At a time when saturation levels of T20 cricket have gone beyond even the wildest fantasies of the money men in every country bar England, where it isn’t deemed sufficiently radical, it might seem strange for one of us to write a paean of praise for a tournament of hit and giggle cricket, but I’m going to do it anyway, and not because England won it either.
That was a nice bonus, for sure, and the free to air coverage of the final again demonstrates that Sky Sports have a better grasp of the value of wide exposure of a particular sport than the ECB have done in recent years. It is of course entirely a matter of slightly enlightened self-interest, but that’s rather the point – the exposure argument has never been about doing so to be nice, but because it has value in and of itself down the line. At a purely anecdotal level, two friends who have little more than a vague passing interest in the sport and don’t have Sky watched the final and were caught up in it, sending me messages asking for an explanation as to what the Powerplay was and how the hell DLS worked. There are some questions too difficult to answer.
But it wasn’t the final or the result, or even the relatively wide audience watching that made me think about how good the T20 World Cup was, it was the whole tournament. The matches themselves were not overly reliant on the toss, unlike some previous instances (Hi UAE), and the format is one that provides a genuine sense of peril in each game. That’s partly because of the short nature of the format – the longer the version of cricket, the more the stronger side can be sure of winning. 20 overs – or indeed 10, or 100 balls – equalises the difference between the teams by raising the importance of a single exceptional performance to turn the game. The longer the game goes, the more sure the stronger team can be of winning, until you reach Test cricket where genuine upsets in a mismatch are relatively rare, whatever the other strengths of it. Ireland’s victory over England in the 50 over World Cup in 2011 was a very special day for the game, but shines bright as a rarity, and one that foreshadowed the arrival of Ireland as a genuine international side rather than a total minnow pulling off a shock.
But the Netherlands beating England in T20 World Cups in 2009, again in 2014, and South Africa this time around, that’s a bit different. It’s hard to see such results being so likely in 50 over cricket, and almost impossible to in Test cricket. It goes further too. The first round involving the qualifiers being part of the main competition – in effect if not in promotion – both eases everyone watching into the competition and also showcases the associate nations more obviously than is usually the case at ICC events. And here again, the opening match saw Namibia giving Sri Lanka something of a hiding, while the West Indies were heavily beaten by both Scotland and Ireland. The T20 World Cup is the FA Cup of international cricket, maybe even the FA Cup of international team sports.
That first round was as brief as it was brutal. Lose a game and you’re in trouble. Lose two and you’re done, and going home with your tail between your legs, just as it should be. The lament for West Indies cricket can be a genuine one without losing sight of the cruel beauty of a tournament that crushes hopes in the space of an hour or two.
Various 50 over World Cups have had a Super Eight or Super Twelve, or God help us all Super Fourteen stages, but the abiding principle of these always appears to be to maximise the number of games, extend the tournament long enough for civilisations to rise and fall, and above all else ensure that the “big” teams go through. It’s perhaps most of all because of the determination for so long to hold quarter finals meaning the odd embarrassing defeat can be overcome, a kind of repechage for the wealthy but inept to ensure they do at least reach the point where being put out of their misery is done by a genuinely good team rather than the flogging that’s deserved beforehand. Maybe the ICC have learned a little, as the 2019 50 over version (and the 2023 edition to come) was something of an exception to this, and better for it, whatever the legitimate criticisms of the round robin format that still allowed for recovery from a balls up. Whatever the flaws, and there were many, it did make it a dog fight to only have four going through rather than eight. Qualification for these events and the exclusion of the smaller teams, that’s a different matter, and one that is shameful.
The T20 World Cup as currently constituted does not have quarter finals, and doesn’t have a round robin either. And at no point can any team feel comfortable. England’s defeat on DLS to Ireland plunged a comfortable road map to the semi-finals into a frantic last chance saloon in every game they played afterwards, effectively turning the group stage into a knock out scenario half way through. And wasn’t it great? South Africa were cruising through to the semi-finals with only a match against a so called minnow to go, while Pakistan were to all intents and purposes on their way home – and then everything changed.
And then there’s the weather. The interminable whining about rain in 2019 came back to bite many an Australian journalist or Twitter user on the arse as the scheduling in the wettest part of the year in certain parts of Australia allowed the English to gleefully suggest that until they have covered stadia they shouldn’t be allowed another one, but it had a wider impact too, which was to make the games that did happen even more important. It’s entirely capricious, unfair and downright unreasonable, but however frustrating it might be for teams and supporters to watch the rain fall, it adds to the sense of a tournament where you have to win the games you do play because of the ones you don’t. Australia ultimately went out because they got whacked by New Zealand.
Of course, not holding the final Super Twelve games simultaneously was horrifically unfair to Australia, and it’s no defence of it to point out that it happening to Australia makes it acceptable. Although it is funny. But that sporting quibble aside, I am all in favour of the sheer viciousness of the capricious weather gods entirely wrecking carefully made plans. England’s tournament win in 2010 too was nearly derailed by bad weather in the group stage for that matter, and the raging fury at that which is impossible to overcome is too part of the tournament experience.
There’s far too much T20. There’s certainly far too much T20 involving teams no one cares about except the billionaires that own them. But national teams playing a short, sharp, savage tournament that kicks out the unworthy unceremoniously is one to be both enjoyed for the spectacle it is and most of all celebrated for being that rarity in international cricket – a total hoot.