FASTER & MORE FURIOUS CRICKET
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FASTER & MORE FURIOUS CRICKET
THE FRAGMENTATIVE EVOLUTION OF THE GENTLEMAN'S GAME:
There was a time in the not too distant past, and I do remember it quite clearly when the Subcontinent almost always drew full houses for Test matches, even for those dull and dreary stalemates played on torrid summer-noons where nothing gave as either side plodded on towards a predictable draw and yet the fans cheered and reveled lustily.  Those days in the early 70s, when I got to see my first live B&W telecast at my grand-auntie's place at Wadala-Mumbai, of an India England match played at the Mumbai Brabourne Stadium is still vivid in my memory. However, the radio coverage on a rickety old transistor was still my favorite method of Aankhon dekha haal.  Those days of the transistor stuck to my ears as I took it everywhere I went, those endless hours of ball-2-ball test cricket, the ecstasy of an Indian four or a six or a century or the fall of an opposing wicket and the harrowing depths of the fall of an Indian wicket or the six of an opposing batsmen was a never ending rollercoaster.  It seemed to me at that time Test cricket was the zenith of the game and nothing could beat it (I even feel the same way as old habits die hard).

But the winds of real change, IMHO, came with the advent of the
inaugural ICC World Cup in 1975 played in a limited over format, which the then mighty Windies won in a thriller against the Aussies in an epic final after vanquishing everyone in their path that led them to it.  And the Windies did that again in 1979, upping the ante this time around as they were at an all time high.  Who can ever forget that explosion by Sir Viv as he tore through the hapless English attack and the giant Big Bird Garner as he terrorized the English batting with his high bounce as the Windies successfully retained their crown by demolishing England in the final.   And then Kerry Packer's rebel World Series Cricket came along in the late 70s in Australia and added more color, vigor, professionalism, and no doubt its share of controversy to the OD50s.  But even those games had still not put a dent on Test cricket at least in the Subcontinent.  In this context Sunny_G's very slow 36 not out in 176 balls in the 1975 World Cup and India's overall dismal record in the first two WCs also come to mind. And that combined with the near to total domination and invincibility displayed by the Windies in both the formats of the game at that time made sure that there was absolutely zero interest in the shorter version of the game in the Subcontinent.

But the first rumbles of change began to hit the Subcontinent in that tour to the Windies in 1983 just before the third edition of the WC, the Prudential WC @ England.  Of course the Test matches on that preceding WI tour were harrowing for India, save the brilliant performances by Amarnath and Shastri.  But where India suddenly started seeing a brief glimpse of light was in their victory over their giant hosts in a One-day game.  That shock victory, where the Windies comprehensively bit the dust was indeed described as a fluke and attributed to the vagaries of the limited version of the game by scribes and even diehard Indian fans like me concurred without a trace of grudge.    Little did one know at that time that this victory had indeed sown the seeds for that miracle of miracles in the Prudential WC that followed almost immediately in England.  Which Indian can ever forget that improbable triumph by Dev's Devils over a charged up Windies that threw cold water over their dreams of a golden hat-trick of three consecutive WC victories (an enormous feat which the rampaging Aussies have now accomplished and looking to even accomplish a double golden hat-trick of 4 WCs in a row).

But, it was that 1983 Indian miracle that profoundly changed the
status of the OD50s, especially in the Subcontinent.  The triumph of a cricket crazed nation in the international arena dominated at that time by seemingly unconquerable OD giants like the Windies, Australia, & England raised enormously OD50's status as a vaunted format of the game.  Suddenly limited over international tournaments popped up left and right and the oil rich Gulf stepped in as a major producer/partner for the rest of the decade with Sharjah as a major tournament venue. The cashed up expatriate Indians and Pakistanis actively supported by their oil tycoon Sheikh bosses,  then gleefully pumped in the moolah for these games and the OD50s went from strength to strength.  The triumph of India in the 1985 Benson and Hedges World Series Cup in Australia took the OD50 highs in the Subcontinent to another level. And then it was "Rhapsody with Rothman's" as the Indian Express headline screamed when India beat Pakistan in a very low scoring final in the Sharjah Rothman's Cup that immediately followed after that World Series truimph.  And then the Asia Cups, the Hero Cups, the Champion's Trophy et al followed in their wake further bolstering the fortunes of the OD50 format.

A second and a very potent factor now also came into the equation: The rise of India as a powerful economic force.  The software revolution was now becoming the engine of a rising economic superpower and fuelled its fortunes.  And this economic clout was also flowing into the coffers of Indian cricket's governing body, The BCCI.  But there was also a sinister dark factor slowly creeping into the game to make a powerful stranglehold, a dark force that refuses to go away even today despite extra vigilance and stiffer penalties: Cricket Betting.  The big sharks of the Indian underworld, the Mumbai crime bosses like Dawood from their safe havens in the Gulf now ran mega-mega illegal cricket betting operations that stunned the world in their insidiousness and sophistication and the humongous scale of money involved.  The sums ran to billions of dollars and claimed their scalp of disgraced fans and players willing to make the pact with the devil.  Hanse Cronje, Azaruddin were some of the big names that these dark forces swallowed in their relentless ravenousness. To top this, cricket betting and OD50s took to each other like a marriage made in heaven and took the fortunes of OD50 to even higher levels.

