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Cricket at the Crossroads

In About the Game by Bill Ricquier

The recently concluded World T20 was a fantastic celebration of cricket. It displayed the shortest form of the game at its absolute best. It was far from being an uncomplicated slogfest. Many of the games were relatively low- scoring and there were some deliciously tight finishes.

Nothing exemplified the spirit of the competition better than the exhilarating final, played in front of 66,000 spectators at one of cricket’s most iconic venues, Eden Gardens in Kolkata, between the two best sides in the tournament, England and the West Indies.

England were 23 for three in the fifth over and their eventual total of 155 for 9 – achieved thanks largely to an accomplished half century from Joe Root, one of the players of the tournament – did not really seem enough. But when West Indies were reduced to eleven for three, with two wickets to Root and key performers Chris Gayle and Lendl Simmons back in the dug-out-things looked very different. Momentum continued to shift, with the enigmatic Marlon Samuels controlling affairs from one end while wickets fell at the other.

When captain Darren Sammy holed out to David Willey in the sixteenth over , with 49 still needed, England seemed to be in charge and Willey and Chris Jordan kept things reasonably tight for the next three overs.

The last over, bowled by Ben Stokes, will be remembered as one of the most remarkable final overs of any game of cricket. West Indies needed 19. Like everything, there are so many “ifs”. Perhaps the main one is suppose it had been Samuels on strike and not Carlos Braithwaite. Anyway , West Indies reached their target in the shortest possible time.

Poor Stokes.. A week earlier, in the Super 10 Group 1 match against Sri Lanka – effectively a quarter final – he had demonstrated an interesting but perhaps not surprising thing about T20: how a player can have a decisive, match turning impact in just a few deliveries. He came in to face the last ball of England’s innings, from Thisara Perera, and whacked it for six over midwicket. That took England’s total to 171. Sri Lanka started disastrously and were fifteen for three in the third over with captain Angelo Mathews and Lahiru Thirimanne both newly in. On the last ball of that over Mathews called for a quick single and then sent Thirimanne back. Stokes running from midwicket swooped on the ball and threw it while still in mid -air, hitting the stumps with Thirimanne out of his ground. Mathews rebuilt the innings and when it came down to the last over, they needed fifteen to win (it would have been nine without that six off the last ball ). It was Stokes who bowled that final qover. He conceded four runs.

Of course Stokes is not a star only in T20. At Cape Town in early January his 258 against South Africa was one of the most remarkable Test innings ever played. His catch, at third slip, to dismiss Adam Voges off Stuart Broad in the fourth Ashes Test at Trent Bridge, was straight out of Special Effects. Stokes is one of those players, rare and special, whom people want to watch whatever he is doing in whatever form of the game.

He could not do it again in Kolkata. Few, however, would begrudge West Indies their victory. But some are probably wondering whether this victory was the worst thing about the World T20 as well as the best.

The trouble is that it is impossible not to think about West Indies’ last appearance in Test cricket while assessing their triumph in the World T 20. This was their tour of Australia in January when they lost the first two Tests by massive margins (the third being ruined by rain). The abject character of their performance – Samuels in particular showing a distinct lack of interest in proceedings – was one thing. What made matters worse was that a number of their potentially star performers – notably Gayle and the talented all- rounder Dwayne Bravo – were simultaneously in Australia playing in the Big Bash, Australia’s T20 franchise tournament.

Gayle, Bravo, Simmons, Andre Russell and others are exemplars of a new breed of T20 mercenaries. Braithwaite, one of the few successes of the west Indies’ tour of Australia- has signed for the Delhi Daredevils in the IPL and it must be hoped that he will not go the same way.

It is easy to understand and sympathise with the appeal of the global T20 franchises for cricketers from the Caribbean, in particular. But they are not alone. The various national boards have gradually had to realize that the IPL, in particular, simply has to be accommodated in the international calendar. Jos Buttler, until a few months ago England’s first choice Test wicket keeper, is playing in the current tournament. It is surely no coincidence that West Indies won the World T20 with a team comprised largely of specialists. Other countries will have to consider following their lead.

A while ago the view was often expressed that T20 should be left to the franchises and that T20 internationals should be kept to a minimum. The success of the tournament in India makes that seem absurd. National sides, and especially the Associate countries, should be playing more T20s, not less. The daftest decision the International Cricket Council(” ICC”) has made in recent years has been to reduce the number of teams participating in the 50 over World Cup from 14 to 10: how is one to spread the appeal of cricket as a global sport by reducing the number of teams playing it? The fact is, though, that the best way to popularize the game is through T20.

Is any of this a threat to Test cricket? It shouldn’t be. There is clearly a problem in the West Indies; it is awful to see the pitifully small crowds watching Test matches there. But if the West Indies Cricket Board can somehow reach a rapprochement with the players and all work together to make the most of the undoubted talent there, things may change. Elsewhere matters are not so bad. In the twenty-first century one cannot expect attendances at a sporting contest that takes five days to unfold to be record-breaking. But the interest is still very much there.

Some changes may come. Day-night Test cricket seems a bit of a gimmick but it may be worth pursuing at least in places where dew is not too much of an issue when dusk falls. If two admittedly rather ordinary sides from England and Australia cannot once take a game in an Ashes series to the fifth day, perhaps the time has come to consider four day Trsts. There is nothing sacrosanct about the five-day Test. Historically, matches have sometimes been scheduled for longer and sometimes for shorter. Four days used to be the norm.

The role of the fifty over game also needs to be considered, and scheduling generally. The worrying thing is that decisions about cricket clearly cannot be left to the ICC as currently constituted. Rather than a clique of businessmen more concerned with self aggrandizement and the interests of individual boards we need a committee of cricketers to conduct a root and branch review of the international game. It could comprise, for example, Steve Waugh, Rahul Dravid, Clare Connor, Courtney Walsh, Shaun Pollock, Kumar Sanggakara, Brendon McCullum and Younis Khan.

Now what are the chances of that happening?

Bill Ricquier,  14/4/2016

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