Here’s a riff I wrote that won’t see print.
That’s not cricket
You might know of cricket as baseball’s weird ancestor, a big deal in the Antipodes and a bloodless surrogate for nuclear war in south Asia. At five days, a test-match takes longer than nuclear war.
Americans have a famous antipathy to cricket, but the sport’s global overlords are sexing the sport up American style, pushing a newer hipper, faster cricket to lure in teenagers and keep them watching. First played in 2003, South Africa is now hosting the first world championship of this Red Bull drenched variation known as Twenty20. Purists disdain its near absolute emphasis on offense and fear it will usurp their glacial game, but international cricket likes what it sees: young fans and crowded stadiums.
Cricket matches consist of overs (innings) where the bowler (pitcher) throws the ball six times and the batsmen (batters) try and hit it where the fielders ain’t, then run. In Twenty20 matches each team bats for twenty overs. But there can be fewer if the bowlers manage to nail the wicket, a structure of sticks poking out of the ground behind the batsmen, enough times. In Twenty20, a team bats all of its overs consecutively a batting fest known as an inning, so when the second team gets their chance they know exactly how many runs (runs) they need to win.
Since batting is so much about protecting the wicket from the bowler, as far as I could gather at a recent match the possibility that a team will go down on wickets in only twenty overs is remote compared with the hundreds of overs of the five day test matches or the fifty overs per side typical of the day-long matches. With a couple other rules designed to boost offense and speed up play, the Twenty20 game becomes a slugfest, sort of as if batters in a certain other sport had five strikes to work with.
In only a few years, Twenty20’s gimmickry has set a global fire. In the midst of the current world championship, a major new Twenty20 tournament was announced in India and it has a growing slice of the professional competition in the U.K. Traditionalists are chicken-littling over this bastardization in the direst terms. “Twenty20 is the equivalent of the gas chamber for a bowler,” wrote a columnist in the U.K.’s conservative Daily Telegraph. “If the game’s future evolves entirely around Twenty20, why would any young, talented cricketer want to become one?”
Befitting a new X-treme version of any sport, the organizers have made it as loud and tacky as possible. Twenty20 is descended from the sort of pandering, fan-pleasing spectacles that invade the NBA All-Star break, slam dunking the sport’s gentility. At the game I attended in Cape Town, cheerleaders in sports bras and camo pants pranced for the crowd with a mysterious character named Dr. Beat who looked like Lenny Kravitz and danced like a disco monster. The DJ couldn’t spin enough big house beats and a retrofitted version of unmourned Tag Team hit Whoomp There It Is with lyrics now Whoomp There’s a Six. (A six is the cricket equivalent of a home run and in Twenty20 seemed to happen every sixth pitch.) The planners matched the theme song with a tedious five years ago slogan Cricket Twenty20 “It’s off the ho-OOOk!”
I went to a tournament doubleheader at Newlands Cricket Ground with two other American guys who of course didn’t know from cricket either. Watching the game and looking up at Table Mountain, we sat there as Bangladesh batted a mediocre 123 points against a strong Australia side without the first clue about what was happening. Eventually a trio of Afrikaners explained the basics, along with several tangents on the glories of Pretoria. We thought we had the basic idea. Our conversation during Australia’s winning inning went something like this:
Me: So how many outs are in an over again?
Other American #1: Six, unless there’s a wicket.
Other American #2: No it’s six bowls in an over. But can they get thrown out?
Me: They don’t run like they can get thrown out.
Other American #1: I don’t know. Christ, why don’t the beer guys walk around?
But the offensive style of Twenty20 kept us watching, something cricket had never been able to do before. We were there for a doubleheader and after the Bangladesh Australia match we walked out soon after the beginning of the main event: South Africa vs. England, serious rivals playing an important match. We’d already watched three hours of cricket but our exit drew incredulous stares. Even cricket at its gaudiest and most exciting crashed into the brick wall of the American attention span.