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International cricket’s latest tournament begins in Johannesburg on Tuesday. There’s nothing remarkable about that: the International Cricket Council, the game’s governing body, spawns tournaments about once a week – or so it seems. This time, though, the marketing men might just believe their own spin when they claim that “this is different”.
This is the Twenty20 World Cup (officially the “ICC World Twenty20”) – a 27-match, 20-over-a-side tournament involving 12 national teams in three South African cities.
It barely needs saying that since its introduction in England in June 2003, Twenty20 has been a monstrous hit. The formula is familiar enough by now: batsmen tend not to spend long playing themselves in, bowlers mix up their style of delivery, and fielders dive athletically as balls hurtle towards or past them. We love it.
Moving Twenty20 to the international stage was an instant success. England’s games against West Indies this June sold out last November, and crowds have flocked to all 16 Twenty20 internationals played throughout the world until the end of August.
But there was no real focus to the games, which, despite their popularity, were not always taken seriously either by the administrators, who seemed to schedule them as afterthoughts, or by some of the players. Ricky Ponting and his Australian side constantly referred to them as “a bit of fun”, while the New Zealanders played their first T20 matches kitted out (and coiffured) in 1980s style.
What was needed was a contest that showcased the huge appeal of the format while proving who was top dog. And now it’s here.
The ICC is rightly making a song and dance about it but there must be a few worried faces in its Dubai headquarters. Officials were not to know when they scheduled this new tournament that it would follow the most disastrous 50-over World Cup imaginable. If the matches in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban are a roaring success, the contrast with the fiascos of Barbados, Antigua and Guyana earlier this year will be unavoidable.
That contrast will be leapt on by the game’s paymasters in television. While 50-over cricket tends to attract a low-income daytime audience, the shorter form of the game, playable in the evening under lights, turns cricket into a football-like commodity watched by a far higher percentage of ABC1 males. Given a choice between three hours of Twenty20 or seven hours of Fifty50, advertisers prefer quality to quantity. This raises a question about the viability of the conventional World Cup – and explains the Dubai angst.
But whatever your take on limited-overs cricket, there are encouraging signs that future tournaments, irrespective of format, will not fall victim to the benighted decisions that shamed the protracted, seven-week World Cup in the Caribbean. Ticket prices in South Africa reflect local incomes, so stadiums should be jumping; the whole event is over in two weeks; spectators can bring food, umbrellas and so on; and with floodlights, the farce of the Barbados final ending in darkness shouldnot see the light of day.
The structure takes the best of the Caribbean fare and spits out the fat. In just five days, the preliminary stage whittles 12 teams to eight – the bottom team in each group exits – while the second, Super Eight stage, split into two separate groups, lasts another five.
Upsets are distinctly possible, though form suggests that Zimbabwe (in Group B with England and Australia), Bangladesh, Kenya and Scotland will fall, leaving South Africa, England, New Zealand and India in one Super-Eight group; West Indies, Australia, Sri Lanka and Pakistan in the other.
The top two in each group qualify for the semi-finals.
Fittingly for an upstart tournament, the squads are characterised by youth, ensuring some high-profile casualties. Jacques Kallis, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Mohammad Yousuf – four certainties for a 50-over World XI – have been omitted. All are the wrong side of 30. Also missing is the injured Muttiah Muralitharan who, even at the age of 35, had the potential to dominate.
However Ponting, another thirtysomething, confirmed yesterday he would play in the tournament after his wife recovered from a health scare. The chances are he will lead his Australian side to victory, as has become customary on such occasions.
Those looking for alternative winners could try South Africa, whose fielding, sporadically touched by genius, can turn any game. (A.B. de Villiers is pretender to Jonty Rhodes’s mantle.) Sri Lanka ooze talent but now that Muralitharan is out, the lack of a slow bowler may prove crucial.
Pakistan are unpredictable but so is Twenty20. If the rains fall, a match can be reduced to a five-over lottery, and even unfancied England can win one of them. They have chosen a handful of 20-over specialists – James Kirtley, Jeremy Snape, Chris Schofield and Darren Maddy – none of whom have played a one-day international in more than three years. It is a bold move.
One other team, Australia, has bucked the trend by including nine players aged 30 or more by the end of the tournament. But as these include Matthew Hayden, Adam Gilchrist, Stuart Clark and Mike Hussey, who’s arguing?