Among the countless things that transpired in cricket in 2016, one aspect has not been acknowledged: that the demonization of the Twenty20 format has come to an end. Of course, there are reservations in some quarters still, but the large-scale debunking has ceased.
Since the inaugural World Twenty20 in 2007 became a runaway hit, concerns about the format have raged across the cricket universe. When the Indian Premier League (IPL) arrived in 2008, and tasted success, the objections became more forceful.
From a puritanical viewpoint, the IPL was a complete sell-out to Mammon, robbing this noble sport of its ethos, its very soul. Traditionalists saw Twenty20 as destroying technique, the sublime craft and art which makes cricket magnificent.
Such worries and criticism were not new to cricket. In fact, it was almost a replay of the time when limited-over matches came into existence in the 1960s. The one-day format was also derided initially as a joke, not the “real thing”.
I am reminded here of a story shared by Dom Moraes. The late poet-littérateur happened to be in England in 1966. His good friend Bobby Simpson, Australia’s opening batsman and captain, was playing for the Cavaliers against Essex at Romford.
“I watched on television as he hit four sixes in a row off a left-arm spinner to win the match,’’ recalled Moraes, “and next day I met him for lunch and congratulated him.’’ Simpson’s response left him somewhat flummoxed.
"Oh what the hell,’’ said the Aussie, "that was nothing. It wasn’t a Test. It wasn’t even first class. It was only a little one-day piddler. Nothing anyone does there matters in the least. You wait till I make my next Test century, then you can tell me how good I am.’’
As the record shows, Simpson was the coach 21 years later when Allan Border won the 1987 World Cup played in India— it’s widely considered to be the turning point in Australian cricket. Like his young team, Simpson too was delighted. Test cricket was still supreme for him, but time and experience had given him a different perspective about one-day cricket.
Similarly, worries about the Twenty20 format are beginning to seem misplaced. The biggest fear—that the standard of Test cricket would slump drastically—has proved to be unfounded.
The best Test players today—Virat Kohli, R. Ashwin, Steve Smith, David Warner, Joe Root, Kane Williamson, A.B. de Villiers, Faf du Plessis, Mitchell Starc, Angelo Mathews, Trent Boult and Ben Stokes, to name some—are those who straddle all three formats with equal aplomb.
In fact, many of these players have found their way into Test teams through the impact they’ve made in Twenty20, and then settled quickly into a new groove to come good even in the five-day format.
There are two facets to this issue. Firstly, changes in format in a sport usually reflect the dynamics of social change and have, therefore, become inevitable.
In hockey, for instance, AstroTurf was introduced in the 1970s to make the sport faster. Today, international matches are played over four quarters instead of two sessions. These haven’t affected the game adversely.
Secondly, as in any sphere of activity, sportspersons learn to adapt to change, both organically and through deliberated effort. The resourcefulness and versatility of humans can be mind-boggling as the pursuit of excellence aligns itself with survival.
If anything, Twenty20 has influenced the five-day format in becoming more adventurous, entertaining and result-oriented. This has brought in hordes of new spectators and huge amounts of money, as also new countries/teams into the fold.
But how much of Twenty20 is good? Should the crucial determinant be how much money it brings in or how it can help sustain the sport in the long run? Even One Day Internationals appear to have lost their sheen after four-five decades, and nobody knows how long the seductive power of Twenty20 will survive.
Test cricket remains the game’s most meaningful, as every worthwhile player still attests, and is still the format that needs to be preserved. Striking the right balance is the challenge for the game’s administrators.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.