From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.32 :: NO.16 :: Apr. 18, 2009

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CRICKET / ANALYSIS

20 overs of frenzy
The T20 cup had rekindled the English love affair with cricket. The public loved it. The hunger for T20 has not abated, and the Indian and worldwide public continues its insatiable desire for its next hit to feed its T20 addiction. This is evident in the IPL’s move from India to South Africa in order that they may dispense their tonic, at whatever cost, to an ever more demanding global audience, writes Harry Catchpole.

AKHILESH KUMAR

Twenty20 has spawned a new breed of fans.

As Stuart Robertson, the then marketing manager for the English Cricket Board (ECB), watched James Kirtley bowl the first ball in the 2003 Twenty20 cup (a wide incidentally) people around him reported that a tear came to his eye — “just a bit of dust”, he claimed. This day was the culmination of his work in developing Twenty20 (T20), his brainchild had come to fruition. Little did he know that he had created a monster, a soon to be worldwide phenomenon, the greatest change in world cricket since Kerry Packer took his circus on the road.

Many claims have been made as to the origins of the T20 format, some with greater veracity than others. In truth, no one can claim the exclusive intellectual right to a style and format of a game, versions of which have been played in villages and clubs around the world for generations. A notable attempt at the shortened game was made by New Zealand’s Martin Crowe in the late 90s. In his ‘Cricket Max’, played by New Zealand’s first-class sides, teams had two innings of 10 overs each with batsmen scoring double runs for hitting into specific ‘Max Zones’ and bowlers having four stumps to aim at.

The reason why this shortened form of the game failed to capture the public imagination in the way that T20 has is perhaps due to the over-radicalisation of ’Cricket Max’. The fireworks, music, and dancers, associated with modern T20 cricket, appeal to the younger, newer cricket-follower, while the essence of the game remains the same for the purist.

It was this new younger cricket fan that the ECB wanted to attract when, in 2001, they needed to replace the outdated Benson and Hedges Cup with a new competition. The county game was spluttering, crowds were diminishing, and interest was dwindling. Attendance was down by 17% at county matches, ‘crowds’ would have had little trouble fitting into a new Tata Nano. The problem was perpetuated by the ever-lengthening English football season encroaching on the cricket season from both ends.

The ECB looked to tap part of that football audience, the 16-34 year-old that has so much financial potential. It was Stuart Robertson who was charged with the task of developing and proposing a competition to the county chairmen that might re-enamour the English public with their national game.

Cricket in England outside of the rural village greens was largely considered to be a white, middle-aged, middle-class sport, looked upon by many with suspicion as an exclusive club that only the privileged few were allowed access to. Children from all communities — Caribbean, African, South Asian — were turning to the simpler, more accessible football that historically had always run alongside cricket.

The outside observer may have considered cricket to be in a healthy state; international matches were still well attended, indeed Test matches gained greater support in England than any other nation (with the exception of Australia). The reality was that there were enough white, middle-class, middle-aged men to fill those seats. However, with county gate receipts diminishing, the knock on effect was that grass roots cricket was suffering with a lack of funding.

The ECB needed to produce cricket for the masses and the people needed to bring their wallets. In Stuart Robertson’s T20 they had the key to unlock the door to this previously unattainable market. They unlocked the door, the masses came in, they brought their wallets, and with their money they bought beer — buckets of it.

Now not even the greatest sceptic could claim that T20 was not a success, even in those early days. Of course, like any new idea, it had its teething problems. The football crowd that the ECB had so craved had arrived, but with it came an impatience, even at this shortened form of the game. The combination of bad weather, alcohol and a lack of cricketing knowledge led to unsavoury behaviour.

The crowds who were new to cricket failed to understand why there was no play when the sun was out after the rain had stopped, if football could be played on wet pitches then why not cricket?

Aside from these initial problems the English public took to T20 like Kevin Pietersen to a half volley. They had a taste for it and they demanded more. The Twenty20 cup grew in popularity through its second and third seasons and continues to grow. The razzmatazz of the pop bands, bouncy castles, and flowing beer that came with the big shots and quick games left many itching for more. Albeit, not the older, more old fashioned members, as The Mirror reported, “The traditionalists stayed away, the kids came out to play”.

The new atmosphere at the grounds was accompanied by a fresh, more relaxed style of televised reporting. Interviews with players in their dugouts, and fielders and batsmen wired up to talk to commentators from the field of play, all gave the viewer an insight into a previously unknown world.

The T20 cup had rekindled the English love affair with cricket, now a very different game to that which is usually associated with the old-school bastion. But it was cricket none the less, and the public loved it.

The hunger for T20 has not abated, and the Indian and worldwide public continues its insatiable desire for its next hit to feed its T20 addiction. This is evident in the IPL’s move from India to South Africa in order that they may dispense their tonic, at whatever cost, to an ever more demanding global audience.

Would Stuart Robertson feel guilty if this global army of T20 junkies led to the end of Test cricket? “No. No.” he laughs. “They will go to the games they want to watch”. So let the games commence…



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