September 25, 2007
Hail the weaklings
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me
For all intents and purposes, this famous Emma Lazarus poem that is graven on the tablet of Statue of Liberty could as well be the anthem of the new format Twenty20, for its enthusiasm to embrace the poor and the wretched, reward the weak and the timid, without making any value judgments with regard to the talents or the capabilities of the team, and yet providing equal opportunity for everyone to lay claims on the final prize and the coveted title - World Champions. What's not to love about the new format? So what if the game plays out like the climactic moments of a great action movie, that has dispensed with the story and the setup and done away with the trivial details like why the villain should get his comeuppance and the hero, his redemption? It is an action movie, it is advertised as one, how does it matter what the "why's", "where's" and "what's" are, as long as there are mushroom cloud explosions, high speed chases, dazzling graphics and great special effects. Welcome to the poor man's One Day International. The new game in town that purportedly squeezes the real juice out of the game, leaving out all the pulp, skin and other unnecessary ingredients, and serves the game fresh to the customer, high in sugars and spiked in adrenaline. Boundaries, sixers, free hits, measured hits (some made-up statistic that shows how long and far the ball has been hit into the stands; the current record stands at 114 meters), slogs, scoops, sweeps, cuts, pulls, hooks - the game has it all.
Or has it? Without a proper context or a nice narrative to string together all the above disparate elements that makes cricket such a vibrant game, the sport is reduced to a series of gags, slapstick, and mishaps, not to forget, a pre-recorded laugh track, that is mixed in after the fact. Nobody would have guessed that there would come a day when the pajama ODI cricket, the prodigal brother of test cricket, be referred to as traditional. Say what one may of ODI, there still is a reflection, however faint it is, of the classic version of the game, with sweet times, gorgeous drives and silken touches. With the introduction of Twenty20, cricket has found a new clown act - the one that comes between main items in circus acts, aiming for nothing more than silly grins and goofy laughs. Send in a bunch with funny hats in funny clothes, give them no more than 10-15 minutes as the main act's preparation is underway, instruct the clown to interact with the crowd - poke at them, squirt them with hidden hoses, hit and run. And when the main act gets ready, order them to pack up their set and leave the stage in a hurry, not before receiving the obligatory swift kick in the behind by one of the main guys, much to the amusement of a roaring audience.
After all the hoopla dies down and the initial euphoria fades away and after people become numb to slug-fests, does the new format retain the same respect and recognition that its big brother held on to ever since its inception? It is quite evident that cricket survives and thrives mainly on the never-waning patronage in the subcontinent, and the immigrant diaspora that make up the core audience abroad. And the reason why the new format even came into existence in England is to attract the lost English audience, whose interest in the game has ebbed with the sagging fortunes of their team in the shorter version of the game. Though it makes good business sense to market sport in untapped segments (read US, China and Latin America) by pitting cricket against their native national sports, in terms of the play time, the excitement and the fireworks, it remains a fair question as to how much the regular cricketing world can take this brand of hit out or get out cricket, the current success of the championship notwithstanding. In an already crammed schedule that leaves little room for rest, recuperation and recharge for the players, finding a place for a format that is purely a spectator fancy with so little in it for the performers, is a tough proposition. May be, it could be used as a breeding ground for new ODI players (a la, the minor leagues), where players can hone their skills, find their form, treat them as warm-ups for grander stages. In the 50 over version (which was retooled from its predecessor the 60-over version), the game has found the right balance of setup, structure, drama and heroics, because without the right drama, heroics is basically reduced to a show-off. And would Miandad's last ball six or Australia's last ball dramatic tie in a World Cup semi-final, have left the same kind of impression, if they happened in a Twenty20, where soon, for sure, drama is going to be reduced to a cliche and last ball heroics, a passe.
That said, all the teams signed up for the tournament eyes wide open, knowing fully well the rules and the pitfalls. A regal position could be reduced to totters in a matter of couple of overs and vice versa. And the one that emerged on the top at the end of the day need to congratulate themselves not only for their individual achievements, but also for their share of good fortune. There is so little room for error, so little time for recovery and comeback, that margins of victories get measured in whiskers. Probably after the famous '83 win, this would come close as a complete victory for the Indian team, in terms of consistent performances in all departments of the game, helmed by a no-name and scripted by the average folk. The absence of unprecedented marketing madness that surrounded the failed campaign at Carribean, helped the current team a lot, as none, including themselves, have given them to make it past the first couple of rounds, leave alone, all the way. If history is any indication, this seems to be the only way for Indians to keep upsetting apple-carts and well laid plans of others. Treat each victory as a bonus and savor every moment as though it is the last. If the obviously glaring fact, that the format almost nullified most of the advantages that superior teams had, could be overlooked and the win is treated on its own merit, it is fair observation that the new face of the Indian team, looks a lot energetic and agile on the field, thanks to the infusion of the new blood, which played a large apart in getting the team to where it wanted. Catches were held, runs were stopped and direct throws rattled the timber with a clockwork consistency. The contrast is even glaring when comparing this team to the one fielded in the just concluded tour to England, where Dravid had had to hide a minimum of 5-6 players every game on the field. If not for anything else, that is one positive aspect that the Indian team could glean out of this win - a renewed vigor to attack the ball, instead of passively attempt to react to it. And before one gets carried away about India won another World Cup after all these years, it always helps to remember, given the nature of the format, even Bangladesh would had had a chance at the title - and that says a lot about Twenty20.
So what does this all mean - being Twenty20 World Champions? For a lack of a better word, NOTHING. It still does not change the fact that India languishes in the longer rung of the ICC ODI table. When the sun comes back up again tomorrow, and the teams change guard, there are still a lot of chinks that need looking into and ironing, the chief ones being, how to marry the experience of the old to the ebullience of the youth, how to hide the lack of the agility of the old with the quick reflexes of the young, and importantly, how to drive home the point that bowling 4 overs, batting for a few more, and fielding for a little longer is a lot different to bowling 20-30 overs, batting 4-5 sessions and fielding for days together at a time. Every team after a successful World Cup campaign (Australia in 87, Pakistan and South Africa in 92, Sri Lanka in 96) raised their standards to launch their game into the next strata, using the experience and the exposure a good springboard for bigger and better things. If the Indian team (for that matter, any team) could take a leaf out of it and apply the new found enthusiasm to where it really matters and counts, Twenty20 could become the new drawing board, the new testing grounds for strategies and stress tets, instead of how it is regarded by the traditionalists as the ultimate burial ground for class, temperament and skill. And only in that situation,with Twenty20 feeding into ODIs and ODIs shipping off talent to test cricket, can all the three formats co-exist peacefully, and live happily everafter.
Srinivas Kanchibhotla how you liked the article
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