Sunday 23 March 2014 

Will Tests Have To Give More Ground To Twenty20 Cricket?

Chris Gayle hits out against England
Chris Gayle, who has done more than most to ensure Twenty20 cricket is constantly hitting the headlines
© REUTERS / Action Images
 

We are now experiencing what will be a long season of cricket’s briefest version. After the current ICC World T20 in Bangladesh it will be time again for the Indian Premier League, and so lovers of this format will have much to feast on, while those who detest it might consider a kind of cricket fast until all the razzmatazz and six-hitting comes to a pause.

Those of us who prefer our T20 cricket in relatively small doses will pick and choose which games to watch, when to tune in and tune out, as the marathon task of following every game will be much too taxing for most.

This is not only due to the scepticism in which some hold T20 cricket. Had it not been for the high drama generated, and the absorbing pace bowling of Mitchell Johnson during the Australian leg, back-to-back Ashes series would surely have tested the patience of many ardent fans; 35 WT20 matches, followed soon afterwards by 60 IPL games is a lot to consume in such a short spell.

The T20 format has been good for cricket. Attracted by its brevity and the excitement it generates, crowds have flocked to venues that remain scanty for the other formats.

In the Caribbean, for instance, grounds that saw a few dozen spectators for regional four-day matches and a few hundred for tests were full and overflowing for games in the inaugural Caribbean Premier League in 2013. And bigger audiences usually mean more interest and more revenue.

T20 cricket has also wrought its influence on the other versions of the game. New frontiers, discovered, explored, and developed in T20 has seeped into the test and 50-over game, expanding their boundaries, and scoring rates once thought overly adventurous are now more readily entertained.

Australia’s David Warner, who came to test and ODI cricket through what he calls the 'back door' of T20, lit up both the Australian summer, and their subsequent tour of South Africa, with some of the most attacking Test batting imaginable. He is the first to take such a circuitous route to tests; it is likely others will follow, and the game will be the more watchable for it.

Although I have not done any research on this I would wager that the emergence of T20 cricket has prompted an increase in the frequency of sixes in tests and ODIs. Turbo-charged bats, shorter boundaries and other changes have helped, of course, but batsmen nowadays, having become more comfortable clearing the boundary in T20s have become more adventurous in the longer formats.

But therein lies some misgivings. Those who argue that T20 cricket is somewhat one-dimensional have a point. The thrill is real, and there is often much drama compacted within the boundaries of the miniature-sized game. 

By and large, however, T20 cricket is mostly about batsmen hitting the ball as far and as often as possible and the bowler trying to stop them. Sixes is the batsman’s most valuable currency and so the big hitter who deals lavishly in them is the game’s most essential commodity.

This is not to say that bowlers are just supporting cast; the deeds of Sunil Narine and Lasith Malinga, for example, show they can also be match-winners. But it is the power hitter that most often occupies pride of place.

West Indian batsman Chris Gayle is perhaps 20-over cricket’s most revered player. Last year, during IPL 6, he bludgeoned a record 175 in a game against the Pune Warriors. His runs came off only 66 deliveries and included all of 17 sixes. Fans hearing of Gayle’s extraordinary feat afterwards could scarcely believe that such an innings were possible and quickly turned to YouTube to see the carnage for themselves. What they witnessed was a carnival of big hitting never-before-seen. Viewers were entranced.

But if big hitting becomes commonplace will it still be thrilling? The relative rarity of sixes is one reason they exhilarate in the first place; if they now occur every over will they have the same effect?

Is there any chance that the hit that clears the boundary ropes will lose its novelty and hence its appeal if it is done routinely?

On average, there are less than two home runs per game in Major League Baseball in the USA. What if they were increased to, say, twenty per game; would they mean the same to the audience? Or what if every boxing match ended in a knockout; would knockouts have the dramatic effect they now do?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. Perhaps the equation is straightforward: more sixes equal more excitement for the fans.

For all I know, T20 may be the only way to get cricket into places it has never gone before. Indeed, we are now seeing encouraging performances from 'minnows' like Afghanistan and Nepal, and maybe only those glued too much in the past when tests were all that really mattered have found reason to doubt at the legitimacy and value of the four-hour game.

One wonders, however, if asking the public to consume so much T20 will have some kind of a cloying effect. An overabundance of any product in the marketplace will normally have the effect of cheapening it.

Still, there is no sign the support for T20 is ebbing. If anything it is widening and intensifying, much to the unease of those who worry that test cricket is in danger of being shoved aside and left behind.

I am sure I have good company in believing that Tests remains the best expression of the great game and should survive, though it will have to give even more ground to T20. 

The market wants what it wants and the demand for this relatively new kind of cricket will be met.

© Cricket World 2014