The clock has struck Twenty20—and yes, it did it twice. Just as fans primed their jaded nerves for the frothy pleasures on view in South Africa (where the first T20 World Cup kicked off midweek), the BCCI dramatically uncorked its own genie-in-a-bottle back in India. The Indian Premier League, the board’s riposte to the rebel ICL, was announced on Thursday, with all the ceremony befitting an ‘official’ tourney. To wit, a global T20 league, with a stupendous prize fund of £2.5 million, and all of eight teams featuring players from over four nations. Top players from India will test their aptitude for this steroidal brand of cricket—virtually, pyjama on speed, with music and cheerleaders thrown in—against T20 champs from England, Australia and South Africa.
BCCI vice-president Lalit Modi, who will be the IPL convenor, read out details of the format, the structure of sponsorship et al—watched by the Indian triumvirate of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly, plus Stephen Fleming and Glenn Mcgrath. Altogether, there was a ring of authority about it, and the England and Australian boards too have approved. The gauntlet thrown to ICL lies precisely in this ‘legitimacy’.
Meanwhile, fireworks lit up the night sky over Johannesburg as the ICC World T20 tournament was inaugurated on September 11. As crowds filled the Wanderers, the eyes of ICC officials too lit up. It teed off too with an explosive match that saw South Africa chase 206 for a victory over the West Indies. Then, a fighting Zimbabwe pulled the rug from under a sluggish Australia’s feet in Cape Town. Two fantastic games—testimony to the promise of ‘instant instant cricket’, a perfect drama in two short acts.
The inaugural tie saw a 50-ball century from the windmill figure of Chris Gayle, a T20 record, but hosts South Africa returned the compliment through Herschelle Gibbs and Justin Kemp, reaching the target with 14 balls to spare and bringing the roof down. The game saw 36 fours, 18 sixes and 413 runs being scored.
And in Durban, a two-hour drive from Jo’burg, New Zealand quickies Shane Bond and Mark Gillespie proved against Kenya that T20 need not be a hopeless proposition for bowlers who kept things simple. Mercurial Pakistan allrounder Shahid Afridi took to the format like a duck to water—as if he was waiting for someone to invent Twenty20 all these years!—making 21 off seven deliveries and then claiming four Scotland wickets. That night—in Cape Town, the other end of South Africa—Zimbabwe hit the ground running, thanks to juice in the pitch because of a sharp spell of rain, and shocked fancied Australia with a five-wicket win in a last-ball humdinger.
“There are not many moments when I’ve walked off the park feeling like this,” said an embarrassed Ricky Ponting after the Zimbabwe upset. “If we don’t learn from this, we are fools.” It was an honest admission that even the Aussies needed to adapt to T20. The format can be unforgiving to the slightest of mistakes and allows no room for recovery. The Aussie batsmen made only 138, a fighting total at best. And Zimbabwe’s wicket-keeper Brendan Taylor, fresh from a run-in with the cricket authorities at home, played a well-crafted knock to steer his team to an unbelievable triumph over a side that everyone thought till then had only to turn up to win in any genre of cricket.
The ICC, pining for a big money tourney after 2006’s Champions Trophy in India, is happy with the roll of the dice so far. “This is the first of 18 ICC events spread over eight years all over the world that will provide players and fans with variety and entertainment,” said ICC president Ray Mali. “The spread of events and the revenues will help to continue cricket’s growth.” One expectation, though, was belied in the first couple of days. T20 was often advertised as fulsome family entertainment, sort of a picnic, but there really was no sign of a new audience in games featuring teams other than the Proteas. It may be early days yet, but with such intense cricket on display, the bid to add colour around the ground with dancing girls seemed redundant. Fans may actually prefer the more cricket-related elements—a free hit to the batsman after no-balls, the frenetic pace with which a game is played start to finish, the rush.
“It would be wrong to dismiss this as Mickey Mouse cricket,” said Australian great Steve Waugh on the tournament website. “It’s only a matter of time before cricketers hone their skills to adapt to this innovation, just like when one-day cricket was introduced. The freshness of the concept and the lack of a text book to refer to makes a winner difficult to nominate, but my gut feel is it will still be the team with the right basics.”
Captains have also realised they will come under the scanner if their teams do not meet their fans’ expectations, but are relishing the challenge. Pakistan’s Shoaib Malik spoke about how a leader has to be alive to the rapidly changing dynamics. “Every batsman is padded up and ready to go in. Depending on the situation, if we want someone to go in and rotate the strike, we’d ask someone particular.” Sitting in the team dugout by the boundary line, Malik was able to change the batting order on the spur of the moment at the fall of the fourth wicket against Scotland. “We saw the spinners were in charge and Shoaib decided to send me in,” revealed Afridi.
Ponting may have scored 98 in the first ever T20 international against New Zealand but wasn’t convinced of the format until Wednesday’s loss that served as a wake-up call. “I think it’s a mental thing. We have got to start respecting Twenty20 now,” he said. Even if the ICC has drawn lines to ensure that its traditional bases of Test cricket and ODIs—the cash cow—are protected, Australia’s captain will not be alone in being a convert. The future has probably arrived.