The first limited overs international was played, quite by accident, at Melbourne in January 1971. An unexpectedly large and enthusiastic crowd turned up to watch the novel game between England and Australia and the authorities quick to gauge the popularity of the new format staged ODIs in England against all the visiting sides, Australia, West Indies, New Zealand, India and Pakistan.
The ICC then hit upon the idea of the World Cup and the inaugural edition was held in England in 1975. For about 30 years ODIs caught the fancy of the cricket going public even as Test cricket was pushed to the background in the popularity stakes.
In the new millennium however the large number of ODIs being played did result in a fall in their popularity. The cynics pointed out to the surfeit of such matches, many of them meaningless and hopelessly one sided now that associate members had entered the fray and the fact that the middle overs were all too predictable with teams either trying to consolidate or rebuild the innings as being the main reasons for the drop in attendances at the stadium and the TV audience.
But then in keeping with the times and the general lifestyle which called for faster, breezier and more shortened entertainment something new was just around the corner. Twenty20 had already made an appearance at the county level in England but just as in the case of one day cricket no one took it seriously initially.
After all would it befit international cricketers to be seen playing a rather ungainly T20 bash all over in about three hours? And yet not surprisingly it was Australia again who took the initiative by playing the first T20 international against New Zealand at Auckland in February 2005. Australia of course had also played the inaugural Test match against England way back in 1877 so it was a unique treble. What’s more they made it three out of three by winning the game by 44 runs.
It marked a new beginning for international cricket. However neither side appeared to take the game especially seriously. Moreover the sizeable crowd might have been excused for thinking that they had been transported back in time.
As Wisden noted "both teams wore garish body hugging kits last seen in the 1980s. While the New Zealanders went one stage further and sported all manner of outmoded facial hair creating a cabaret feel that helped camouflage the fact that with no other 20 over competitions in either country few players had experience of the new format."
At the end of the match Aussie captain Ricky Ponting seemed far from enthusiastic. "I think it is difficult to play seriously," he said adding "if it does become an international game then I am sure the novelty won’t be there all the time."
The authorities however were dead serious about cricket’s newest and shortest format and the novelty soon wore off. Showing remarkable perceptiveness in gauging the popularity of T20 the ICC took only a little over two years after that first match to organize the inaugural Twenty20 World Cup even as it had taken just over four years to organize the first Fifty50 World Cup.
Clearly T20 symbolized cricket in the new millennium complete with the razzle-dazzle almost mandatorily associated with it. The IPL is of course cricketainment thanks to the close connection with show biz but by itself there is little doubt that T20 is more than just hit and giggle cricket. It has evolved within an incredibly short time into a sport in which strategy and tactics and planning has a place.
It is not a format of, by and for batsmen as was initially envisaged and what is crystal clear is that bowlers too have more than their moments. Just a couple of dot balls and the batsman is under pressure as there is hardly any room for error in a format known for feverish activity.
There have already been three World Cup competitions in South Africa, England and the West Indies and the fact that there have been different champions every time only goes to prove that making predictions in Twenty20 is a mug’s game. It is simply how a team performs on a given day. If upsets are not uncommon in ODIs there are almost taken for granted in T20 internationals a format to which even associate members have taken to like a duck to water.
Who can forget the shock results of the World Cups – Bangladesh upsetting West Indies (2007), Zimbabwe shocking Australia (2007), Netherlands stunning England (2009), Bangladesh going down to Ireland (2009) – besides minor upsets. And the latest fact to underline the unpredictability of Twenty20 cricket is Australia falling below Ireland in the ICC rankings.
Such are the thoughts that race across one’s mind on the eve of the fourth T20 World Cup commencing in Sri Lanka on September 18. Will there be another new champion alongside India, Pakistan and England? As I said making predictions is an exercise in futility. The only thing that can be safely predicted is that there will be fast paced high octane entertainment and the tournament will cement the growing success of the game’s newest and shortest format.