Where are the T20 superstars?

The summer madness is back again. Cricket is already in the reckless mode. It’s the time for instant heroes, quick glory and quicker fall from grace. IPL 5 is living up to the carnivalisque spirit, with the right mix of showbiz gloss and cricketing glamour. Vuvuzelas would have completed the picture. But thank God for small mercies.

Five summers on, IPL looks healthy and set for the long haul. It has assumed a life of its own, independent of Tests and One-dayers. The dismal show of India in either of the formats has hardly dented the popular appeal of Twenty20 cricket. Even traditionalists have started accepting—grudgingly though — that it’s a different brand of cricket which has carved out its own space and is not necessarily out to destroy the original purity of the game. There’s an exclusive audience for this format by this time too.

The new format has started throwing up 'made for Twenty20' players — exciting yet with short shelf lives. But something is sorely missing amid all this. But where are the superstars? By this time we should be having a bunch of sureshot crowd pullers -- the Sachin Tendulkars or Virender Sehwags or Brian Laras of Twenty20 cricket. But with the eloquent exception of West Indian Chris Gayle, none seems to have made it really large on the new stage. Even Sehwag, tailor-made for the slam-bang format, falls far short of being a superstar.

Man of centuries. AFP

It was also expected that the Twenty20 format would produce a brand of mercenary cricketers—players without borders—who would have dedicated fan following across continents, wherever the short version of the game is played. Now that many of the cricket playing nations created permanent slots for the format, there should have been a band of cricketers roaming countries in search of glory, and money. It was believed that the new breed of cricketers would dump the country for the club.

Interestingly, none of that has happened. Chris Gayle remains only transcontinental big star; Andrew Symonds was almost one. Why is that? Well, in the absence of clear answers we can just outline the possible reasons.

Twenty20 cricket is not yet fully entrenched in all cricket-playing countries. It is early days for it to produce made-for-the-format stars. The big stars are still drawn from either Test or One-Day cricket. Reputations and heroes are still built in the longer formats. This way the shortest version of the game is yet to snap the umbilical cord with Tests and One-Dayers. Gayle and Symonds owe their formidable reputations to their exploits in these versions. It is possible that ten years from now as T20 is played in all Test-playing countries it would produce its own standalone heroes.

Younger players still favour the longer formats, particularly Tests, to establish themselves. It is a safe way to build a career. T20 is too fickle a game. It depends a lot upon chances, much more than it does on skills. It is incredibly difficult to maintain consistency in this format. Thus it cannot be a wise career option. This explains why this version of the game is yet to attract serious young talent and why aging stars rule the roost in a game that is supposed to be cut out for youthful energy.

Twenty20 cricket requires entertainers. Not just entertainers in purely cricketing sense; it’s about being the showmen. Gayle is more apt for this version of the game than say a Sachin or Rahul Dravid -- brilliant cricketers both but too dignified in their conduct. The shorter version needs more wild, colourful personalities who would be good cricketers as well as good value-for-money characters for the spectators. Controversial players and players given to indiscretion are a good bet. The IPL organisers have not sought them out yet but it is high time they did. Reckless cricket requires some reckless characters.

As it grows, Twenty20 cricket needs to have a separate pool of players to draw from. It will need to have its own superstars, showmen and own complete life.