At the time of writing, India have squeezed past England in the 4th T20 International, a thriller of a game that had it all. One could use this series, poised at 2-2 between the world’s best, as decent substantiation that the twenty-over game possesses the nuance and intrigue to win over even the staunchest of cricketing purists.
India even managed to overcome the dreaded toss, a key element in this series and throughout T20’s short history. Can we now be rid of this supposed limitative factor? Does the integrity of T20 expand beyond a call of heads or tails? Will it ever sit astride the other formats of the game as a test of an international cricketer’s skill
No doubt, Twenty20 enthusiasts are basking in something of a golden age. The IPL governs the game, to such an extent that it is threatening the prioritisation of Test cricket. T20 will perhaps forever be belittled by cricketing conservatives for this reason. They see the format as the uncouth, rebellious younger cousin of the longest form, a slapdash cricketing microcosm of a superficial modern world.
2021 is the first year in which it has felt possible for T20 to win over its critics. Test cricket is and always will be the “ultimate” examination of a cricketer – excuse the echo. But T20 is not the damaging influence that many claim it to be. The journeys of Washington Sundar, Axar Patel, and even David Warner are evidence of its many benefits, as are the recent knocks of Rishabh Pant and Kyle Mayers in whites.
The IPL has created a talent pool in India unprecedented in its scale and quality. Ishan Kishan and Suryakumar Yadav, amongst others, are the most recent fruits of its labours. Indian cricket has the tournament to thank for what already appears to be developing into a period of dominance throughout the three formats of the game.
It is this concept of dominance where T20 is perhaps falling short. Test cricket is so respected because of its history and tradition. Constant are comparisons between past and present, every game adorned with nostalgia. This sense of historical narrative is beginning to surface in ODI cricket. The Australia side of the early 2000s are idolised, and England’s 2019 World Cup winning team have already fashioned something of a legacy.
T20 cricket has never really been similarly seen as a format to target and reign over. The West Indies have been hugely successful, winning two World Cups, and Sri Lanka have produced some trailblazing sides. But no one has yet established a real stranglehold over the format, as has been achieved in others.
Of course, there is a simple explanation. It is an incredibly young game, and the nature of tours in the past has understandably tended to render twenty-over fixtures an add-on to the more important Tests and ODIs. Series wins have never been given huge importance.
But, fourteen years on from the first World Cup, this year is different. We have already seen England effectively prioritising T20 cricket over Test cricket, for the first time in collective memory. Morgan has his strongest squad where Root did not. Should their franchise make the IPL final, some England players will not be playing Test Cricket against New Zealand in June.
More than a festival of the sport, this year’s World Cup consequently has a sense of gravitas and high stakes that has not really been there previously. As a result, T20 series in the build-up have themselves gained an atmosphere of tension and weight.
Taking place in India, fans will have a wonderful opportunity to watch their nation’s talent mill in full flow. There has never been so much quality in the format. Standards with the bat, ball and in the field are beyond anything seen before. Outrageous boundary catches are now genuine chances, and 190 is par on a good pitch. Searing pace is coming from the likes of Archer, Wood and Jasprit Bumrah.
Twenty20 has always been a game of marketing and finance. But it is now going further, becoming a rigorous assessment of international cricketers. ODI cricket, a widely accepted and integral part of the cricketing calendar, is bearing increasing similarities to its shortened offspring. The lack of crowds in Ahmedabad has been a pity, but it has brought focus on the cricket itself, and proved it is not just a game of frenzied chanting and cringeworthy advertising.
What must be improved before October are the pitches. The toss simply cannot play such a key role, or T20 will miss its big chance to win over its detractors. Better, truer surfaces will allow a more even contest between two teams, and the nuance and mystery the game undoubtedly possesses will come to the fore.
The shortest form has now had some time to settle into many cricketing psyches. In October, the World Cup can earn it universal respect. With leading nations giving the tournament more thought than ever before, whoever triumphs will give T20 cricket the benchmark and history it needs to embed itself within the fabric of the sport, and to convince the traditionalists who fear it.
Image: EE Paul via Creative Commons