It has been a World T20 to remember so far and while the stars have sparkled, the big teams with the big guns have made a statement, the lesser fancied have demanded attention. At world events they are often the whipping boys, they play their games in smaller towns, at off peak hours and are the recipients of snooty comments. They take that with a shrug and a smile and keep playing. Often they play for the right reasons!
Occasionally they make a statement, like the Irish did against England at the World Cup of 2011, or indeed against Pakistan in 2007, but most times they are the starters; just placed as the mandatory offering before the main course. But something interesting is happening in T20 cricket that augurs well for them, and therefore for the rest of the cricket world.
The Netherlands were brilliant this time. They beat the Irish in a thriller, then scared New Zealand, had South Africa looking very embarrassed for a while and eventually beat England. Only the tricky, unorthodox Sri Lankans floored them. At other times Afghanistan, Ireland, Hong Kong and plucky Nepal had their moments. They certainly didn’t look like amateurs who had strayed by mistake into a pro event. And, lest we forget, they are largely amateurs in an increasingly rich world of T20 cricket.
But something else is happening too. While there have been early adopters in England and South Africa, T20 cricket is really only seven years old. And as it departs from the way it has been played traditionally, it opens up opportunities for those who would never have been able to compete in the old sport. The learning curve for test cricket is far too steep for the associates, indeed even in fifty overs cricket, they have a lot of catching up to do. But in this new format that has taken the world by storm, they are almost on a level playing field. They are learning like everyone else from almost the same starting point. And I believe that, like the internet whose possibilities everyone was exposed to at about the same time, T20 cricket will genuinely democratise cricket; in course of time will give everyone an almost equal opportunity.
Look at the paddle sweep and the scoop for example. They are both recent entrants to the game and young kids in India or Australia are being exposed to it at the same time as young cricketers in the Netherlands or Nepal. Television is playing messenger and coach and with lesser time available for amateurs, T20 is an easier sport to master. The conditions don’t matter as much as they do in test cricket, skills have to be displayed for much shorter durations and twenty minutes of defiance and bravado can change a game.
That is why I believe that “Test status” should no longer be held as the ultimate ambition for countries outside the current test playing nations. It is almost a dated ambition, they don’t need it. Yes, playing longer versions of the game will help them with the short-game skills too but even that is not mandatory. Look at Krishmar Santokie of the West Indies who hasn’t played a first class game and opens the bowling in international T20! “Test status” as an expression is past its sell-by date.
A new trend
But while the learning curve isn’t the deterrent that it is in test cricket or even 50 overs cricket for the associates, a new trend is emerging that could push them back in T20 cricket as well. The biggest learning is coming from playing with and against the best in leagues around the world. Dwayne Bravo, one of the finest at T20 cricket, spoke to me recently about how much he had learnt from MS Dhoni on the art of finishing an innings while playing together at Chennai Super Kings. Many other cricketers have similar stories to tell and it is noticeable that batsmen from England and Pakistan who don’t play the T20 leagues are starting to look deficient. If the associates are not exposed to these leagues, to play and live with the very best, they will start falling behind even in this new format that gives them such a good chance.
Given that the leagues are commercially run, it may not appeal to everyone to keep slots for the emerging nations, or indeed to send scouts there because unlike football and basketball leagues, the T20 festivals run for shorter durations. But it is an idea that needs to be explored. Trinidad and Tobago came to the Champions League in 2009 and just won everybody ever with their fresh, uninhibited style. Many of those, like Kieran Pollard and Sunil Narine, became major international stars. A team from the associates at the Champions League is worth a thought.