Unalloyed joy

India’s World Twenty20 win was an advertisement for joy in sport. T20’s biggest gift to Indian cricket in 2007 has been in releasing that mostly suppressed joy. It showed that cricket was a game, and that cricket could be fun, writes Nandita Sridhar.

India’s Twenty20 Championship win will be cherished and preserved — with appropriate support from reruns, DVDs, pictures and posters — till something more dramatic comes along. It wasn’t just India’s performance and the close matches that turned the nation on; it was the format itself. For those two weeks in September, cricket was what we played in the streets. It was skewed, sometimes silly, and featured time-constrained compulsive hitting. S ix sixes, often witnessed in paper-ball bus cricket, were achieved against an international bowler. It had its charm.

Test cricket’s resilient survival is what’s endearing about the sport; but it demands loyalty. It teases, puts your fidelity through a rigorous trial by fire before unravelling the core of its being. But Twenty20 was created to woo the average viewer. It was designed as an alternative to tweaking Test cricket (like one-day cricket was) to increase cricket’s viewer base. In their two weeks in South Africa, the Indians squeezed in every positive advertisement for the format. They set a standard that T20 might find hard to live up to.

Besides the format, it was the cricket that was refreshing. The Indians, very unlike them, batted deep, bowled well under pressure and fielded brilliantly. The Pakistanis, very unlike them, were consistent. Cricket, very unlike its recent limited-overs past, was unpredictable and not crippled by sameness.

India’s championship win came not just at the right time for world cricket, but for Indian cricket as well. For too long, the game’s financial hub was represented by men carrying absurdly high expectations, and it showed in their cricket. The ICC World Cup in the West Indies was soulless and insipid; but more than that, it was a wake-up call for Indian cricket and the Indian cricket fan. Where was the joy? Where were the sports in sport?

But in South Africa, the Indians played the game as it should be played: with passion, joy and a healthy desperation.

Most importantly, their energies, hopes, talents and quirks were brilliantly managed by a nerveless captain in M. S. Dhoni. Fifteen men, some of whom had their places questioned, and some revoked, were placed on an untried, untested stage. With the problems of ODIs — periodic lulls and matches dragging on — negated, what resulted was high-voltage and high-adrenalin cricket. The boys — a word often used to convey (unsuccessfully) a sense of teenage bonhomie — actually played with the freedom of youth.

On a less tangible note, the team seemed driven by destiny. First, there was this bowl-out against Pakistan. India’s three non-bowlers out-aimed Pakistan’s three specialists 3-0 (tactically sound, but who’d have thought?). The loss against New Zealand spared Indian fans the headache of an unblemished tournament. Why rob them of a chance for an endless debate on the team’s worth?

It was when push came to shove, with India needing simply to win all matches to lift the trophy, that destiny and brilliance converged. Yuvraj Singh’s six sixes seemed too bizarre to be fiction but too perfect to be real; yet it unfolded in a subliminal haze, with each shot building up to the possibility of the next. There came the whiff of something special.

South Africa was next. The host suffered from a sinister period of paralysis. They just wouldn’t score. India had not just made it to the semis, but made sure they met the Aussies in familiar territory — Durban.

Semifinals tend to offer a final shot at making statements before the nerves take over on the day of the final. The Indians proved that sense wasn’t misplaced in T20. Calm heads and inspirational bowling took them to the final. And then came THAT final, when a nervy start, below-par batting, intense fielding, a superb innings from Misbah-ul-Haq and audacious captaincy (giving Joginder Sharma the final over), converged towards a fatal scoop, a catch and delirium. It sparked off celebrations and mass conversions.

What will this win come to mean to Indian cricket in the long run? The 1983 World Cup win caused an irreversible change in the way the sport was watched.

It came at a perfect time, and was followed by the World Championship of Cricket win in 1985 and a Test series win in England. Television advertising was awaiting an explosion, and the ODIs were perfect for that.

But to understand what this win will come to mean to Indian cricket, one has to first look at what cricket is in India. The sport is not just entertainment, but nationalism and a metaphor for everything that’s Indian (including its sedentary pace and the ability to generate a ton of stats). For the average Indian fan, cricket is the one team sport where India belongs to an elite bunch (in cricket’s case, a Test playing nation), and where the disappointment of a loss can be offset by another series around the corner.

The relationship turns perversely hateful when the team loses, and debating becomes a national pastime. Looking at that, the impact of T20 will be different from that of the ODI World Cup win. One-off T20 matches give little time for introspection and debate. A World Championship every two years offers the lone platform to try and win a title. But India’s win will be felt more on the response to the ICL (which just concluded) and the soon to commence IPL. India’s win has already woken administrators up to utilising T20 to fill their coffers.

The win also sparked off concerns on the format spreading to the grassroots. It is a genuine concern, and calls for local administrators to rein in on a T20 overkill. Solid foundations for batting and bowling cannot be built on T20. If Chris Gayle smashed a century and Daniel Vettori bowled superbly, it was because their foundations were built on the longer format.

One-day cricket has helped in aggressive batting in Tests, but only time will tell of Twenty20’s impact on Test cricket. One would have to give the format a trial time, till after the 2009 Championships, to determine its long-term impact. At present, the format relies too much on climactic drama. It requires time to evolve. For now, the start has been good and will take some doing to live up to. India’s World Twenty20 win was an advertisement for joy in sport. T20’s biggest gift to Indian cricket in 2007 has been in releasing that mostly suppressed joy. It showed that cricket was a game, and that cricket could be fun.