Like a virus: the rise of the Machine

There can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the years between 2007 and 2019 were the era of cricket’s shortest and newest format: the Twenty20.

It was invented in England in 2003, and quickly, like a virus, spread all over the world. From Pakistan to the Caribbean to Australia to New Zealand (who hosted the first International T20 match in 2005, losing to Australia at Eden Park in 2005) to its home country of England, where there were sell out crowds for county cricket matches for the first time since the 1950s, within just a year or two of the format’s invention. It was, without a doubt, and pardon the pun, a hit.

Shortly after the 2007 World Cup which saw the One Day International begin it’s decline as the game’s most profitable format, the time was ripe for the Twenty20 to swoop in and formally realize its ascendancy. The first T20 World Championship was in the fall of that year, with India beating Pakistan in the final to begin their road back from their early 2007 World Cup exit.

Also in 2007, a T20 league not supported by the International Cricket Council or the Bureau of Cricket Control India — the International Cricket League, or ICL, was started in India. To combat the league — which was siphoning board members and players away from the traditional game — the BCCI imposed lifetime bans for players who participated in the rebel league. They also formed their own domestic T20 league, basing it on the franchise system popular in the USA: the Indian Premier League. The league had its inaugural season in 2008 and the rest, as they say, is history.

The IPL is the most popular league in cricket by a country mile. The most attended and the most profitable. And one of the most popular leagues in all of sport the world over. It has spawned similar franchise leagues in England, Australia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, England, Hong Kong, New Zealand, South Africa, Sri Lanka, the West Indies and Zimbabwe and that’s not even all of them. The entire landscape of the game has changed, thanks not in large part but in all part to the invention of the format just 17 years ago, a format that is only three years older than Twitter.

Many bemoan the rise of the format. And their complaints are valid. The T20 has altered the style of play across all formats, rewarding the slog, the big hit. Slowly but surely the art of Test batting is disappearing from the world — simply because there’s no money in it anymore. And boards and counties are assuaging the older formats in order to focus on the Twenty20 (and in the ECB’s case, an even shorter format, the Hundred). The County Championship is dying. And players are turning away from the international game in order to become mercenary batsmen in franchise leagues all over the world. Capitalism has come to cricket in the form of a three hour game, and once that barn door is open, it’s pretty hard to close it again.

But it isn’t all terrible news. In many ways, the shorter format has revitalized the sport. It’s opened avenues that were never there before, for the associates, for women. The Twenty20 has turned cricket into truly a global game, a game for all. And while this may irk the more insular cricket fans among us, it has to be seen as a net positive, in the long run. The Twenty20 league in England for instance is bringing in money to the county boards that they never would have seen without the format. Do those counties survive the financial crisis of 2008-2010 without that revenue? Maybe. But maybe not.

I think we can all agree that a healthier balance is in order, however. A balance between the old great formats (and yes that includes the ODI) and the shorter formats. It can’t all be slog. We can’t let the art of Test opening go the way of the dodo. We can’t let the County Championship slowly fade into obscurity. Keeping cricket safe and secure against the fires of time means not just embracing its international side, but also its history, its tradition. If we lose any of those aforementioned things, the game might just finally do what people have been predicting for decades: go extinct.

What that balance looks like, I am not sure.

But.

Our hands might be getting forced, for good or for ill.

The IPL for 2020 has been cancelled. So have other franchise leagues. For the time being, domestic leagues and international tours have also been cancelled, but some day we will go outside again, and cricket will come back. But maybe it will come back in a different way. Maybe that barn door will close a little, and while the IPL isn’t going anywhere in the long term, maybe for a few years the game returns to its roots of quiet games on local fields, as we seek out what’s next for cricket, and for all of us.

In the end, the T20 changed cricket forever, and it will continue to do so. But the coronavirus has changed the whole world forever. Those two seas of change will one day run together, and cricket might just come out ahead, and finally marry its old and its new, giving it the balance needed to last for another 150 years.

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