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Twenty20: A Decade In

Twenty20: A Decade In

In many respects the five county games that took place on 13 June 2003 were similar to the thousands of others that had been played across the shires since the nineteenth century. Spectators enjoyed the early summer sunshine as bowlers duelled with batsmen. But in one key aspect the matches started a revolution; at twenty overs per innings they were half the duration of anything previously scheduled.

The ECB hoped that this three hour variation would drag county cricket into the twenty-first century. Audiences had fallen consistently since the halcyon post-war years, so that by 2002 grounds were at only 8% capacity for championship games and 22% full for one day matches. The ECB commissioned its marketing manager, Stuart Robertson, to spend ?200,000 to learn why the public had fallen out of love with domestic cricket. Robertson’s team canvassed 4,500 people and conducted 30 focus groups; beyond the obvious – that the average county spectator was old, male and white – they discovered that respondents did not know how, when or where to watch games, and that grounds felt more like private member clubs than sporting venues.

The Twenty20 project was two years in the works. It was neither organic nor creative but developed through Robertson’s market research and hammered out in committee rooms. Robertson justified his twenty over proposal with the evidence that most of the 34% of people surveyed who liked the idea of a shorter format had never been to a domestic match. The ECB recognized an opportunity to attract new fans and approved the project in April 2002.

The counties, though, were a more difficult proposition. Many saw little reason to change the existing structures, and dismissed the shorter variant as little better than tip-and-run cricket. The ECB chairman, Lord MacLaurin, phoned the sceptical county chairmen and in the words of John Read, the ECB director of communication, ‘flattered the f*ck’ out of them. The result was an eleven to seven vote in favour of replacing the Benson and Hedges Trophy with a new Twenty20 competition, with Middlesex, Sussex, Yorkshire, Warwickshire, Somerset, Glamorgan, and Northamptonshire against the motion.

If the decision-makers had made their mind up, many in the media found it absurd. The BBC cricket correspondent, Jonathan Agnew, called Twenty20 a ‘hit-and-giggle form of the game’ and ‘from a cricketing point of view, it’s completely useless.’ However the players quickly treated the new format with as much intensity as any other game. Graham Gooch, the Essex coach, was clear on this point: ‘it’s not a bit of fun, it’s not a joke … we’re going to go out there and stuff the opposition.’

Twenty20 did not merely cut the number of overs but set out to change the DNA of county cricket. Matches were scheduled for the evening so that people could attend after work; families were encouraged with bouncy castles and face painting; New Road had a jacuzzi; Gloucestershire even banned their committee from wearing ties.

The Sky cameras were at Southampton for that first day of Twenty20 cricket, and they saw the format at its embryonic best. The Hampshire openers raced off at nearly ten runs per over before regular wickets reduced the run rate. In response Tim Ambrose scored 54 off 39 balls, leaving Sussex needing ten runs off the final over, which the bowler, Ed Giddins, skillfully limited to just four singles.

The ECB were blessed in that first season with warm weather and a relatively barren calendar of sporting events. Just as important in ensuring that Twenty20 did not go the way of previous experiments such as Martin Crowe’s Max Cricket was a marketing budget of ?250,000 which brought people into the grounds, and high-quality cricket which ensured they left satisfied.

By the end of the inaugural summer around 240,000 spectators had watched Twenty20 games, compared with 105,000 people who had gone to the Benson and Hedges competition the previous year. Even more impressively there had been an average attendance of more than 5,300 per game compared with the Benson and Hedges Trophy’s dismal average of only 1,500. Matthew Engel summarized that debut season in Wisden, writing that Twenty20 ‘struck the motherlode of public affection for cricket that runs just below the surface crust of public indifference.’

Other countries soon turned to twenty over cricket. That winter South Africa launched Pro20 and within two years Australia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka had introduced twenty over competitions into their domestic calendars.

The international arena was the next natural progression, but the first contest took on the air of a light-hearted friendly. Australia and New Zealand met in Auckland on 17 February 2005, with both sides wearing retro one-day uniforms from the 1970s and the New Zealanders even donning comedy sideburns. The players were inexperienced in the new format and Wisden commented that ‘neither side took the game especially seriously’.

Despite its strange beginnings, it was clear that Twenty20 cricket was a key component of international cricket’s future. Another two fixtures were played during 2005, including a successful and high-tempo prelude to the Ashes. In a rare bout of foresight, the ICC predicted that cash-strapped boards would not be able to resist the lure of Twenty20 matches, which would risk player burnout and threaten test matches, and limited each country to hosting just three such matches per year.

As compensation the ICC introduced a new competition, a twenty over World Cup, with its first iteration in South Africa during September 2007. It followed on the heels of a spectacularly incompetent fifty over World Cup in the Caribbean, which set the bar so low that nearly anything would have appeared a triumph in comparison. But the cheap tickets, rambunctious crowds, packed schedule and friendly venues ensured that the first World T20 was a triumph.

Most importantly the cricket was excellent. From the first ball, which Chris Gayle cracked for four, the underdog Zimbabweans slaying the Australians, through to Yuvraj Singh’s annihilation of Stuart Broad’s bowling for six consecutive sixes, the competition provided memorable action and competitive cricket.

India’s success proved crucial for the tournament and the format’s future. They lost only once, to New Zealand, during the group and super eight stages, and defeated Australia in a semi-final match that Wisden described as ‘the finest Twenty20 international yet played.’ In the final Pakistan required thirteen off the final over with nine wickets down, and then only six off four balls, before Misbah-ul-Haq’s scoop shoot spooned an easy catch to Sreesanth at fine leg.

