As India licks its cricket wounds and bemoans its own absence at Eden Gardens today, let us look on the sunny side: If there’s one team from whom we can take defeat with a smile, one team for whom we retain an undimmed national affection, it’s the West Indies. Led by the most chivalrous captain in the game, the men in maroon — overseen by a cricket board even more pig-headed than our own — deserve to be at the T20 pinnacle.
And what a pinnacle it is: T20 is the newest form of man’s most venerable sport. It has taken cricket to a plane hitherto unimagined, pushing players to redefine the limits of the game — and of their own excellence. Where once this form of cricket was reviled as a “tamasha”, it is now accorded a most improbable respect. Accusations of tawdriness, in truth, centre mainly on the IPL, and have little to do with the game. The vulgarity, the uncouthness, the legions of sordid “lalas” and tycoons, starlets and cheerleaders, are all beyond the boundary.
On the field, we’re in the midst of a vibrant sporting revolution. Poor fielders were once a part of the game: cricket had them in numbers; in fact, each team had a couple of players of whom it was said, in that sweetest of cricket euphemisms, that they were “passengers”. Now, with the inevitable exception of Pakistan, no team really has fielders who aren’t competent, at the very least. (Pakistan continues to have its portly, haleem-fed lumberers in the outfield: the latest being Sharjeel Khan.)
The T20 game has witnessed a fielding upheaval. Relay catches — with one fielder tipping an aerial ball back over the rope and another catching it — are now routine. So much so that when Ravindra Jadeja failed in his attempt to perform the feat against Lendl Simmons at Wankhede, we cursed his boot that touched the rope instead of marvelling at his audacity. Misfields are magnified into badges of shame; dropped catches lead to calls for a khap panchayat. Short extra-cover is expected, routinely, to cut off the most cruel drives. Spectators — and cricketers themselves — are unforgiving.
This new athleticism has transformed running between the wickets as well.
Although India lost to the West Indies, my abiding memory of that game is of the way our batsmen ran their runs. Singles were conjured out of thin air, and twos became the new single.
I can’t think of a pair in cricket’s history who ran between the wickets with such athletic intelligence as Virat Kohli and M S Dhoni do together.
What is best about T20 cricket is that mere muscle isn’t guaranteed victory. Muscle must be allied to brains and technique. Chris Gayle is powerful. Chris Gayle is also a technician, notwithstanding his lazy air, and his nonchalance. Spinners, whose extinction was predicted when T20 began, are priceless assets: taking pace off the ball is key to curbing runs. Wicket-keepers have had to raise their game, too, the leg-side stumping being a regular part of wicket-taking strategy.
Most important, though, is what T20 has done to cricket’s chemistry. Fears that the game would become a superficial roustabout have been entirely unfounded. In T20, there is no such thing as an irrelevant ball. Every moment, every action, every stroke, every delivery, is magnified — is, in fact, a tale in itself. This is cricket at its most concentrated, without languor, without drift. It is cricket for the modern age, and yet, it is still the game of our sainted forefathers.
The writer is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.