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18 June 2016

How the free market of T20 is reshaping world cricket

It was the free market that allowed T20 cricket to evolve. To survive, the Test game should learn from it.

By Ed Smith

Sport is deeply and surprisingly conservative. This explains its susceptibility to sudden landslides: the suppression of gradual evolution makes professional sport vulnerable to significant external interventions. The beneficiaries are entrepreneurial outsiders who are prepared to challenge the existing institutions.

This has happened twice to cricket in the modern era. First, in the 1970s, the Australian tycoon Kerry Packer, sensing the frustration of professional players about low pay and dull games, founded a new league called World Series Cricket as an alternative to ­international matches. “We’re all whores,” Packer liked to say. “Name your price.”

The game’s gentlemanly elite howled in horror and the sport was eventually reunited. Packer, however, will be judged kindly by history. Floodlit matches, coloured clothing and white balls have become staples of the modern game. I would go further: they were necessary and positive developments that have helped cricket to survive. Even if Packer’s motives were not quite “half-philanthropic” (as he suggested), his legacy is assured.

The second great seismic shock has been the Indian Premier League (IPL), the franchise-based Twenty20 (T20) tournament that has just completed its ninth edition. Christopher Martin-Jenkins, opening the batting for the conservatives, led the chorus of anxiety before its inception in 2008. The IPL, he wrote, marked “the beginning of the end of the epoch when international matches were the main events”. The upside for the players was clear: they could be paid as much as £1m for less than two months’ work. But the game, it was assumed, would collapse over the long term without the steadying hand of the old international structures.

Instead, the IPL, for all its flaws and controversies, has brought about a thrilling period of rapid technical and tactical evolution. T20 has become a case study in Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of “creative destruction”. The old guild of Test cricket has been smashed open and cricket’s conventions, jealously guarded by the old high priesthood, have been rewritten.

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Virat Kohli, A B de Villiers and David Warner are playing a different game from the one I left in 2008. In many respects, it is much better. The mastery of these batsmen is total: power and control, fast scoring and consistency, instinctiveness allied with match awareness, technical assurance and primal athleticism. They are complete players, impossible to categorise using the old labels. All three excel at every format of the game – T20, one-day internationals and Test cricket. But it is T20 that has liberated the full potential of batsmanship. When confronted with a new challenge – to score faster than ever but without getting out – modern players have combined the best elements of classical technique with new daring and determination to master risks.

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We can now see that cricket’s conservative guild had constrained the game artificially by protecting the consensus that batsmen couldn’t score fast without increasing the risk of dismissal. Under the old conventions, a batsman who hit a six and then took a single was congratulated for his “intelligence” and “sophistication”. The implication is that hitting a six and then immediately following it with another six is suboptimal: absurd, but everyone said it. Caution, artfully masquerading as strategy, dominated the conversation for decades.

T20’s new free market – and the prospect of floating to the top of the IPL’s lucrative auction – encouraged batsmen to escape the straitjacket of the coaching manual. Coaches did not anticipate how today’s players would expand the game. The revolution in batsmanship wasn’t planned: it emerged. Evolution, as always, proved cleverer than a single strategic mind.

That is why the solution to the travails of Test cricket – which is becoming increasingly marginal – is not yet another round of meetings, hand-wringing and piecemeal legislation. The priority should be the creation of a properly rewarded Test championship. Though my logic may sound uncomfortably materialistic, Test cricket must provide the right opportunities and rewards to encourage evolutionary progress. Instead of telling fans that they are wrong to prefer T20, Test cricket should focus on its own offering.

In one respect, the T20 revolution is only half finished. So far, it is batsmen who have evolved the fastest and commanded the highest price. Eventually, bowlers will force their way into the equation.

In American football, which has enjoyed a relatively free transfer market for far longer than cricket, one position was discovered to be vastly underpriced. Quarterbacks, the sport’s glamour boys, have always been the highest paid. But what about the players who protect them, who allow the household names to win the game?

Eventually, to the amazement of NFL insiders, the market delivered a surprising verdict. By 2006, the highest-paid player at the Super Bowl was still a quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck, but the second-highest-paid player was the left tackle Walter Jones, whose job it was to protect Hasselbeck. No one goes to an NFL match to watch the left tackle – most fans couldn’t name him – but the position plays a huge role in determining which team wins, as Michael Lewis demonstrated in his book The Blind Side.

So the criticism that T20 has promoted batting and downgraded bowling is premature. Within a few years, a new breed of bowler – probably unflashy but adept at spiking big hitters – will give the game a new equilibrium. Test cricket’s best chance is opening itself up to the same laws of innovation and progress. Over decades as an exclusive members-only club, Test cricket has struggled to grow the game or expand its sphere of influence. Instead of resenting T20, Test cricket should learn from it. 

This article appears in the 14 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink