The cult of Twenty20 threatens to obliterate Test cricket as we know it

By Jacob Savill 

As the glimmering haze of the Kolkata skyline surveys Eden Gardens’ glorious silhouette, the world is its audience. And in the broad-shouldered form of a 6ft 7 Barbadian, an unlikely hero takes centre-stage.

Carlos Brathwaite leaps into the air with feral passion, he thumps his chest primitively; roars with merciless joy. Four balls, four ferocious sixes; his face a visage of emotion and desire, as his teammates erupt into a delirium of ecstasy – the West Indies are the champions of the world. This glorious spectacle is one in which Twenty20 revels, and the rest of us delight. Brathwaite’s heroics, Ben Stokes’ tearful capitulation, glory and heartbreak lying side-by-side – scenes like these bear no semblance to the harmless frivolities of its formative years. Twenty20 now elicits the most powerful human emotions, a mark of its magnitude in the cricketing calendar and beyond.

Even by Twenty20’s spectacular standards, last month’s World Cup was a landmark one. The ebbing and flowing of last-gasp run chases; majestic stroke-play at the hands of master craftsmen; players and fans together exuding extraordinary emotion. Giles Smith wrote in The Times:

There is no light entertainment format on television at the moment, that is delivering solid-gold, at-the-death drama so consistently.’

Giles is right. Twenty20 is sporting drama at its finest, most unpredictable. Its reputation then as sport’s hottest property should come as no surprise. And after the global triumph of India 2016, its stock continues to rise.

But be warned: Twenty20 is only in its infancy. Those blessed with a permeating sensitivity for cricket’s beating heart, will be able to feel the winds of change approaching; the cogs of time churning and whirring, as cricket hastily, ruthlessly descends into a new-age. The era of Twenty20 dominance has begun in earnest, and soon, all will be engulfed in its path of destruction. If it continues to grow exponentially, shackles will be broken within a decade.

T20 will cut loose into an independent sporting entity, freeing itself from the restraints of the cricketing fraternity. In ten frightening years time, Twenty20 could be the world’s leading sport, but may bear little affinity to what we know today as cricket. As the T20 pandemic continues to spread, unsuspecting nations will surely be infected with its bug. Franchises will span far and wide, reaching unheralded frontiers in America, China and the Middle East. We will see I’m sure, a global contagion. Twenty20 is becoming an impregnable financial superpower, it is changing cricket’s global landscape like never before – and it is terrifyingly unstoppable.

But we mustn’t be swept off our feet. Instead we must remain vigilant – or soon we will find Test cricket unceremoniously discarded in its glorious wake. This most taxing of questions is already being debated on national cricketing bodies and in newspaper columns: Has Father Time finally caught up with Test cricket? Fortunately, Armageddon is still a long way off. On this island at least, Test cricket commands a vast and devoted following of purists. These cricketing traditionalists remain ubiquitous, inflexible, stubborn – and thank goodness, because their presence is crucial to Test cricket’s life-span. For as long as they are steadfast, so will be the first day of the Lord’s Ashes test as the quintessential spearhead of the cricketing calendar. Fire and brimstone will sooner engulf fifty-over cricket before it extends to cricket’s pinnacle.

But danger is lurking. Now that we’re being fed a regular diet of Twenty20, we mustn’t lose our appetite for the game’s longest format. Twenty20 entices the palate like no other, and none of us are immune to its vices. Its speed is irresistible, its drama irrepressible. With the high velocity run-chases; mind and body whirring at 100mph; the lights, the cameras and the action, Twenty20 serves as cricket’s stylish sports car. But if T20 is the Jaguar, Test cricket is the Rolls-Royce. It has the heritage, the history, the legacy – in this regard, it is without equal. Twenty20 with all its financial horse-power cannot match Test cricket for elegant panache.

We must remember that on these shores, cricket stands for something more than financial return; its mantra is not commercialism, but tradition. Twenty20, for all its brilliance, will inevitably corrupt cricket’s heart and soul, and eradicate its tradition – and this is T20’s silent, but fatal flaw. As Stephen Fry illustrates wonderfully, Twenty20 is a succinct one stanza sonnet, but Test cricket is an epic poem. Not every line will be enthralling, not every word beautiful, but when digested in its entirety, with its sweeping narrative, its sub-plots, its characters – then it offers unparalleled beauty. We’re fast approaching the post-Test match era, and if we’re not careful, Test cricket’s odyssey will soon become an elegy.

Reaching the younger generation who will be even more susceptible to the Twenty20 juggernaut, is vital. Modern culture continues to pervade the globe, impatience is its coat of arms, and Test cricket is its antithesis. In 2006, Jonathan Agnew christened T20 a ‘gateway drug,’ but far from inspiring fresh addicts to delve into cricket’s Class A, Twenty20 is now reaping its own impervious band of users. To appreciate Test cricket one must be fed on its juices from a young age; become hooked as a pre-teen, because in these times the magnetism of T20 is so difficult to resist. A man’s relationship with Test cricket is a life-long partnership that begins in childhood.

Thus the burden lies with parents, teachers, siblings, to pass on the baton, infuse the romance of Test cricket into the genes of future generations, or soon I fear Lord’s will be faced with an empty pavilion. And the legacies of its greatest heroes will be abandoned. Cherished memories of Len Hutton; Gary Sobers and Richard Hadlee alike, will wither away into obscurity; their achievements unacknowledged by our ancestors. Their careers will become confined to long-lost editions of Wisden; reduced to just words on an irrelevant page, as people’s hearts and minds are filled with nothing other than sixes and super overs. This is the unspoken reality of Twenty20 proliferation, and it must be addressed.

So may this be a warning to the cricketing purists: It is not only Test cricket’s future which lies in our hands, but also its past. Can our passion remain unyielding as we remember cricket in a different age? Remember the 2005 Ashes. Remember those wistful days at Lord’s. We mustn’t get entangled in the swirling riptide of T20, as it sweeps the world off its feet. Yes, let’s enjoy the spectacle for all its worth, but remember where our true allegiance lies.

Twenty20 is extraordinary, but for us, it will always be the churlish younger brother.

Photograph: Saumyadipta via Wikimedia Commons

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