T20: it’s the answer to all of cricket’s ills in some eyes. More exposure, better entertainment, more excitement, a greater pathway to encourage others to start playing. It’s all about growing the game. The professional structure is now interwoven, and in some cases dominated, by the format and, by dint, the club and recreational game are next in line for a microscopic examination and the T20 nip-tuck treatment as the drive to attract more people into playing the game is linked in with the T20 march. Growing the game is potentially where the one size T20 solution perhaps doesn’t quite fit all though.
One rationale offered for the falling number of club cricketers is the amount of time taken each weekend to play a contest. Thus, the natural corollary is that 20 over cricket is the solution to stemming the flow of falling numbers in general participation. Sport is rarely so simple though. The nature of cricket and the fabric of a contest dictates that the 20 over solution is not necessarily the clear cut answer.
For example, this author skippered an evening 20 over team for in excess of a decade. In essence it was / is entry level cricket. For this skipper the main concern was not just about the winning and losing of matches but making sure everyone had the opportunity to participate with bat or ball. Batsmen were obliged to retire after reaching 25 runs so most weeks the balance was reached but occasionally an apology was proffered to the player at number 6 or 7 who neither batted nor bowled, essentially paying a few shekels and a couple of hours of their time for simply standing in the field. Eliminate the 25 run restriction and such occurrences could potentially increase with players higher up the order possibly forced to endure a similar occurrence. Add in the complication of one or more of the top order bowling and attaining that balance becomes even more complicated. Thus, one juggled the almost weekly issue of the ‘right’ tactics: frontload the batting order so as to score as many runs as possible or offer others a chance to participate in the game with the risk of perhaps not setting as high a target or chasing down a challenging total. Ironically, those offered a chance generally improved over a considerable amount of time and blossomed as players so that they became an integral part of the line-up. But in the club game where the present is the only time that matters would such a policy be tolerated? Will those new to the game be marooned in the middle to lower orders of teams, not skilled enough to occupy an elevated batting role and certainly not trusted enough to bowl crucial overs?
If T20 is the way forward to attract potential players to the club and recreational game then such matters are surely an inherent risk. New players may be attracted to the game but may also drop out the other side if their participation experience is limited as four or five players hog the crucial roles. The shorter the contest, the potential increase in risk from this point of view, particularly the further one travels down the general cricketing hierarchy. Undertaking significant journeys on a Saturday afternoon for a spot of fielding is unlikely to help grow the game. Even then the onus and the acid test will be on new players who are not likely to be as tolerant of such non-participatory participation as those familiar with the vicissitudes of the sport. Sitting in the stands with a beer and some chips on a Friday evening whilst watching an unknown batsman smite sixes is one thing, standing in a non-descript outfield doing nothing but chasing leather and watching other unknown batsmen is quite another.
Of course, no level of cricket is immune to these occurrences and those who only face a few deliveries, or worse, in fifty over cricket and declaration cricket could potentially feel disenchanted with their lot but at least they are provided with an opportunity. 20 over cricket runs the risk of diminishing that opportunity and potentially losing as many, if not more, players than it attracts. Once again, the nebulous term of ‘growing the game’ appears stuck somewhere between a media friendly cliché, a euphemism for making more money and an erroneous maxim associated with simply growing a particular format.