Sat | Dec 3, 2016

Twenty20 can save cricket

Published:Friday | August 15, 2014 | 12:00 AM

By Orville Higgins

When Twenty20 cricket blasted on to the scene a few years ago, many of cricket's purists were not impressed by this exciting new format. Former West Indies batsman Maurice Foster once labelled it as nothing but "swipey-swipey" cricket. Michael Holding famously refused to commentate on the Stanford Twenty20 games when the concept was first introduced, and other ex-cricketers of that generation felt that T20 would do more harm than good.

Close to a decade later, one wonders if these ex-cricketers still hold that view. I hope not. For starters, I couldn't understand why they were so 'dead set' against the game. Most of the complaints against Twenty20 cricket at the outset centred around it presumably not being the proper mechanism to develop young batsmen. Those who were against the game thought it would make young batsmen get into bad habits and they wouldn't learn how to settle down and bat for long innings. It is not necessarily so - and I'll come back to this later.

In any case, cricket is a game of four parts, essentially: batting, bowling, fielding and wicketkeeping. Even if we believe T20 might ruin youngsters in their batting development, there are still three other areas where early exposure cannot hurt them in their quest to be good at the longer formats.

Twenty20 cricket has definitely raised the standard of fielding. Nobody can deny that. People are diving and sliding more. The quality of catching, especially around the boundaries, is now unbelievable.

NEW SET OF TRICKS

Second, the skills needed to be a T20 wicketkeeper are exactly the same as those ideal for a Test keeper, except that, in the latter case, you do it longer. So the youngster who starts keeping in T20 cricket is in no way disadvantaged if he wants to keep in the longer formats. Bowlers in Twenty20 cricket now have to come up with a whole new set of tricks. Slower balls, slower bumpers, wide yorkers, etc., all in an attempt to prevent the batsman from carting him around. Having these skills cannot hurt the bowler who wants to go on to play Test cricket.

Besides, the T20 bowler also knows that he has to be very accurate with both line and length, because any lapses can see the ball disappearing. In short, a youngster who learns to bowl in T20 cricket would have had to learn some skills that would not be out of place over four-day or Test cricket.

Now to batting. When West Indies ruled the roost, they did so for one basic reason. More youngsters played cricket. Cricket in the '70s and '80s was not just a game in the Caribbean; it was a social pastime. When we were introduced to cricket as boys in the '80s, most of us did so out of the pure joy of bowling a man stump 'clean', but we were also fascinated with the unadulterated excitement one gets from just belting the life out of a ball.

PLAYING SHOTS

When we played with tennis balls, or limes, or juice boxes as eight- or 10-year-olds, not too many of us were concerned at that stage with this thing called 'technique', we merely wanted to hit the thing as far as we could. Sure, after a while, some of us realised that, if we wanted to survive in batting, we had to learn to be a little bit more circumspect, and then we developed technique. But our early exposure was about playing shots.

One of the ways in which West Indies batsmen were better than the world in the late '70s and '80s was for precisely this reason: they were simply better at putting bat to ball than their counterparts from other Test nations. For the most part, these were skills that they predominantly learnt as kids. The skill of hitting a ball usually comes first and then you teach defence later. We didn't suffer from our youngsters wanting to 'los' the ball' when we were the best cricket team in the world.

T20 cricket could serve the same purpose, attracting youngsters to the game again. Expose them to the game. Make them enjoy hitting every ball. In time, the ones who want to move on will learn the survival skills they will need if they want to play at higher levels. If every youngster in every primary school in the region starts playing Twenty20 cricket, I guarantee that, in another 15 to 20 years, we would start dominating the world again.

Those who thought T20 cricket would ruin cricket in the region were wrong. It may well be the thing to save it!

Orville Higgins is a sports journalist and talk-show host. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.