A traditionalist till a few months ago, Test cricket for me was the only form of cricket worth watching. When the 50-over game was introduced in the 1970s, I looked upon it as a sideshow, till India won the Prudential World Cup of 1983. Twenty-20 cricket was for me a ‘circus’ for the 15 years it has been around. In recent months, however, when I got to know of how much effort every T20 team at the international/franchisee level puts in to perform better, I had rethink my opinion of the shortest and newest form of the game.
It was Jack Pollock, the American abstract-expressionist painter of the mid-twentieth century who once said, “The strangeness will wear off and I think we will discover the deeper meanings in modern art.” Almost 80 years later, not many can still understand art-nouveau nor can they distinguish between fauvism, expressionism and surrealism. The real reason behind this is the ‘non-acceptance’ of modern art as an art movement.
If Test cricket can be likened to classical painting, then Twenty-20 cricket is modern art. Most of the followers of the newest form of the game do not really understand the game but still applaud the strokes; like modern art aficionados praising the ‘strokes’ of an abstract painting without getting into the painter’s mind. Therefore, Test match followers and traditionalists call the slam-bang version of the game, Mickey Mouse cricket. For them, it’s just ‘entertainment’; three hours of madness that happens on the cricket field, and off it. Pundits therefore ask, ‘Can there be a deeper meaning to T20 cricket?”
“Twenty-20 cricket is like a burger,” cricketer-turned politician, Navjyot Singh Sidhu says. “You can have it once a week. For a whole meal, however, you have to return to Test cricket. More than one burger a week and you will get a tummy ache.”
That ‘tummy ache’ is now probably becoming a pain in the neck for cricket’s traditionalists. The shortest form of the game has begun drawing such huge crowds, at most cricketing centres that people having started fearing for Test cricket’s future.
Therefore, cricket administrators the world over need to understand that Test cricket cannot ride piggy-back on the success of T20 cricket.
Nor can T20 cricket bring back crowds to Test matches. Like chalk and cheese, the two are different games altogether. They are as different as classical and modern art, and as dissimilar as association football and futsal.
If Test match cricket has had its Picassos, Da Vincis, Cezzanes and the Gauguins in the form of Bradman, Hutton, Sobers, Pollock and others, besides Raja Ravi Varma in the form of Gavaskar, then T-20 cricket has its modern artists in Rohit Sharma, Babar Azam, Glenn Maxwell, Colin Munro and others too. They may paint with a different brush — in a different medium and style — but it is an art form all the same, which needs to be critiqued more maturely as it gets more and more popular.
T20 cricket was born in England in the new millennium following dwindling crowds at County matches that affected turnstiles as well as cricket’s commercial deals. The English Premier League football matches were running to full houses. The answer therefore was to design three-hour matches that encouraged big-hitting, were played in the evenings under floodlights and included additional entertainment in the form of cheer-leaders, music and spectator competitions. The bored spectators who had veered away from cricket towards football had to be brought back.
Football was the plank on which the T20 game was designed; snappy, exciting, enjoyable and result-oriented. The game that provided ‘instant gratification’ to its followers slowly spread all over the cricket playing world and India was perhaps one of the last to embrace it. Over the last decade or so, the coming of the Indian Premier League and other professional leagues elsewhere has made T20 cricket extremely popular.
Let’s not make the mistake of trivialising the impact the modern-day game has had on cricket fans. Most franchise and international T20 teams plan their season like professional football teams do. There is back-room planning for fitness training, match strategy, tactics and SWOT analysis. T20 cricket now is no longer a circus; it has become an art form. Therefore, the next time you see a Rohit Sharma or a Rishabh Pant going berserk in the mid-overs don’t be surprised. It will all have been planned in the team’s war-room.
Where there is art, there will be emotions. Like modern artists who use colours to convey their emotions, T20 cricketers use their bats, balls and their fielding skills to express themselves. Planning and passion combined with emotions gives rise to professionalism. That precisely is the reason why T20 matches are getting popular and giving Test cricket a run for its money.
A traditionalist watching a T20 match for the first time will hardly be able to recognise the game. Batsmen playing lap-shots, reverse-sweeps, upper cuts etc. Bowlers using back-of-the-hand deliveries, slow bouncers and speed variations to fool batsmen. Fielders diving around, making sliding stops and, picking up and throwing in one action from the outfield. These are stunning new innovations that the game of T20 has brought in.
When one thinks of T20 cricket, Rudyard Kipling’s poem, ‘If’ immediately comes to mind. It makes men out of boys. “If you can keep your head, when all about you are losing theirs,” and “If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, yours is the earth and everything that’s in it. And — which is more — you’ll be a man, my son!”
Is it surprising then that players like Jasprit Bumrah, Shikhar Dhawan and a few others have graduated into Test cricket from the shorter version, in what has been a smooth transition? T20 cricket has taught these players to absorb pressure, rub shoulders with international stars and to pick up the tricks of the trade, on the job.
Let us, the skeptics, therefore accept the fact that T20 cricket is here for the long haul. It is the rather boring 50-over cricket that needs to go and the number of former stars gunning for ODIs is now on the rise. That way, we can have more Test matches, more T20 matches and more time for domestic cricket.
Modern art or modern, T20 cricket; it’s time we made an effort to know its inner meaning.
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler and coach, he was also a cricket and football administrator.