time.
Pundits, plenty of them, have explained their fears that the rise of T20 is slowly eroding the cornerstone of the game. They worry that the money and glamour offered by 120-ball cricket is turning the world’s best players into mercenaries – globe-trotting slog merchants jet-setting from payday to payday.
There is an element of that – Chris Gayle is a case in point – but while romantics can continue to hold Test cricket on a pedestal, there’s a need to distinguish between the game’s various formats. And understand exactly the role each has in its future.
T20 is pure, unadulterated fun. The uncut kind. One hundred per cent proof. It’s a version of cricket that requires little appreciation of the game’s nuances. Sure, it requires a hell of a lot of skill and just as much showmanship, but it is blitzkrieg entertainment.
Let’s not forget, after all, that it was designed in 2003 by the ECB to fit into an evening after work and school; it was structured to reinvigorate county cricket and heal ailing attendances. It was never intended to be as big a part of the sport as it is today.
The first international match between Australia and New Zealand was played in the spirit of a beer match – retro kits, Dennis Lillee tribute sweatbands and all – and the gimmicks were more important than the game.
Now those same gimmicks aren’t necessary, despite the frequent sight of entire circuses on the boundary edge at various tournaments.
T20 has earned the right to be considered in the same league as 50-over cricket, to the point where calls have been made to do away with the longer one-day version in preference to its younger brother.
Switch-hitting, ramping, death bowling, power striking, range hitting, ground fielding and wicket keeping have all benefited, as players have been forced to adapt to a new cricketing age.
Those skills can be quickly and easily implemented into longer forms of the game and, while T20 cricketers continue to play Test match cricket, there will be persistent interest from spectators in all formats.
It’s disrespectful to the global cricketing audience to suggest that appreciation for Test cricket isn’t there any more – and that it’s all T20’s fault.
Just because we live in a world of limited attention spans, dictated by superfast broadband, smart phones and 24-hour rolling news, it doesn’t mean that supporters can’t understand the physical, strategic and psychological demands of the five-day game.
At 28 years old, I should be one of those supporters caught up in this wave of apathy with regards Test matches, if the most vocal cynics are to be believed. I was 15 when T20 arrived – impressionable and learning the game – but a decade and a half later, I’ll stay up through the night to watch the Boxing Day Ashes Test sooner than set an early-morning alarm for a T20 international.
Like any sport, cricket is at its best when it becomes theatre and Twenty20 just gave the game another genre.
T20 fans, believe it or not, are able to enjoy Test cricket. And vice versa. But without T20, where would Test cricket actually be?
The format has captured the attention of big business in a way only one previous cricketing innovation – Kerry Packer’s World Series – ever has. It’s generated umpteen fortunes in ticket sales, TV rights and advertising revenue, and that money has been reinvested in the game.
Equipment has got better, facilities have improved, stadia have got bigger; the sport has grown because of T20 and will continue to grow for years and years and years to come.
Yes, with added wealth comes and increased likelihood of greed and corruption but to suggest cricket should turn down the money is a romantic notion conceived by those who care about little more than snoozing in the Lord’s pavilion.
If any sport is to progress it needs players to play it, supporters to support it and moneymen to finance it. Cricket, through T20 but not only in T20, has at least given itself a chance of longevity.
The West Indies is a case in point. Crippled during the early years of the new millennium by its young talent being lured to the big bucks of football and basketball, the shorter format has rekindled the islands’ love affair with the game.
Last month, they lifted the ICC Under 19 World Cup.
In Australia, interest in domestic cricket has skyrocketed with the success of the franchised Big Bash.
“A Big Bash game will do probably more in terms of TV ratings than a lot of the NRL (National Rugby League) and AFL (Australian Football League) Friday night games will do,” Network Ten head of sport David Barnham told the Herald Sun last year.
Sure, T20 might be a little ‘in your face’. It might lack subtlety. Hell, it might even seem disrespectful to more than a century of cricket history. But it’s a big part of the preservation of our wonderful game.
Those who detract from the formats past successes and future importance are choosing to ignore the role it played in revitalising the sport’s global appeal.
Twenty20 cricket might have been introduced as the quirky cousin but it is now very much part of the family. Reliable, dependable and devilishly effective, it will be with us for a long time to come.