Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Evolution of Cricket since Twenty20, and the Indian Premier League

The fourth season of Indian Premier League (IPL) kicked off yesterday, comprising all of 74 games over 51 days. This got me thinking. The recently completed Cricket World Cup was haggled for being too long with 49 matches across 46 days. Yet the IPL has more matches and is five days longer! The difference, of course, is the IPL a Twenty20 competition, with each game lasting a little less than four hours. But surely 74 games of cricket in one tournament is overkill? The significance in countries other India is fairly low; no games are even broadcasted in Australia. Despite this, and delving deeper, Twenty20 cricket—the IPL included— has had a positive effect on the skill of players, even if it's to the detriment of the other two forms of cricket.

A new type of slow bowling has also been bred; ones who bowl with a traditional off spinners or left-arm orthodox bowlers action, but do not spin the ball. Instead, the delivery is fired in at the batsman’s legs or feet, giving them barely any length to get under.  Part-timers, especially, have been renowned for this type of bowling; yet, regular spinners such as Harbhajan Singh and Sulieman Been have begun to successfully resort to such tactics. Surprisingly, spinners have probably become the most reliable type of bowlers in Twenty20, and are extremely effective in reducing scoring rates. Of late, it has become more frequent for a spinner to open the bowling in Twenty20 cricket—and sub-continental teams have been known to open with two.

With the introduction of helmets—mainly to combat the West Indian attack of the seventies and eighties—Twenty20 has been criticised for its domination from batsmen, geared with big powerful bats which would have weighed five kilos a few decades ago. Furthermore, the playing arena has also shrunk; rarely do we now see the boundary rope pushed back a couple of metres from the fence. Even on small grounds, the rope is often brought in seven, eight, nine or even ten metres. Supposedly, spectators want to see fours and sixes, instead of the captivating battle between a spinner flighting the ball with a batsman eyeing off an 80-metre plus boundary.  Once, a batsman trying the clear the mid-wicket boundary at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) would have to strike the ball perfectly on his skinny bat to clear the fence over eighty-five metres away. Sadly, this is rarely the case nowadays. Even the MCG—which has mostly ignored the temptation to bring in the boundary rope—brought the boundary in so far on one side of the ground during Australian Domestic Twenty20 matches last season, it looked like a backwards Australian rules fifty metre arc. Admittedly, the pitches used were significantly closer to the opposite boundary than usual, but shots that commentators lauded for being so huge often bounced inside the fence. Five years ago, instead of hitting a large six, the batsman would have holed out to deep mid-wicket, and would have been crucified for playing such a reckless shot.

Despite all these on-field changes, the most significant change to cricket is the amount of money being flooded into the game—led by India. There was a day where each cricket board would make most of their revenue through ticket sales and would let the crowd enjoy their day in the sun, with beach balls, eskies, flags, blow-up figurines; however, these days are long gone. Most of cricket’s money now comes from media and sponsorship, and administrators seemingly care little about getting bums on seats—especially in Tests.  Test and one-day crowds have dwindled alarmingly since Twenty20 really cracked into the cricketing market in 2007. In 2010, crowds of only 15 and 20,000 attended ODI matches at the MCG; yet a combined 80,000 attended two domestic Twenty20 games at the venue. If the final of the KFC Big Bash had been held in Melbourne, it was predicted over 70,000 would attend. That is 10,000 more than the attendance for the first day of the Boxing Day Test earlier in the season.

Money and power is also beginning to take over the game after the formation of Twenty20 cricket—most notably with the Indian Premier League (IPL) in India. Some players have already begun to turn their back on their country and instead play for the hundreds of thousands they earn from the IPL. Three West Indians—Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo and Kieran Pollard—have rejected the West Indies Cricket Boards’ contract offer so they can play in a range of twenty over tournaments around the world.  Despite no more toiling eight-hour days on a furnace-like sub-continental ground lacking a cooling sea-breeze, these competitions will fill their pockets with hundreds of thousands—substantially more than if they were to play international crickt for the West Indies. Cricket’s changing, and changing very quickly, but the unanswered question is whether this change is good for the game.

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