One of the most regularly discussed, or argued, cricketing topics is the effect T20 has had on our great game – people seem divided into the two opposing camps - there is often little middle ground.
With the World T20 in Sri Lanka in full swing, what better time to consider the evils of the shortest form of our great game – perceived, at least. I’m something of a traditionalist and would happily sustain myself on a diet of test cricket, but I’m also a realist – in a society that is now overflowing with entertainment choices, cricket has had to look outside its standard boundaries and expand its horizons.
If one were to listen to talk back radio, or read comments through Twitter, Facebook or any number of cricketing mediums it would be easy to think that everything wrong with our game started and finished with T20 – there seems a lack of balance in most opinion. Vocal traditionalists appear unable to see beyond the realm of first class cricket, whilst those drawn to our great game through the T20 vehicle are often lambasted for their love of the devil’s game.
Given cricket is a touted as the gentleman’s game it seems apt to settle the issue via a debate - Marquess of Queensberry rules may be more definitive but they don’t work so well on paper. I’ll pen both sides (it’ll help balance the competing voices in my head) - the affirmative and the negative.
Affirmative – it’s T20’s fault!
There are always two sides to what appear even the most lopsided of debates – the benefits, or otherwise, of T20 are no different. T20 is an easy target – a convenient scapegoat for the ills of our great game, though it’s not without fault.
T20 domestic cricket is played in every cricketing nation – for many it’s now the main shop front outside the international game – for some it sits even higher. As a result, provinces and franchises go in hunt of players who will draw crowds, win matches and help fill their coffers – they see it as an opportunity to promote their “brand”.
The down side is that many of the competitions compete with the international calendar – players are often drawn between the money of the T20 merry-go round and the patriotism of donning their country’s colours. Kevin Pietersen excepted (I have no wish to further debate the merits, or otherwise of a saga that has harmed one and all), most of the powerful nations; England, Australia, South Africa and India, can blissfully ignore the effects it has at the highest level – their markets are large enough, and their finances strong, to ensure they can remunerate their players sufficiently to stave off the need to supplement their income above duty to their country.
The same cannot be said for those in the second tier of nations – the West Indies, New Zealand and Bangladesh among them. It’s a commercial reality that their boards pay them well, not handsomely – when opportunities arise to earn substantial money over a matter of weeks it’s hard to deny players that chance.
Whilst possibly held over a barrel when the IPL came to life, New Zealand Cricket (NZC) has seen fit to create a five week window for players to ply their trade in India – it now forms part of central contracts. They may have stumbled between disasters of late, but that one decision means NZC has its players available for all international cricket. The players have shown fit to compromise and miss part of the IPL to represent the country that saw them rise to prominence, and open IPL doors.
NZC chief executive David White is realistic about the situation - "talking to people from the West Indies, we are very lucky that we can accommodate our players, let them play in the IPL so they don't have to make a choice over country versus other competitions. It's fantastic they can supplement their NZC incomes and make a good living and don't have to choose” (New Zealand Herald; June 4, 2012).
As White alludes to, the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) has not fared so well. In the most recent edition of the IPL they lost the services of many of their frontline players for the Australian series in the Caribbean, and they regularly lose players to domestic competitions across the globe – Chris Gayle the most prominent of them. Will his inclusion in the test side for the recent England series prove a turning point for relations between both parties? It’s unlikely, though it will be interesting to see whether he skips some of the smaller competitions for international duty. As a fan of West Indies cricket, I live in hope.
With its most attractive cricketing and marketing assets so regularly missing, plying their trade in a foreign T20 competition, the WICB is placed in a difficult position. While a lack of administrative nous and internal politics haven’t helped, money will always win out over national pride. To grow their financial strength, and subsequently increase player remuneration, the WICB need their top players in the maroon cap. But, without entertainers, without draw cards, it’s a stretch to increase gates, broadcast deals or attract top-end sponsors. And so the cycle continues – one precipitates the other, in ever decreasing circles. Will the light at the end of the tunnel ever arrive?
Has the explosion of T20 cricket had an effect on the skills of players? Test scoring is certainly quicker than it has been in the past, though Steve Waugh’s Australians pushed for four an over well before T20 took hold – their success changed the way test cricket was played – T20 has “helped” push it to the next level.
It’s hard to argue with the perception that many put a diminished price on their wicket. Batsmen seem less inclined to bide their time at the crease – shouldering arms and playing in the “V” has gone out of vogue for many of the instant-gratification generation, replaced by the constant need for the feel of bat on ball. Aggression regularly becomes an out clause to break a tough spell. For many new to the game this has increased the appeal of the test game, but is it disenfranchising the traditionalists?
Are bowlers impacted any less? In T20 most are asked to bowl six different balls every over – that’s a huge strain both physically and mentally. Established players have the experience to cope with the stress, but are young men ready for its rigours – bowling is hard enough without the lack of rhythm the shortest form imposes. Are young bowlers better served learning their craft at first class level? Surely there is time for T20 once players have a strong grounding? As batsmen have attacked more in the longer versions, so too bowlers – many seem to want to try variations at the first sign of batting stubbornness instead of bowling to long term plans.
But has the biggest impact been on international scheduling? T20’s explosion, both in popularity and financial importance, has changed the make-up of international tours. Two test series are becoming more rule than exception, especially for tours involving one of cricket’s second tier nations - first class tour matches are going the way of the back foot no-ball rule. Consequently, touring teams often struggle to adapt to local conditions. It’s a big ask to acclimatise in an international fixture – New Zealand’s recent Indian tour bares that out.
For many countries, an international T20 fixture, or two, is taking the place of an extra test match. Outside of Australia and England, where the SOLD OUT signs are regularly hung at test venues, national boards are faced with commercial necessity – T20 fixtures mean increased gate takings and a new fan base in a congested schedule. Outside of the Ashes, the days on lengthy tours and five test series have died a sudden death – it’s debateable they’ll ever return and cricket is the poorer for it.
For mine, cricket was a better game prior to the evolution of T20 – I enjoy the cut and thrust of test cricket; the mental battles and the war of attrition. Test cricket is, and should always be the pinnacle of the international game, not a format devalued by 40 overs of brash commercialism and instant gratification.
I’ll post the opposing side of the argument in a few days – even a T20 cloud has a silver lining. The views in this blog are to make a point – I’ll nail my true colours to the mast at the end of the negative side’s reply.
Tell me what you think – I’d love your thoughts. Post a comment below or tweet me @aotearoaxi.