Holding back the tide

There is a lot of IPL-phobia in the (western) world of cricket.  To speak to anyone wearing an egg and bacon tie/panama/blazer about the impact of T20, and the IPL in particular, would be to invite a howled and indignant diatribe about the impending death of Test cricket.  Whether IPL is the cause or effect of Test cricket’s decline is open to discussion.  To those who fear that their 3 hour long lunches on the lawns of the Lord’s Nursery Ground are under threat the great enemy is the IPL, and by association, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI).

Professional T20 cricket was, of course, pioneered in England back in 2003 to pique the interest of younger sports fans who were struggling to warm to the slowly absorbing qualities of first class cricket (it’s interesting to wonder if T20 would have been mooted had the 2001 Ashes series been as fiercely contested as its 2005 counterpart).  Already then it was acknowledged that a new vibrant form of the game was needed to stimulate interest.  For about a generation – since World Series Cricket died in the early 1980s – Test cricket attendance had been in decline everywhere except for England and Australia.  Not even the reintroduction of post-Apartheid South Africa gave it much of a bump.

Having now turned his back on international ODIs and T20s Kevin Pietersen has confirmed the suspicions the blazer brigade have always held about him; that his move to England was a base career move.  I don’t recall KP ever claiming his motives were otherwise (despite his less than tasteful choice of inkwear).  But his brash approach and weight of runs always kept the critical wolves from the door.  Now he’s removing his contribution from two of the three England teams he’s opened himself up to receive the kicking many have been waiting to dish out for a long time.  For the notoriously thin-skinned KP (for one piece of evidence, see the recent tweet about Nick Knight) he may well find it too much and pull the plug on his first class career too.

In many ways, it’s a surprise he didn’t take this decision in the aftermath of losing the England captaincy in early 2009.  The IPL is now in its fifth season and he could have made a stupendous living just playing 6 weeks out of the year.  Now the Aussie Big Bash has been launched and the English T20 comp has been revamped his options have grown considerably.

I don’t subscribe to the theory that Test cricket is under terminable threat – an unscientific search of “death of Test cricket” in Google produces 32,400,000 results.  The range of shots developed in T20 which have leaked into Test cricket makes for a better spectacle.  The bowling, too, has advanced through the onslaught it has faced in T20.  Innovations such as slower-ball bouncers and a greater propensity of back-of-the-hand deliveries have added to the skills on show at a time when fast bowling was becoming rather one-dimensional.  The loss of Las Malinga in Tests is undoubtedly a big blow, however.

The debate about the virtues of T20 will continue to divide opinion.  The IPL website is currently running an interview with Rahul Dravid in which he admits that his style of batting would not have evolved to its most ‘wall-like’ if he’d been playing in the IPL as a young man.  It would be a massive shame if such diversity of batting was now lost forever.   But the benefits of faster scoring rates and breathtaking shot play are perhaps the antidotes to the antipathy towards Test cricket which is most railed against.

Much of what is appealing about cricket stems from its rich heritage.  But through necessary forces the game is amending.  The Umpire Decision Review System and greater professionalism have brought profound change.  There is no reason to fear these changes or that the link to the past will be broken.  No-one bowls underarm anymore and the game is better for it.

The major risk appears to lie in losing the best players to T20 entirely.  It would be helpful if the International Cricket Council would do more to support Test cricket, for instance scheduling it around T20 tournaments.  For, as the sober Simon Hughes states when discussing some of the Windies’ best players shunning their Test team to play in the IPL; who can blame them for seeking fame and fortune in India?  It remains to be seen whether KP has blazed a trail for England players.  If Jonny Bairstow, Ravi Bopara and Eoin Morgan continue to struggle to nail down the no.6 Test position, they may be the next candidates to concentrate on T20.  A synchronised international cricket calendar would go a long way to avoiding that scenario.

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