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NOTES BY THE EDITOR
It was a son et lumière worthy of the Sphinx or Grand Canyon. The opening ceremony of the Indian Premier League, on a shirt-sleeve evening in midApril in Bangalore, was the most spectacular that cricket has seen. I sensed the same ingredients of success at the first official day/night international, between Australia and West Indies, at Sydney in 1979: people hurrying to a ground to see the cricket they wanted, of the duration they wanted, at the time they wanted.
Brendon McCullum lit up the night sky as brilliantly as the fireworks by hitting 158 from 73 balls, and most of the major talents in world cricket joined in over the next six weeks. While there were initial doubts about whether Indian crowds and television audiences would identify with an Australian or South African, and a sizeable proportion of each crowd was admitted free, city-based cricket soon became as popular in India as soap operas. In spite of the poor television camerawork, and advertisements that shaved many overs to five balls, tens of millions – perhaps hundreds of millions – watched, for evening after evening, live cricket.
The IPL is a clever mixture of ingredients because its administrators have understood their market – their mass market. Although it is impossible to be sure from such a recent perspective, it looks as though the supranational IPL is the single biggest change in cricket not merely since the advent of the limited-overs game in the 1960s but of fixtures between countries in the 19th century: that is, since the invention of international or Test cricket.
Above all, until the time of writing, the IPL has had luck on its side. As the world went into economic crisis, the IPL gave every appearance of bucking the trend. The two auctions of players which it staged, the second on February 6 this year, must have appealed to anyone who has played Monopoly: they gave the franchise-owners the feeling they had power over the world’s finest cricketers, and everyone else the illusion. At a time of the most serious recession since the 1930s, Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen were signed for two years at $1.55m per six-week tournament (or pro rata for the number of games they played). The IPL radiated wealth, well-being, exuberance, and prospects for future growth: in a word, hope.
All action, no drama It was during the third IPL match, in Delhi, that the principal defect of 20-over cricket became apparent. Shane Warne led the Rajasthan Royals against the Delhi Daredevils – and was anonymous. It was not simply that his bowling was ineffective on a flat pitch, or his innings brief, or his captaincy unable to avert a large defeat. The defect was that he had no time to manifest his personality.
Warne’s strength of character soon made itself felt, as he turned what had seemed in Delhi to be a bunch of Indian club cricketers into the first IPL champions. But on the field, such is the bustling pace of the 20-over game, Warne had no time to transmit his personality to spectators or television
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viewers; and the interplay of personalities is the essence of drama. A 50over game can sometimes allow the necessary scope: remember how Warne, gradually but inexorably, bent the 1999 World Cup semi-final at Edgbaston to his will. But although a Twenty20 game offers plenty of action over three hours, and an exciting finish almost as often as not, it lacks the drama that a full day of intense cricket provides. As the novelty of 20-over cricket wears off, it will be seen that cricket’s characters can only be formed in longer versions of the game.
The flattery of imitation Administrators could not cash in quickly enough. The ECB announced the English Premier League, with 20 teams, to start in 2010 (when the recession bit, the two overseas teams were quietly dropped, along with other modifications). An alternative business plan of a nine-franchise league, based at England’s international venues, was proposed by Keith Bradshaw, chief executive of MCC, and David Stewart, Surrey’s chairman; but it was seen as the thin end of a wedge which would have driven half of the 18 counties out of existence. I am in favour of 18 first-class counties, provided – and it is a provision far from being fulfilled – they devote much more of their resources to promoting cricket within their own communities, instead of relying for recruitment on public schools and the southern hemisphere. These two breeding grounds each supplied about one third of England’s county cricketers last season, while Britain’s inner cities remained mostly untrawled waters.
The Pro-Active South London Schools Survey 2008 should ring like a fire alarm at the ECB’s offices. More than 26,000 children at secondary schools in south London were asked which three sports they would like more access to: football was first, badminton eighth, cricket 21st. Even among boys alone, it ranked no higher than 12th. A major factor is the virtual disappearance of Afro-Caribbean cricketers (see page 60). Such findings show that the hold on the public imagination which cricket had in 2005, when the Ashes were regained in south London, has been lost completely.
As well as the midsummer English Premier League, which was a good idea, the ECB announced a late-summer 20-over competition, which was not. Filling up the domestic season with four competitions is the surest way to prevent an improvement in standards, and has been since 1972. It is only right that the counties should want to do more to stand on their own financial feet, to be less dependent on the £1.5m that the ECB distributes to each one, but two 20-over competitions cannot be right – especially as August is the time to stage 50-over cricket, not May when the ball seams around and powerplays are irrelevant. The only point in favour of the second 20-over competition was that the 40-over league had to be abolished to make space. Launched in 1969 as a fun afternoon to follow the Sunday roast, it had long since outlasted its purpose and become the ball and chain around the legs of English cricket, choking the calendar, preventing the pursuit of excellence, draining intensity out of the system – and the single biggest reason why England, alone among the major Test-playing countries, have never won a global one-day tournament.
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