Since its inception as an experimental format in the early 2000s, twenty-twenty cricket has taken-off exponentially. Domestic leagues have been set-up in the Caribbean, Australia, Bangladesh and Pakistan (to name a few), while the sport continues to gain international recognition through the T20 World Cup. On the surface, the rise of the format appears overwhelmingly positive, selling out stadiums and attracting more global fans to cricket. Such superficial success is almost enough to make one forget the pound of flesh the format has slyly demanded.
To understand the dark implications of T20 Cricket, it is important to take a look at its true origins. Arguably, the format was popularised by the Indian Premier League in 2008, where hundreds of millions of die-hard cricket fans were first exposed to the shortened game. Nine years down the track, much has been published about the IPL ‘making its mark’ on the global sports market. Nationalistic Indian commentators proudly draw comparisons to major American sports, such as the NBA or MLB. In fact, it recently sold its television rights for an enormous $A3.2bn, to Star Sports. With all this hype there is one question on many people’s mind; how did cricket become so marketable?
The question is a legitimate one. For the uninitiated, cricket is a remarkably ‘mundane’ sport. When told to picture it, many envision thirteen unfit men dressed in plain white outfits, standing in forty-degree heat, for five days with no discernable purpose. It seems, then, perplexing that within the space of a decade the sport has reached the heights of its American counterparts. Similar to a lot of modern sport, the answer lies in market forces and ambitions of industrialists with dollar (or rupee)-signs in their eyes.
The IPL’s impact on cricket and the rise of T20 can be compartmentalised into a few stages. Firstly, stripping the game bare of its nuance, by compacting five days of gruelling, intriguing sport into two twenty-over sessions (approximately four hours). The consequence is radically changing the way the game is played. Batsmen are forced to pursue ‘big shots’ that cheaply enhance the ‘spectacle’ of cricket by rewarding brute strength over technique. Similarly bowlers replace the intricate art of reverse swing with conservative and economical bowling that saves their teams runs.
Next, corporations pour hundreds of millions of dollars into sponsorships and promotions. This involves getting the Bollywood actors to buy teams, drawing in crowds with their star power, playing advertisements in the four seconds between balls to maximise profits and aggressively monetising every aspect of the game.
Finally, comes the time to attract the star players. High paying contracts and instant fame are usually enough of an incentive to achieve this. Franchises crassly bid on players, their value as commodities determined by how much revenue they can be expected to bring to their new ‘owners’. Soon it moves beyond India and into Australia, The West Indies and Pakistan, with beauty of test cricket only remaining alive in the nostalgic memories of tragics.
Some argue that leagues like the IPL are a natural progression of the game that can peacefully co-exist with the longer format. However, when the capitalistic forces of the IPL crowd the market, players must make a problematic but obvious choice. They can mould their style to the new era of cricket and earn a reliable income through T20 leagues or stay true to tradition in the hope of a low-paying test cricket contract. The result is a poisoning of test cricket, as T20 mentalities creep into the longer format. Spectators demand constant thrills and players are accustomed to a specific form of cricket, leading to the rise of impatient batting on flatter wickets. Perhaps the best example is the consequence of T20 on West Indian Cricket, where talented players have lost their passion to compete in longer formats of the game. Consequently, a team that was once considered invincible is now in shambles, with players either specialising in T20 or moving to other more attractive American Sports.
T20 cricket should have its space within the game- it is an accessible and enjoyable sporting format. However, as with any other sport, when the blind pursuit of profit begins to dictate the development of cricket, the charm of the game is lost.