x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Positive spin of Twenty20 cricket is beginning to wear thin

The lack of interest in the Champions League shows that the popularity of Twenty20 cricket is not unending.

Chennai Super Kings won the Twenty20 Champions League last year but hardly anyone noticed, or cared.
Chennai Super Kings won the Twenty20 Champions League last year but hardly anyone noticed, or cared.

The existence of cricket's Champions League T20, due to begin today in India, has passed me by. I have not watched a single game, would not be sure how many seasons it has been running had I not checked (this is the third) and do not remember which teams have won it, let alone which have participated.

The only on-field recollection is of Kieron Pollard maybe having done something remotely substantial once. I do know that no teams from Pakistan or Bangladesh have taken part, one for political reasons, the other for commercial ones.

It is not because it is played by clubs and that top-level cricket is mostly a tale told through nations.

I follow the fortunes of various domestic sides around the world with varying degrees of interest and for different reasons of attachment; Habib Bank (HBL) or Karachi in Pakistan, Lancashire in England (because of Wasim Akram's long-term attachment with them), New South Wales in Australia (because Imran Khan once played a season there), Mumbai in India (because they have been such a fabled nursery).

If they played in a tournament against each other, I would follow it. But - and this is a conclusion a few years in the making - it would have to be the longer version of the game, because it is the format of the Champions League (and events such as the Indian Premier League and the Big Bash) that passes me by.

Increasingly Twenty20 feels like what happened to cricket when it signed up to Facebook. It is the version of cricket it wants others to see, not what it actually is, for about that it is unsure. Twenty20 is cricket having fun, partying, entertaining and then putting up the pictures and LOL! It is cricket reduced to a wisecrack.

At a purely sporting level, it has uses and can provide a spectacle. But ignore the impact it has on the technicality of the sport: the worst thing Twenty20 has done is force the entire game to judge its health by the narrow measures it assesses itself through, a true Zuckerbergian triumph. The very pre-eminence of Twenty20 is premised on the presumption that it pulls in the most money and most fans and so must be the healthiest. More specifically, it is assumed it does this directly at the expense of Test cricket.

The five-day game, we hear too much these days, is not just dying, but dying because of Twenty20.

That is why the ICC, as if heralding an oncoming nervous breakdown, keeps repeating after every meeting that the primacy of Tests must be preserved, or that context must be provided, or that day-night cricket and coloured balls must be trialled.

The only way, they are telling us, Tests can be considered successful is if they start making more money and pulling in greater crowds like Twenty20.

It is actually a flimsy premise. To measure the demise of a sport as rooted as Test cricket solely by how many people turn up to watch at a ground (or how many sponsors it lures in) is plainly ridiculous.

Crowds not turning up to a five-day game does not mean they have stopped liking Tests. In most countries it is simply a recognition that in modern life five minutes, let alone five days, are difficult to spare.

And even in oversimplifying the whole matter to mere numbers - in a bank account or as eyeballs - it does so half-heartedly. Where is there ever acknowledgement, for example, of the newer ways in which we interact with Test cricket now; online, for example, with sites such as ESPNcricinfo and Test Match Sofa and ball-by-ball commentary. What about older ways, like following on the radio, a medium with which long-form cricket has a unique bond?

And this is just the sum of our direct interaction with Tests, a limited logic in which to watch it is the only way to prove you love it and to prove it is successful.

Test cricket has never been just the spectacle. It is a way of thinking, a way of being, a dialogue and a conversation, an entire movement; there is no measure of just how deeply embedded Test cricket is in the consciousness.

But it is, because it is Tests that inspire the finest writing, books and magazines, song and film; Tests inspire the most substantial and rewarding debate; Tests take over life in many different ways when they are on and even when they are not.

This cannot be measured. But it cannot be ignored because it speaks of the continuing strength of Tests, their success, their pre-eminence. And so the Champions League. It turns out it has actually not been much of a success, at least through the restrictive prism through which it has compelled the game to be judged.

Television viewership, though it improved last season, has been poor. In August, the title sponsor of the tournament pulled out, two years into a five-year deal. Crowds have not been impressive either.

An encouraging spin will be put on it, framed around numbers. But inside will be nothing, just a vast, empty edifice sucking in money, doubling, trebling it and spewing it out. And we already have banks.


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