Remember the first Twenty20 World Cup, as a rookie captain and his team emerged the surprise winners? That win made the T20 format an overnight favourite in India.
Perhaps it is in keeping with the nature of Twenty20 cricket that two World Cups should be held within a single year. Perhaps the period since the last one ended in England has just been one long strategy break. But, for India and the IPL, the World Cup could not have come at a better time. The focus will shift from the shenanigans at the recent IPL. Not for the first time, the Board will be hoping that the players make up for its misdeeds by doing so well at the World Cup that everything will be forgotten if not forgiven.
It is important to make a distinction between Twenty20 the game and IPL the tournament. There is nothing wrong with the former, while the latter will have to work hard at regaining credibility. What further skeletons are preparing to tumble out of the cupboard and cats getting ready to be let out of the bag? There are two ways of looking at the IPL's financial dealings — one, that it merely reflects the business reality in India where bribes and kickbacks are par for the course. The other is to wonder why the IPL should be given the responsibility of inhabiting the moral stratosphere when deals in the various ministries are seldom above board. Take communication, or mining or any of the so-called ‘lucrative' ministries that smaller parties which support the ruling party fight to get for themselves. A ‘ lucrative' ministry where money can be made illegally is the reward for such support. The electorate accepts that cheerfully.
To let the IPL off the hook on either of these counts, however, is disingenuous. The argument that it mirrors society may be justification to some, but if the charges against the way it operated are proved, then one of the world's biggest sporting properties will have to start building from the bottom up — and that's something the IPL should have done in the first place.
The World Cup in 2007 changed the face of cricket because India won the title and went from being indifferent to the format to its greatest supporters. The ICL, which preceded the IPL, was shunted out of the market by the cricket board in the manner of the old mafia bosses marking out their territory for continuing with the same activities. Or if you prefer the old Hollywood westerns, it was as if the IPL was saying, “Dis town ain't big enough for both of us.”
In three years, the IPL has accelerated the technical growth of the short format. Without the inputs that went into the Twenty20 game from the professional, focused approaches of the franchises, it might have taken the game a few more years to get to where it has now in terms of technique and tactics. Obviously, the more you play the more you learn. The different sets of skills that players bring to the game now have begun to make it more complex than it was at its birth when it was all a bit of a hit and giggle.
Clearly, now there is more to the game than pulling your front foot out of the way and aiming to hit the ball into the second tier of the stadium. Twenty20 by its nature will never become as complex or varied as Test cricket, and we might run out of innovations soon enough, but, for the moment, discoveries are still being made and new features tried out in match conditions.
In three years, the batsmen have invented new strokes, discovered new ways of hitting to untenanted parts of the field and in the case of Sachin Tendulkar and Murali Vijay, have shown how classically correct batsmanship can be adopted to the business of catching the bowler by surprise.
Bowlers might have suffered, but increasingly they are coming into their own. No new deliveries have been invented to check the marauding hitters, but variations on pace and length have served well those who understand their craft. Men like Anil Kumble, for example.
The World Cup in any sport is, traditionally, the platform for bringing it all together. It is the exhibition of state-of-the-art. Even if some of the shots popularised by Twenty20 have been played before (the editor of the Wisden Almanackhas pointed out that the so-called ‘Dilscoop' as played by Sri Lanka's Dilshan was already being played some seven decades ago by the West Indies star Learie Constantine), they have not been played with such consistency.
The year 2007 was notable not just for the Twenty20 World Cup, but equally for the badly mismanaged 50-over World Cup when the West Indies messed it up. The current Cup, therefore, is an opportunity for that once cricket-mad region of the world to make amends.
That Afghanistan is among the teams will make it special, considering the troubles in that country and the fact that they were able to field a team in the qualifiers at all. At least one commentator has pointed out that Afghanistan is likely to be every supporter's second favourite team after their own. Thanks to the IPL experience, all the leading countries have approximately equal chances to win, yet the balance might be tilted in favour of the subcontinent again. Pakistan is a bit of a closed book at the moment, but they have a captain in Shahid Afridi who is as unpredictable as the game itself. Sri Lanka must fancy their chances too, thanks to their better balance. India are among the favourites, but as the previous World Cups have shown, there is no such thing as a certainty.
It would be good for the game if one of the southern teams — Australia, South Africa or New Zealand won. It might mean a better distribution of the goodies that the format has to offer, for one. In any case, none of these teams have done particularly well in the format, and a win now might change everything including attitude.
Perhaps the time has come for the West Indies to claw back into world reckoning. Their players have done well in the IPL, Trinidad showed flair in the Champions League, and anything that brings interest in the region surging back into the game ought to be welcomed.
The World Cup will also be seen as a stepping stone to bigger things (in monetary terms) like the IPL. A major individual performance will mean more zeroes at the end of the figure on the cheque when the new round of auctions begin, now with two more teams in the fray. This is not as cynical as it sounds, for, the World Cup in any sport is also recruiting ground for clubs around the world. Think of all the soccer players who have earned well-paying contracts in the big clubs following a World Cup. It is a tournament that pitchforks a player from obscurity to world renown in a matter of days.
The IPL has succeeded in levelling the playing field. Among Test nations, there are no desperately weak sides and that should make for a close tournament. The surprises are in the hands of the non-Test teams. Afghanistan anyone?