From a sapling to a rainforest

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13 Jun 2020 | 07:55 AM
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Somesh Agarwal

From a sapling to a rainforest

On this day in 2003, Durham and Nottinghamshire engaged in the first-ever T20 game. Since then the popularity of the sport has spread like wildfire

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If we were to guess a country willing to tamper with tradition, England will get the fewest shout-outs. Yet, it was they who took the mantle of altering the status quo of cricket. 

Post the turn of the century, the audience in the county games was dropping. The game was losing its identity in the eyes of its own family. The onus was on the cricket’s originators to restore the health of the game. Stuart Robertson, the then ECB’s marketing manager, endorsed a research project in 2002 to identify the reasons for the increasing indifference for cricket among the audience. As is the nature of survey results, there were two buckets that the responses received, fell into – disappointing and encouraging. 

For the disappointment, some people felt that cricket belongs only to the rich or the old. A few even perceived it to be boring. A consensus was that it takes up too much time even in its then shortest format.

Making full use of the big bucks (£200,000) spent for the research, Robertson slipped in questions on his vision - a further shortened version of the game. As encouragement, a larger proportion of the responders seemed interested in this. Mainly among them were people who had never experienced the grind of a county game from the stadium. A prospect too good to let go, the ECB commissioned a competition in 2002. Even the counties approved it through a vote that passed 11-7 in favour. 

Things moved quickly from scheduling trial games to unveiling a tournament in November 2002. A Spanish media group also helped Robertson with the nomenclature ‘Twenty20’ for the game’s newest format.

Sticking to tradition was an integral part of cricket. Wimbledon is the only other event apart from Test cricket that involves gentlemen playing in all whites with shirts tucked in. No other sport takes a break for tea. Hence, when T20 first began in June 2003, it was hard to take the developments seriously. Loud music, young crowd and a relaxed atmosphere added to the casual ambience. No-one, including Robertson, then would have anticipated what would be the long term return of their investment. 

After the success at the domestic level, the format moved to an international fixture in 2005 followed by a World Cup in 2007. India lifted the trophy in the inaugural edition and Robertson’s vision earned more than a billion fans for the format in a single evening. 

While Robertson’s focus was on saving the game, a visionary in India from the Kerry Packer school of thought envisioned a phenomenon much grander in scale than anything cricket had ever seen. Lalit Modi leading the way for the BCCI launched the Indian Premier League. Destined to be successful, a blitzkrieg from Brendon McCullum on the opening night, with a heady mix of Bollywood stars in the stands, ensured overnight expansion of the idea. For a country caught in a tug of war between socialist and capitalist ideologies, Indian Premier League proved to be the most successful business venture ever pursued in its history.

Since then, all Test-playing nations established their franchise-based T20 leagues. These provided the boards with a source of revenue needed to develop the games in their country while saving some to keep the authorities interested in running it.    

Since 2008, the popularity of the T20 format has witnessed an exponential growth.  There were 149 T20s played per year on an average from 2003 till 2007. After the IPL began in 2008, the number increased to 542 per year till 2013. As popularity grew further, this improved to 769 matches per year since 2014.

Even after curtailing cricket from Tests into One Day Internationals in 1971, the total number of countries embracing the sport at an international level only doubled from 12 to 25 in half a century.  Whereas, T20 format has led to 73 countries achieving an official status in just 15 years.

With increased participation, a lot of success stories found their way inside cricketing circles. In the words of Harsha Bhogle, T20 has democratized cricket. Belonging to a country demolished by the East-West power struggle, Rashid Khan could not have become the golden-eyed boy of world cricket if not for T20s. If Test cricket was the only format played, the world would not have witnessed the wrist spin prowess budding in Afghanistan.

Not only did T20 provide a foot in the door for other nations, but it also ensured that the popularity of cricket is sustained outside the big three (or big four if we count South Africa too). To the West Indies who were far adrift from their glory days, and were struggling to keep the sports financially gainful, T20 provided a new life. An opportunity for the charismatic and carefree cricketers to finally shed the banalities and express themselves. Moreover, it encouraged them to choose cricket as a viable career option. 

To the superstitious, it was probably not a good idea to initiate something on Friday the 13th. But, what followed after the first game in 2003 is nothing short of a grand success. Even a bad omen could not get in the way of a good idea whose time had come. The parents enabled their fragile child to mutate into a superhuman. 

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DurhamNottinghamshireBrendon Barrie McCullum

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