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The Future of Cricket is Here

THERE are some sports fans who cannot stand Test cricket. You will have to drag them kicking and screaming to watch this form of the game.

The Americans, especially, just can’t get the hang of it:  “What kind of a game drags on for five days and still not have a result?!” they ask.

But to many others, myself included, Test is the treasured form.

The Test level is the stage where the professional cricketer is challenged to the greatest extent in terms of skill, fitness and tactical awareness. At the same time the spectator’s interest is kept alive as the drama unfolds.

Test represents and brings out the very essence of cricket — good strategy, shrewd captaincy and endurance.

Someone once remarked that watching Test cricket is like watching grass grow, or paint dry. Precisely!

That suspense is the beauty of Test cricket — particularly if strength is pitted against strength. Because it’s played over five days and four innings, Test offers no room for opportunism. You will not win a Test match unless you deserve to.

The recent back-to-back series between Australia and South Africa is the latest evidence that Test cricket is still alive and kicking, and that the public still cares much for it.

Some of the world’s greatest cricketers of all time — from Garfield Sobers, Donald Bradman, Fred Truman to Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar, Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan — all owe their luminary status to Test cricket.

Many more fine Test cricketers will be produced in years ahead, and in the recent past we’ve seen emerging stars like JP Duminy and Philip Hughes come to the fore, promising to extend the legacy of fine Test cricketers.

Test cricket must never be allowed to die, especially with the emergence of shorter, exciting and commercially appealing forms currently threatening its relevance, if not its existence.

The future of Test cricket has been a subject of debate in recent times, with authorities adamant that the longer form of the game is here to stay.

It better be. Yet still, under the circumstances, anyone who follows the game with a keen interest will admit that a new phenomenon has hit cricket and sports in general, and it’s here to stay from the looks of things.

It has captivated the public’s imagination in a way that probably could not have been imagined by its inventors.

It is, of course, Twenty20 cricket.

It’s shorter, the action is fast and furious, and the verdict quicker. For these reasons, Twenty20 has brought back crowds to stadiums.

At last, cricket has an answer to football and rugby.

Here in South Africa where the Indian Premier League is currently in full swing, the response has been tremendous. Tickets have run out like hot bread, and the atmosphere inside the grounds we have been to across the country has been like nothing ever seen in cricket.

The idiom “It’s just not cricket” has found a new meaning. We’ve seen cricket’s own versions of the Emirates, Anfield and Nou Camp as vociferous crowds cheer every run, every boundary and every wicket.

One of the criticisms of Twenty20 is that it is artificial, played for TV. This criticism seems to derive mainly from cricket traditionalists. But commercialisation has become a trend in modern sports and the same can be said about football and other sports.

What makes Twenty20 that much more special is that it has been accepted in the cricket world more than five-a-side in football and Sevens in rugby. In fact, it is anticipated that Twenty20 will soon dislodge 50-overs cricket as the standard shorter version of cricket.

So overwhelming has been the global reaction to Twenty20 that they are even talking about a multimillion-dollar version of the IPL in, wait for this… America!

Now in Zimbabwe at the moment, the main priority is to regain Test status. That is fine. Our Test status is what defines us as a cricket nation.

But in pursuit of something in the distance, and we hope it is a short distance, we must not lose the future.

That future is Twenty20.

What encourages us in Zimbabwe is that we have already shown the ability to play Twenty20 cricket. Who will ever forget the collective pride when our young team, written off as no-hopers before the tournament, famously upset mighty Australia by five wickets in the inaugural ICC World Twenty20 tournament in South Africa in 2007?

To date, two inter-provincial Twenty20 tournaments have been held in Zimbabwe with potential showing in abundance.

One other criticism of the Twenty20 is that is it one-dimensional, a batsman’s game.

But this theory has been dismissed in this 2009 IPL series, mainly due to the South African conditions.
Last week during a post-match press conference in Pretoria, I asked former Australia wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist, who is the captain of the Deccan Chargers, about his thoughts on the turn of events where bowlers dominated some matches in the IPL.

Gilly’s response was that due to South Africa’s seam friendly pitches, bowlers were having much more say in the outcome of matches unlike last year in the Indian subcontinent conditions.

Talking of the South African conditions the IPL, and even South Africa’s domestic Pro20 competition, have shown the importance of spin bowling in the shortest format of the game.

In naming their squad for the second edition of the ICC World Twenty20 in England in June, the South African selectors included their chief limited overs spinner Johan Botha, despite still awaiting the results of tests on his bowling action.

In addition to Botha, the South Africans also included four other players capable of providing Botha with backup — Roloef van der Merwe, Justin Ontong, Robin Pietersen and Duminy.

It’s in the Zimbabwe context that I have mentioned the last two points.

Firstly, just like South Africa, Zimbabwe is also conducive to pace bowling. Our two international grounds in Harare and Bulawayo offer a lot of swing and seam, which gives the likes of Tawanda Mupariwa, Chris Mpofu and Ed Rainsford the perfect conditions to sharpen their skills for Twenty20.

And they also need to take care of Mutare and Kwekwe Sports Clubs.

Secondly, if you are Zimbabwean and you see a leading nation like South Africa, for all their documented dearth of spin bowlers, recognising the importance of slow bowlers in Twenty20 and taking five of them to an international tournament, you must get excited.

This is because we have never had a shortage of quality spin bowlers, and if spin bowlers are going to play key roles at Twenty20 we can really fancy our chances.

Pity some sort of compromise was reached so that Zimbabwe can miss the tournament in England. But, all the same, Twenty20 cricket is truly an area Zimbabwe can compete favourably with the best.

Independent View With Enock Munchinjo

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