Friday, December 15, 2017

Appreciating Twenty20

Love it or hate it, you have to appreciate the different challenges that cricket’s shortest format presents to the modern player.

Inevitably, a lot of attention is focussed on all the big hitting—the proliferation of sixes and fours that is seen as the defining element of the game: a feast of strokeplay over a three-hour period that draws in the fans by the thousands to witness the shot-making spectacle, or to themselves be witnessed by other fans and the roving eyes of the television cameras.

Yet it’s because of the condensed, intense format that another factor becomes so very important--the elimination of errors. Indeed, yesterday’s first T20 International between the West Indies and England at Kensington Oval in Barbados illustrated just how costly a mistake can be to the extent of making the difference between victory and defeat.

Marlon Samuels, on 47, drove the first delivery of the 18th over of the West Indies innings powerfully but straight to James Tredwell at extra-cover who spilled the chance. As if intent on rubbing salt in what was now a wide open wound, given that he was also missed ten runs earlier to a very difficult chance at backward-point by Eoin Morgan off England captain Stuart Broad, Samuels proceeded to smash the remaining five deliveries of fast-medium bowler Jade Dernbach for four.

So an over that should have started with the wicket of the key batsman finished costing 20 runs and giving the home side the necessary impetus in getting up to a final total of 170 for three.

Of course, it can be argued that any error at any stage of any match can be identified as the turning point, the moment that made all the difference. It’s much more difficult though to argue the case of a dropped catch in the first session of a Test—even if the lucky player happens to go on to get a really big score—making the difference between victory and defeat some four days later.

Cricket’s traditional variety, whether it’s the five-day Test or a first-class match lasting three or four days, experiences so many twists and turns over its comparatively lengthy journey that many a counterpoint can be offered suggesting that it was a key moment in later stages of the match that really made all the difference.

When it comes to T20 though, there’s no such luxury. It’s 40 overs maximum, three hours or so of cricket and therefore very little opportunity to make up for one significant lapse in concentration. That’s the pressure of this abbreviated version. Every single error seems to be magnified so many times over, whether it’s a catch put down, an expensive over or even one tactical switch by the captain that backfired for one or two deliveries.

There’s so much cricket being played these days, especially the T20 variety either in the form of internationals or some franchise-based tournament somewhere or other, that it’s easy to see them all rolled into one congealed mass of glorified vupping, the sort of uncultured stuff that is sneered at by those who consider Test cricket and it’s first-class nursery as the only REAL cricket there is.

And yes, if it was left up to me and I wasn’t still involved in covering cricket for a living I would have been one of the 14 or 15 people at the Queen’s Park Oval yesterday watching Trinidad and Tobago and the Windward Islands stretch the limits of the term “first-class” on the third day of their low-scoring scheduled four-day encounter.

This has nothing to do with all those fancy descriptions about being an aficionado or connoisseur of cricket. It’s just something cultural, to have been brought up at a time and in an environment where a Test match was everything, where arriving long before the start of play to watch players go through their warm-up routines was as much of a delight and an enthralling spectacle as watching two opening batsman defy the best efforts of fast bowlers with the new ball.

A scoreline of 68 for one after two hours and maybe 30 overs before lunch at the start of a Test may sound unbearably boring in the context of the modern game. But certainly not if it’s top-class, probing bowling against defiant, technically proficient batsmanship. Anyway, as I said, it’s a cultural thing so this was not intended to win over anyone who considers the traditional variety about as exciting as following one of those public accounts hearings on Parliament TV.

But T20 is a different thing altogether. It is fundamentally entertainment and excitement. It’s about sensational shots and spectacular efforts in the field. Even if you can’t stand all the exhibitionists floating about who try their best to attract attention, it’s more than enough to appreciate the skills required to manufacture shots or produce a succession of unplayable yorkers in a pressure situation.

Make no mistake. This form of cricket may be highlighted by raw power and all sorts of histrionics or even “Gangnam Style” celebrations, as when the West Indies lifted the T20 title at the expense of the hosts in Sri Lanka 17 months ago. But it’s also about skill, and at the end of the day, even with a shortened format that offers greater unpredictability, the best usually prevail in the end.

They are the ones who handle the key moments better and reduce the margin of error to almost zero.