Spectators’ day out

Twenty20 transformed what originally had become a boring traditional English medieval game into what, with aggressive marketing, could be an immediate and gratifying entertainment, writes Frank Tyson.

Throughout the past few decades, global sport has become increasingly Americanised. And the most recent footprint down the path of Yankee domination of sports seems to be, at least to my eyes, traditional cricket’s capitulation to some of the rules and regulations of that modern phenomenon, the Twenty20.

The International Cricket Council’s staging of the World Twenty20 in South Africa has made the Colonels at Lord’s sit up, take another gulp of their iced gin and tonic and realise that here was a sport which was both competitive and entertaining. The judge and jury did not take long to come out with their verdict. The players liked playing it; the spectators could understand it; and it did not drag on inconclusively. In a word, it transformed what originally had become a boring traditional English medieval game into what, with aggressive marketing, could be an immediate and gratifying entertainment.

For those who were not cricketing ‘cognoscenti’ or just too young to comprehend, entertainment or ‘petits divertissements’ were provided just beyond the boundary in the shape of ‘bouncy castles’, playground hair dyers or face painters. Jazz bands or musical groups played. Bars and refreshment booths did a thriving trade. Cricket became a day out for the family.

To achieve this transformation, the sport of W. G. Grace had to adopt certain principles. First and foremost it had to be easily understood by the groundlings There was no room in it for the mystic intricacies of ‘reverse swing’, ‘googlies’ and other nuances of an almost Masonic game wrapped in such terms as ‘off and leg-cutters’ and ‘strike rates.’

Twenty20 is simply the descendant of the game played by Medes and Persians. Man throws a ball, another man hits the ball with a stick, runs around a marker and scores a notch! — and the team registering most notches wins the contest. Simple! In this regard, however, it is worth remembering that democratisation can make a sport too coarse — or too lacking in the refinements which underlined an innings by Tendulkar or a spell by Bishan Singh Bedi. After all, in the words of the poet Dryden, one should not blindly accept popular standards simply because they are those accepted by the majority. As Dryden wrote: “The most may err, as grossly as the few.”

Nonetheless it cannot be denied that Twenty20 has been taken to their bosoms by the various segments of the cricketing public. The spectators like it because, even if they do not fully comprehend all of the game’s tactics and skills, the boundary sideshows take the kids off their hands for a few hours. Most of the players are equally supportive because Twenty20 produces the challenge of limited opportunities, exciting results, the buzz that usually accompanies tense outcomes, plus the bonus of prize money to sweeten their contracted income.

The administrators love it because it attracts the crowds like bees to a honey pot and thickens the black line under the season’s balance sheet. The second and third principles bedded into the Twenty20 format are: its brevity, its immediacy and its sharing of important roles within its limited context of 20 overs batting and 20 overs per team. The Twenty20 matches rarely extend beyond four hours and provide the ideal framework for a fulfilling afternoon’s sport — both for the player and spectator alike.

In this respect Twenty20 is similar to America’s national sport, baseball, limited as it is to the number of batsmen who can take strike in any one of its 10 innings. The methods of dismissal in baseball and Twenty20 are also similar. The baseball pitcher has to deliver the ball from a mound over a distance of around 60 feet, at a certain height over a plate set in the ground; in Twenty20 the bowler aims at the stumps from creases, marked some 20 metres apart. The points of similarity go on. Batters may be caught or run out in each sport: players rely on umpires for crucial decisions on the bases or at the home plate.

The similarities of the two sports end there. Bats are of different dimensions, shape and of different materials; balls are of different leathers, differently stitched. In baseball, fieldsmen, and backstops wear more protective gear and use mitts to facilitate catching the ball. And importantly the skills of the game diverge. Baseballers are limited to hitting the ball in front of square; but batsmen can strike or deflect the ball in a 360-degree arc around their stumps.

The most telling difference between the two ballistic sports, however, is that the Twenty20 bowler, in delivering the ball to the batsman, is permitted to bounce it in front of the striker. This greatly increases the number of permutations at the disposal of the cricketing bowler, and creates a situation in which his opponent has to play defensively. A bowler for instance can pitch the ball in front of the batter and by imparting spin or cut to it, make it change direction, bounce high or keep low, in order get past the striker. Thus cricket’s bowler has at his disposal a wider repertoire of deliveries such as off and leg-spin, off and leg-cutter, the flipper and top-spinner. The bowler has “57 varieties” at his beck and call. In baseball, the pitcher is reliant on degrees of speed and curve to beat the batter before the ball reaches the batter’s plate.

It is in the relevant simplicity of the American sport that its threat to its summer rival cricket — even of the Twenty20 variety — lies. Thus easy to understand conditions, facilities and laws make the cricket-baseball hybrid of Twenty20 easier to play. There is no need to re-invent the wheel and create complications. I foresee that as the cricketing public becomes more accustomed to the simplest and briefest form of the game, the sport which Don Bradman, Dr. Grace and Ranji once played will become the most accepted face of cricket.