It isn’t ‘hit and giggle’ anymore

The notion that T20 was ‘light-hearted’ cricket was quashed during the inaugural World Cup in South Africa. Despite many teams still coming to grips with the format, the tournament was a huge hit, writes Arun Venugopal.

Resistance to change is indeed a most interesting phenomenon. As much as the inevitability of change is recognised as an unpleasant fact, there is reluctance, at least initially, towards accepting something new (this isn’t to say every change indicates progress). In the cricketing context, the introduction of one-day matches and Kerry Packer’s World Series were met with similar intransigence early on.

Much of the same happened to Twenty20 cricket during its infancy. In 2001, faced with the problem of thinning attendances at county games, Stuart Robertson, then marketing manager of the England and Wales Cricket Board, devised a plan to introduce 20-overs-a-side matches. It certainly wasn’t a hurriedly put together strategy.

“I commissioned massive consumer research into what we should do,” said Robertson in an interview to Daily Mail in 2008. “We spent £200,000, which was considered to be a lot of money for something like this. We tried to identify who was coming to cricket matches but, more importantly, who wasn’t and why.”

The proposal for a twenty-overs-a-side competition to replace the Benson & Hedges Cup was put to the vote of county chairmen. They voted 11-7 in favour of adopting the ‘new format’. Soon, the event was christened ‘Twenty20’ by a group of media personnel invited by Robertson.

The first set of official Twenty20 matches was held on June 13, 2003 and cricket was in for exciting times. As is the case with every innovation, there were those who looked at the format with suspicion and superciliousness. While some purists (self-appointed and otherwise) sniggered at the ‘hit and giggle’ idea, the crowds delighted in the crispness and chutzpah of T20. Before long, it was embraced by countries such as Australia, West Indies, and Pakistan.

The first ever Twenty20 International, played between Australia and New Zealand in Auckland in 2005, was a reflection of how players had not entirely cottoned on to the format. Both teams seemed to approach it more as an exhibition game: the Kiwis paraded their retro look (Hamish Marshall’s hairdo resembled a painstakingly constructed bird’s nest) even as Glenn McGrath attempted a Trevor Chappell-esque ‘underarm’ impersonation.

However, the notion that Twenty20 was ‘light-hearted’ cricket was quashed during the inaugural World Cup in South Africa. Despite many teams still coming to grips with T20, the tournament was a huge hit. Most importantly, India’s victory meant that new doors were opened.

Ironically, for a country that took to the format a touch hesitantly, India became the biggest T20 destination in less than a year.

First, the rebel Indian Cricket League and then the BCCI-backed Indian Premier League (IPL) set in motion the franchise model — a move that changed the landscape of the game in a manner not seen since the Packer days. The IPL, in due course, spawned a plethora of similar leagues such as the Big Bash, Bangladesh Premier League, and the Sri Lankan Premier League.

Consequently, cricket acquired an injection of dynamism and the after-effects were palpable in the manner Tests and ODIs began to be played. The swift scoring-rate in T20s was replicated in the longer versions and so was the sharp fielding. Not surprisingly, fewer Test matches ended in bland draws. The fusion of sport with entertainment (taking a cue from the likes of NFL and MLB in the US) helped T20 cricket gain access to a wider consumer base. The players were the biggest gainers, both monetarily and in terms of exposure; even the more mediocre of cricketers could make a killing provided they had the necessary skill-set for T20. There are lesser cultural barriers now with players participating in T20 leagues across the globe.

On the downside, quite a few cricketers began to abandon other formats to prolong their T20 career. Also, with business tycoons such as Allen Stanford — who was sentenced to 110 years in jail sometime back on charges of fraud — bankrolling an obscene amount of money in T20 leagues, there is a pressing need to ensure financial propriety.

The IPL, for instance, has been controversy-ridden, be it the spot-fixing issue or the termination of Kochi Tuskers Kerala and Deccan Chargers. A brand’s survival depends a great deal on its image and necessary checks and balances are non-negotiable.

There is, then, the importance of context that can’t be underestimated. Most T20 series comprise one or two games, diluting the seriousness of contests. The fourth edition of the T20 World Cup in Sri Lanka presents opportunities aplenty. Its success would go a long way in extending the influence of cricket to previously untapped regions.