Is there any sport that has changed and mutated itself with time as much as cricket has? From uncovered pitches and timeless Tests to talk of a four-day Test match, DRS and mushrooming Twenty20 leagues all over the world. And that is just the broad strokes. There have been a whole lot of minute changes to the laws consistently over time. Some, or most, have been good and well thought out. Some, like the one on ‘fake’ fielding, are bizarre.
But while tweaking laws will continue till time immemorial, one recent innovation could do more than simply tweak existing things. Dubai saw the launch of what was called ‘cricket’s newest format’ – T10. Of course, there have been assorted varieties of cricket played, like the Hong Kong Sixes and double-wicket tournaments, for a long time, but this launch sounded like something more serious if only for the several famous names involved.
In the universe of Twenty20 cricket, I suppose more reduction should just evoke a shrug of the shoulders. But T10? Ten overs each innings? Two overs per bowler, presumably? Ten wickets to lose over ten overs? In the effort to make cricket a “90-minute” sport, is this not taking it too far? To be fair, that’s what I thought of T20 too when it properly burst into cricketing consciousness at the 2007 World T20. And this despite having possibly the grandest introduction to the format, via television. When the 2007 World T20 was on, I hadn’t watched anything of the first half of the tournament. Eventually, the need to watch cricket – with every country involved, it was the only possible cricket you could watch on television – overcame disdain for what I thought was a bastardisation of the game.
I switched the television on. And one over later, I saw Yuvraj Singh hit Stuart Broad for six sixes. Alright, I still didn’t care for the format then, but watching that over was a definite high, because you knew even as it was unfolding that you were seeing something historic. After four sixes, even the atmosphere inside my living room was electric – and I was watching alone. After five sixes, it felt inevitable. And after the sixth, I picked up the phone to dial a friend, only to find another one was already calling. His first words were, “Did you see that!!!” I could hear the exclamation marks in his voice.
While Yuvraj’s sixes were like adrenaline on caffeine, his next innings was even better, against Australia in the semifinal when he struck 70 of the cleanest runs in just 30 balls. Those many runs at that strike-rate would likely prove to be match-winning even today, when the T20 game is much better understood, planned and prepared for. The final, of course, was a roller-coaster of emotions and a foundation-stone laying, if you will, of cricketing history. If this sounds like a recollection in detail, it’s because after that Yuvraj over, I did watch the rest of the tournament. But while individual moments and achievements like Yuvraj’s innings in the semifinal or even S Sreesanth’s spell in that same match were remembered, the concept of a game within 20 overs still didn’t excite. The final, given the inevitable ‘more-than-a-cricket-match’ factor when India and Pakistan play was the same – I saw it because it was India v Pakistan and because it was a final, not because it was 20-over cricket.
I have an exact date for when the penny dropped. May 6, 2012, again via the medium of television. It needed AB de Villiers taking Dale Steyn for 23 runs in one over to suddenly make me shed the aversion I had for the format. Here was batting of such breath-taking quality that it made format irrelevant. And it was more spectacular because of the situation it came and the bowler who was being taken on.
So yes, from then to now, I have come to accept and enjoy T20 cricket too. The Indian Premier League helped in this regard, because it made the backroom action more fascinating than the on-field one, with auctions having evolved from the 2008 model of “Let’s buy the biggest brand name and whoever we think can hit big” to a much more scientific and meticulous process now which is still improving all the time. The best Twenty20 match in the world will still not match up to the drama of the South Africa v Australia World Cup 1999 semifinal, which in turn will fall short of the grand sweep of Eden Gardens 2001 – but long ago, it stopped feeling like a misnomer to call T20s matches. They certainly are. The odds are more weighed towards batsmen – the fundamental fact of 10 wickets to lose in 20 overs and overs restriction on bowlers ensures that – but in that self-contained universe, it is still a contest.
I don’t think Ten10 cricket will ever be that. There is a point beyond which if you shrink the game it develops anomalies, and I think 20 overs is that point. Have you ever wondered why there isn’t a decent rain rule in place yet for T20 cricket? We make do with the best we can, but eventually, if you shrink something enough, it will not be a simulation of the original model. That is what the good rain rules – DLS or Jayadevan for that matter – do. In 50-overs cricket, there is enough scope to shorten the game while still retaining its original element, which is why even results in rain-affected matches don’t seem ‘unfair’ very often in ODIs. There will always be the odd outlier, but that is purely because when you are compressing a complex system into a simpler one (which is what resetting targets in a shortened game does), you will miss out on the outliers.
Compress too much though, and you will start to lose on the essentials. This is why shortened T20 matches leave the feeling of being vaguely incomplete. I have no empirical data or statistical study to back it up, but I’m convinced 20 overs is at, or near, the maximum figure that a cricket match can be reduced to, if you have to preserve its essential nature of a contest of skill between two teams.
Ten10 will take that away. But you’ll have to take this with a pinch of salt – because I felt the same about Twenty20 once.