Cricket for the masses, not classes

Cricket should be for the masses, not the classes. After India’s victory in the first Twenty20 World Cup, this version of cricket looks certain to oust Tests and one-day matches in popularity. A T20 match compresses thrills and spills into just three hours. So, it attracts the biggest possible TV audiences at prime time.

Coca Cola and other sports sponsors are happy at the rise of T20. So are TV channels, which sold advertising spots at record prices in the T20 World Cup. But cricketing purists mourn the rise of a Jat version that cheapens or eliminates the finer points of the game.

I, too, regret the inevitable downgrading of Test cricket. Yet, I rejoice that a new version has brought international cricket closer to the masses.

India is cricket-mad. But the urchins playing in every city park and village lane do not play over five days, or even a full day. They fling their bats around for a few hours.

T20 is far closer to this cricket of the masses than Tests or one-day matches. T20 is not simply the dumbing-down of cricket, but its democratisation.

After this summer’s cricket tour of England, T20 was still regarded as so minor that top Indian cricketers looked down on it. Tendulkar, Dravid and Ganguly were not included in the T20 team, and this attracted no controversy whatsoever. The World Cup was seen as a chance to experiment with newcomers.

Not any more. After India’s fabulous victory, competition to make the T20 team will surely exceed that of making the Test team.

Purists are not happy, and talk nostalgically of the glorious uncertainties of the five-day game. T20 rewards brute strength and the clubbing of sixes. It lacks altogether the slow building of tempo and tension that you get in the best Test matches. It permits no time for a batsman to use skill and judgement to score a double century, or for a spinner to bowl all day and take ten wickets in an innings. It makes impossible or irrelevant the hundred nuances in batting, bowling and fielding that you get in Test cricket.

Indeed, cynics say that the logic of the T20 game may produce teams consisting entirely of 11 sloggers. Bowlers are not irrelevant, but they matter much less, since each bowler is allowed only four overs, and there is no such restriction on batsmen. When batsmen fling their bats at everything, even mis-hits can fly for sixes, and skill gets devalued. Audiences love sixes, so commercial sponsors will press for ever-smaller grounds that produce more sixes, but less skill. Sports manufacturers will make ever-heavier bats, helping agricultural heaves to cross the boundary.

Purists bemoan the deterioration of what used to be a gentleman’s game played in a sporting spirit, but is now sullied by bookies and players who fix matches, by jingoistic politicians, and by sectarian audiences acting as though matches are ethnic or religious wars. CLR James, the ultimate purist, said poetically, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”

Yet, the gentlemanly game of James’s days dripped with class overtones. The British gentleman was defined as one with income from wealth, who did not work for a living and looked down on those who did. Only non-workers of this sort could have invented a game lasting five days. The rise of a paying audience enabled some talented non-gentlemen to play as paid professionals. Yet, these professionals were looked down on by the gentleman. Pavilions had separate entrances and toilets for “players” as distinct from “gentlemen”.

Democratisation eventually abolished separate pavilions and toilets. Later, it brought in the one-day game. And, it has now popularised T20.

T20 will co-exist with one-day and Test matches. So, we can have cricket for the masses and for the classes. But most matches will be for the masses, and rightly so. I am sure that T20 rules will evolve such that sloggers alone do not dominate.

Audiences want sixes to be feats, not commonplaces.

Till now, the rules have alienated the masses from domestic cricket matches. Very few people view Ranji Trophy matches. By contrast, huge fan clubs cheer sports teams in every city in the US and UK, filling giant stadiums. Games like soccer, basketball and baseball are completed within a few hours, and so can be watched by mass audiences on prime-time TV. That is the best way to link audiences to local teams, generating loyalty and passion among fans that politicians envy.

T20 has the potential to do the same in India. In the US, the biggest stars are those participating in national contest, not international ones. The highest-paid stars play for city-based teams like the Dallas Cowboys, Los Angeles Layers or New York Yankees.

T20 could produce teams like the Ludhiana Jats, Delhi Bureaucrats and Mumbai Dabbawallas. It could enable cricket to finally penetrate the US, Europe and Latin America. Cricket is a great sport that has bypassed most countries because its rules were designed for the British aristocracy. T20 has democratic rules that can attract a global audience.

What do you think?