A new market opened up during the course of the fortnight-long tournament as millions of Indians fell in love with Twenty20. Previously the BCCI had approached the new format with suspicion, fearing that it might disrupt their comfortable cash-cow of one-day internationals. The national side had played only one Twenty20 game before the South African tournament, and the BCCI were the only vote against its establishment, with its then secretary Narayanaswami Srinivasan bragging that cricket in India was popular enough that ‘we need not project the Twenty20 version.’

If it took the World T20 for the BCCI to understand twenty over cricket’s commercial potential, they were also spurred into action by a challenge to their monopoly on the Indian game. The BCCI had consistently denied Zee Entertainment television rights to any of its games, preferring established companies such as ESPN Star Sports and NewsCorp. In response, Subhash Chandra, the head of Zee, took a page from Kerry Packer’s playbook and launched his own private league.

Just like World Series Cricket, the Indian Cricket League threatened the structure of cricket played through national boards by offering players the opportunity to operate in a parallel system. There were grand hopes of luring Adam Gilchrist, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, but when the league got underway in November 2007 the six franchises were mainly stocked with mediocre Indians and Pakistanis.

Most players had been frightened off by the BCCI. They warned Indian cricketers that they would not be selected for the national team or their state side if they went over to the rebel league, and used their influence at the ICC to force most other national boards into a similar position. Only golden oldies who had already retired from international cricket, including Brian Lara and Lance Klusener, and those not good enough to make it at international level, felt able to brave the BCCI’s wrath. The BCCI’s vengeance was not limited to the players; they terminated the pensions of Kapil Dev and Kiran More, who helped organized the breakaway league, and threatened the ICL umpires with suspension.

Alongside these draconian punishments the BCCI responded to the existential threat of the ICL with a tournament of their own. The Indian Premier League borrowed heavily from the ICL’s model; with music, cheerleaders and Bollywood merging with the cricket to create entertainment packaged for television. The key difference between the two competitions was that the BCCI’s endorsement brought in the stars. Indians such as Sachin Tendulkar, M.S. Dhoni, and Virender Sehwag, plus the likes of Warne, Brett Lee, Ricky Ponting, and Muttiah Muralitharan ensured that the IPL was the most glamorous domestic competition in the world.

That first IPL season in spring 2008 was a whirlwind of parties, celebrities and garish advertising. But most importantly the cricket was captivating. The first match showcased the IPL’s charms, as Brendon McCullum hit fourteen sixes (or DFL Maximums in the tournament’s terminology) on his way to 158 from 73 balls. A good number of the 57 completed matches were close finishes played in front of packed houses, and the final provided a last-ball thriller as the Rajasthan Royals, under Warne’s wily tutelage, beat the favourites, Chennai Super Kings.

If the first year of the IPL was a celebration of India Rising, the second was a triumph of logistics, as the tournament moved to South Africa with only weeks notice due to security and policing concerns around upcoming elections. The beaming face of the IPL was Lalit Modi, its chairman and commissioner, who was seemingly at every game and credited with the vision and strategy to create a billion dollar competition and move it across continents.

This success was the final nail in the coffin of the ICL, which folded in March 2009. One much quoted estimate put the brand value of IPL at more than $4 billion. Other nations were soon attracted by the dollars that the IPL had almost magically created, and changed their original Twenty20 domestic arrangements into franchise systems. There was the Big Bash League in Australia, plus the Sri Lanka Premier League and the Bangladesh Premier League, while Pakistan, the West Indies and even the USA are planning similar competitions.

However the IPL’s eye-popping finances brought its own problems. Just after the final match of the 2010 tournament, the BCCI suspended Modi, saying that he had ‘brought a bad name to the administration of cricket and the game itself.’ The allegations against Modi included rigging ownership of franchises, skimming money off broadcasting deals, and leaking confidential information.

The case against Modi has dragged on for more than three years, but he has transformed from the beaming face of Indian cricket into persona non grata. Meanwhile the IPL has become institutionalized into cricket’s calendar, even if no formal window has been given over to it. It is now larger – up to 76 games from the original 59 – but even this expansion created the now regular stink of controversy. One of the new franchises, the Kerala Tuskers, was suspended for failing to pay a contentious bank guarantee, and a second, Pune Warriors, withdrew at the end of the 2013 season for the same reason.

By far the most serious issue facing the IPL is spot-fixing. There have been rumours of fixing throughout its short history, not least because no agency was tasked with enforcing the ICC’s anti-corruption best practices during the first two tournaments. The first hard evidence of fixing came with a television sting in May 2012, which exposed five players on the fringes of the franchises bragging about receiving black money and bowling deliberate no-balls. The BCCI banned all five, but a year later the Delhi police arrested three more players, including the Indian international Sreesanth, under suspicion of spot-fixing.

Things got even worse when the Chennai Super Kings’ team principal, Gurunath Meiyappan was also arrested for illegally betting on games. Meiyappan is the brother-in-law of Srinivasan, the BCCI president and owner of the Super Kings. The unfolding scandal has already exposed the inner-workings of the BCCI, and the corruption, conflicts of interests, and inertia that appears hardwired into its governance. Whether it will either lead to the reform or downfall of the IPL remains to be seen.

In ten years Twenty20 has changed the world of cricket like nothing else in its history. It has ushered in new strokes and strategies, and created a new generation of fans. Cricket’s newest variant is popular for good reason, and can offer instant excitement in ways that test and one day matches rarely match. For all the music, dancing and assorted razzmatazz, it has thrived when the cricket has been allowed to flourish.

Where the ECB saw their creation as a means to an end of more cricket fans, Lalit Modi turned this newly found affection into dollars. This worship of Mammon has exacerbated existing threats and posed new ones: confronting crooks within the sport, balancing its three formats, finding competent guardians of the game, and national boards trying to cash in with untested tournaments. A decade of giddy expansion has ended, years of learning how to live with the new reality lie ahead.

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