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Vision 20/20

Twenty20 has whittled away at cricket’s essence and snuffed out its soul, writes Soumya Bhattacharya.

india Updated: Sep 17, 2007 00:24 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya

As India took on Pakistan in the Twenty20 World Cup in Durban on Friday night, I settled into a corner of my ersatz leather sofa at home with an advance copy of Philip Roth’s forthcoming novel, Exit Ghost. The TV was tuned to Animal Planet: my six-year-old daughter was watching a fleet of lions barrelling through the African savannah.

India was playing an international cricket match, and I couldn’t be bothered with even the score. It hasn’t happened since I was five years old.

Usually, it’s not like this. Usually, when cricket is on (and it need not necessarily be an India game), life at home is what happens between overs. It’s been like that for as long as I can remember. As a matter of fact, not too long ago (or at least not long enough ago for me to be not able to remember), before I was an average, middle-class, getting-to-be-middle-aged working father, all of life was what happened between overs.

Even now, ‘V.S. Naipaul’ is what flashes across my mind second when someone says ‘Trinidad’; ‘Queen’s Park Oval’ does first. On the underground in London, I still always feel a certain quickening of the pulse, an odd, visceral thrill when the train pulls into the Oval station.

Cricket gives me — has given me for as long as I can remember — a sense of place. I think of cities in terms of their cricket grounds: it is the most enduring geography lesson I have ever had and it brings closer and makes familiar places with which I have little acquaintance. It gives me a sense of time: a certain event in my life is referenced with the memory of a particular game. It is, I have found, something that offers a coordinate, a centre amid the daily, changing clutter of life with which it is so tough to keep up.

So what happens with Twenty20? Why does it leave me so cold? Let alone not wanting to watch it closely, why do I actually not care at all how far India go in the World Cup in South Africa?

The trouble is, Twenty20 doesn’t seem like cricket to me. It appears to be not so much a speeded-up, watered-down version of cricket, a sort of cricket-lite for dummies who are incapable of comprehending the complexities and subtleties of the greatest game in the world, but an utter impostor. It has whittled away at cricket’s essence; it has snuffed out its soul; it is unrecognisable as the game I adore.

One of the great allures of cricket is the sense of narrative the game offers, the manner in which a Test match (or, to a lesser extent, a one-day match) unfolds with its ebbs and flows, its twists and turns, its shocks and surprises.

And then, there are the subplots, the small face-offs within the larger confrontation that give the narrative of a particular game its very own sense of frisson: Shoaib Akhtar versus Sachin Tendulkar within Pakistan versus India; Shane Warne versus Kevin Pietersen within Australia versus England.

The ruminative, contemplative nature of cricket (can you think of any other game that would accommodate meal breaks in the rhythm of the regular day’s play?) makes it enthralling to its followers. When a fast bowler charges in with the new ball and beats the batsman time and time again outside the off stump, the uninitiated believes the same action is repeating itself over and over again. It seems as though nothing is happening, that the game is not going forward.

For the fan, though, something like this is as spectacular as it is absorbing. And yes, to him/her, plenty is happening, the game is going forward — the batsman’s confidence is being undermined, the bowler has his tail up, the batsman is being set up for the kill, balls like these will have an impact on the subsequent run of play — although no runs are being scored and no wickets are falling. The charm of cricket often lies as much in the apparent intangibles as in the devotee’s ability to know where to look to find joy.

I can’t think of any other game in which conditions — of the pitch, of the ball, of the light, of the weather — are so critical. In football, if the field is slushy, both teams play on it at the same time. If there is a strong wind swirling around a tennis court, both players need to adjust their ball tosses in equal measure while serving.

But in cricket, conditions change as the game wears on, and it’s never the same for both teams. A crumbling final-day pitch; an overcast sky that helps bowlers; dew in the evening of a one-day match that makes it hard for the fielding side; sun that dries up a pitch and makes it hard and ideal for strokeplay — all these are things on which the result of a match can hinge. That is cricket’s particular charm.

These things need, above all, time. And time is what Twenty20 doesn’t have. It has no time for any of these factors to come into play and deliver the surprise and the excitement that is unique to cricket as we know it.

Worse still, it has no time for bowlers. There is no contest between the bat and the ball. In the Twenty20 version, bowlers have simply been taken out of the equation. Batsmen get a free hit (an extra ball to hit in which they can’t be dismissed) after every no-ball; to me, it seems that every ball is a free hit. There are next to no fielders out in the deep, so that makes things even more unequal. Sometimes, it looks as though Twenty20 needn’t bother with bowlers: batsmen may as well throw a ball against a wall and hit it as far as it can go.

Look, I can see the point of Twenty20. I know it is supposed to make the game more inclusive, to introduce it to a newer, wider audience. You can see it happening in England, where people are streaming into the ground at the end of a working day for a game, ties loosened, wine coolers ready, with children and wives and girlfriends. It is supposed to be like an evening out. The multiplex is all booked? Go to the cricket. Its brevity is its biggest draw. And who knows, with the Champions Twenty20 league just announced, it might just be the cornerstone of cricket’s popularity in the future.

So I’m not dense enough to not understand why it’s good for us. Trouble is, I don’t think it’s much good. Oh, it’s great fun, sure. Just don’t call it cricket.

Soumya Bhattacharya is the author of You Must Like Cricket? Memoirs of an Indian Cricket Fan.