Sports: Cricket’s ‘Dark Knight’ and Twenty20 gratitude test

For livelihood, lesser known young cricketers Pawan Negi (age 23) and Deepak Hooda (20) can retire for life this year. When the Vivo Indian Premier League season 2016 ends on May 29, their fee of $1.2 million and $ 616,000 can fund a comfortable living from a fixed deposit monthly interest– a lifetime income from a seven-week IPL season.

Twenty20

As with many cricketers and their families, Negi’s and Hooda’s life changed after the IPL player auction on February 6, telecast live as the world’s most transparent player-hiring-and-transfer system. Franchisees’ bidding turned Negi into an instant millionaire, but Dame Luck had nothing to do with it. In IPL and plays of life, the Law of Cause and Effect gives exactly what we deserve – nothing more, not a bit less.

Likewise, courtesy Nature’s ultra-accurate account department, life changed last year for 22-year old Hardik Pandya. He grew up in a family that struggled to give him and his brother one meal a day. IPL talent scouts discovered Pandya, and in 2015 he was a significant part of the reigning IPL champions, Mumbai Indians. Pandya now plays for India.

Thanks to Twenty20 leagues generating much bigger revenues for cricket boards, fewer Test cricketers run the risk of dying in poverty as in decades gone by.

IPL revenue since 2008 enabled the Board of Control for Cricket in India to fund the world’s first pension scheme for sportsmen. Retired Indian cricketers, or their widows, get a monthly fee ranging from $500 to $2,000 or more depending on seniority.

India hosts the ICC Twenty20 World Cup from March 8 to April 3, and within a week the ninth season of the IPL. Flood lit here are summer nights of stars sparkling in one of the most spectacularly successful enterprises in the history of sport. Featured too are age-old conflicts between the old order versus the new, conventional versus the courageously creative, and feeling good at seeing success of others versus being even mildly resentful.

Truly respected journeymen will tell you cricket teaches the lesson of no ego: team interest before self-interest, and how unselfishness wins. And in condensed three-hour contests of Twenty20 cricket, true skills and character get starkly exposed.

So once again, if I am not in faraway mountains, I get to see how the emerging Twenty20 world order tests human nature. It is a tussle between cricket’s pragmatically shorter Twenty20, one-day internationals (ODIs) that host festive crowds, versus five-day ‘test’ matches in mostly empty stadiums.

pandya

Yet curiously, some continue failing to accept the reality of changes bringing more prosperity to more professionals dependent on cricket for a living.

ODIs and Twenty20 pay five-figure salaries for five-day ‘Test’ match specialists. World cricket depends on the multi-billion dollar media rights and sponsorship that the International Cricket Council earns from the Twenty20 and the ODI World Cups.

But here we see one of those prisms of life that splits and reveals differing colors of mindsets. With biased perceptions, the punditry sees things not as they are. So Twenty20 and ODIs become like Batman, the Dark Knight actually saving five-day ‘Test’ cricket from death but instead gets blamed as the villain killing ‘Test’ cricket.

It is a contradictory character riddle, and I often notice Harsha Bhogle spinning in it. The Mumbai-based Bhogle, India’s most successful sports media professional, seems a polite, warm-hearted person. Yet his commentary reveals an undercurrent negative tilt against the Twenty20 spirit — the most inclusive, exhilarating, rewarding changes cricket has seen in its 300-year history.

Yet, as evident during the India-Sri Lanka Twenty20 series ending on February 14, the anti-Dark Knight brigade considers T20 as some brash freak show. A tone of commentary to on-field brilliance reveals less of appreciation but more of the taken-aback reaction to seeing the village brute enthral a packed town hall with dazzling skills.

Those dismissing Twenty20 as “hit and giggle” expose inability to see ball-by-ball subtleties of the pulsating three-hour game, or share the happiness of people packing a Twenty20 ground whether in Mumbai, Melbourne, Cape Town, Port of Spain or the All-Stars last November at the Citi Field home of the New York Mets.

In contrast to the anti-Dark Knight brigade, I see no such undercurrent negativity to Twenty20 from Sunil Gavaskar, among India’s greatest from the old ‘Test’ cricket order. Called ‘Little Master’ during his playing days, Gavaskar ungrudgingly embraces Twenty20 change. But that exactly separates the master from the mediocre: generous maturity to recognize excellence.

The shorter formats, first the One-day Internationals (ODIs) in the 1970s and now Twenty20, are sporting evolution to how nothing in life is permanent, everything changes.

Twenty20, since its first World Cup in South Africa in 2007 and the IPL in 2008, has unleashed dizzying skills and a democracy of talent. Through Twenty20 leagues worldwide in India, Australia, the West Indies, England and UAE, many more benefit rather than the very few playing five-day cricket.

Afghanistan, Hong Kong, Oman, Ireland, Scotland, and Netherlands are heading to India for the Twenty20 World Cup 2016 from March 8 to April 5. Millions of cricket fans and players from these countries have no scheduled chance in five-day ‘Tests’ essentially played between half a dozen countries. Thanks to the shorter formats, Afghan cricketers have become household names in their war-torn country.

Cricket was long overdue to wake up to basic 21st century realities. Test cricket, and I grew up watching it, time-wise seems like the New York Yankees playing a Major League game 10 am to 5.30 pm for five days.

Yet this social anachronism of five-day cricket continues being hailed as the ‘highest’ form. But the punditry ignore or fail to explain why many acclaimed ‘Test’ cricketers have failed miserably in the supposedly less demanding shorter formats of ODI and Twenty20.

Failing too are those succeeding in IPL, and then declaring deluded aspirations to five-day ‘Test’ cricket. I call it the ‘Gratitude Test’. Life gives Twenty20 stars a good hand with rare skills earning special success, and then some spit on it. Invariably, I notice these players next derailing in form, in all formats of the game.

Better to gratefully respect the path to good times, and respect the choice of hard working fans funding those million-dollar fortunes. The pragmatic success of ODI and Twenty20 keeps a wholesome team sport alive among a younger generation having no time nor interest in five-day pastimes. But in parody of sport and some clouded perceptions of life, the hero gets called a villain, and vice versa.

Raja Murthy writes for Asia Times since 2003, the Statesman since 1990, and was long-term contributor to Times of India, Economic Times, Elle etc. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.

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