TEST CRICKET FORCED TO INCREASE ITS PACE:

The fans had tasted blood now and now they wanted more speed and that meant test cricket had to catch up in order to win attention.  It was precisely in the 90s that real emphasis of a run rate in Test cricket increased, especially with the advent of outstanding explosive bats like Gilchrist and Jayasurya.  Too much OD50 was now directly affecting Test cricket.  The concept of a chase in the last day of a Test match, especially post tea now took new meaning.  There were also other factors like the over-rate with penalties in place for deliberate slow over rates by a bowling team that came into the picture and also helped in speeding the Test game.  With the advent of the late 90s, the masters of Australian cricket like Gilchrist routinely torched test matches with their explosive OD50 style batting, often setting a scorching torrid pace, and blowing away their opponents by the end of the first day's play itself by piling up massive first inning scores in a hurry.  Who could ever forget the defeat of Pakistan in Tasmania in a Test match in the late 90s when Gilchrist and Hayden demolished a seemingly unattainable fourth inning target.  The pace set by the two was mesmerizing as they repeatedly frustrated a bowling attack spearheaded by the likes of Wasim Akram. And now this style of high paced batting is entrenched in Aussie cricket and is one of their keys for their dominance in the ICC Test table.

OD50s HAD TO GET EVEN MORE FASTER:

All this increased speed in Test matches meant that the OD50 had to increase its speed to keep it status as a faster version of the game. By the late 90s, OD50 had been broken down to a science.  The big money in OD50 tournaments meant that the teams had strategists in place as to how to play the game.  The game had now evolved considerably and got an attractive albeit predictable structure. There were the initial overs that batting teams used for consolidation followed by the steadying over the middle overs and then the final slog of the finishing overs where the batting team went on a reckless hitting spree.  The objective was to lose as few wickets as possible in the initial and middle overs so that a platform was provided for the final onslaught.  And this was how most games went and moreover, the ICC rules of fielding restrictions in the initial 15 overs, also aided to this end.   But now that Test matches had upped their pace, OD50 had to get faster and this was where opening bats like Gilchrist, Hayden, Afridi, Sehwag, Jayasurya created a huge paradigm shift in the way OD50s were played.  Now, it was explosion, right from the word GO, then slowing down a bit maintaining a steady fast pace, and then close it with even more explosions in the end.  And what game could better illustrate that than the finals of the 2003 WC in South Africa where Gilchrist and Hayden had the match won in the first few overs of the game itself.   The ICC itself in an effort to make the OD50 more humming throughout the entire course of its 50 overs, introduced the concept of the mandatory power-plays where the fielding restrictions, imposed mandatorily in the first 10 overs, could then be extended for a further10 overs and could be used anywhere in the match by the fielding captain in 2 blocs of 5 overs each.

THE SEEDS OF OFFICIAL T20 ARE SOWN:

The fans had now tasted fresher blood and suddenly their appetites for sustained batting explosion spectacles had ballooned enormously.  A new and faster version of the game, T20, by this time, was now played unofficially at a grassroots level in countries like England, but not many fans, especially in the Subcontinent, were aware of this variety of the game.  With the change of batting approach in the OD50s, where the pace had now increased considerably, the time was now ripe to encapsulate the high intensity slog moments of OD50 into one single game of a shorter duration.   (Also, a compelling reason for this is the difficulty to maintain the pace of the slog over a 50 over span by even the best of bats.  The odds that such an approach would run out of wickets are high unless there is a drop in pace in between.)  Enter T20 and suddenly you had the answer.  A game that could now be played in one sustained explosive batting pace with no need to decelerate as the odds that the batting side would run out of wickets are much lower than in OD50s.  After a few speckle of official T20 games thrown in experimentally between Test and OD50 series, the inaugural T20 WC soon followed in South Africa to further bolster the game.  And what happened after that has now become epic history and the game of cricket will never look the same again.  The conspiring of the cricket gods to make India the inaugural T20 World Champs has become a huge lightning bolt in the arm for this new rock and roll format of the game with its beautiful dancing girls cheering each and every fours or sixes.  Suddenly all that batting fests could now effectively be married with huge commercial interests and indeed that was what that followed and the moolah potential is now looking endless.   And what to say of cricket betting: an even better partner for T20 that will cherish the instant format with undeniable glee. (Alas, this has already come to a pass today)

Where was T20, an unknown sibling of the Subcontinental darling, the OD50, even as recently as 2006?  And where it is now?? Could one ever conjure with such a rapid rise for any form of sport in such a short time even in one's wildest dreams???  In evolutionary terms, this phenomenon is nothing short of a sudden drastic mutation.

WILL CRICKET GET FASTER & MORE FURIOUS... WILL IT FRAGMENT ANYMORE?

That's the trillion dollar question now.  Will the T20 format stay,
now that it has usurped the speed and high voltage entertainment crown from its OD50 sibling without even a fight.   It is no rocket science to speculate that OD50 format will soon be ground out of the cricket firmament as big money and vested commercial and betting interests join forces with T20.  Already Cricket Australia is hinting at this very possibility by calling the curtains on its OD50 Tri-Series, the hallmark of the Australian summer.  The financial bonanza from the IPL in the Subcontinent will send prodigious ripples all across the cricketing world and who knows there is a good chance that OD50 could become extinct within a decade. And Test cricket may even sadly follow.

But along with big money will again come those experts, those brains that are hired by big money to analyze and breakdown the T20 game into high and low intensity components as much as this format seems to be non-fragmentable.   And as the years roll on and spectator and player times becoming more and more of a premium commodity, there could be new concepts of super-slog overs within the T20 game itself and somewhere there could be another Gilli with a big T20 paradigm shift. And herein may be the seed for an even shorter version of the game. 15-15, 10-10, 5-5, and God forbid 1-1...........FASTER, FASTER, FASTER & MORE & MORE FURIOUS.
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