When masters go to work, the stage is of little relevance. They relish the opportunity of a contest. Of pitting skill against skill. Of matching talent against talent. Emerging victorious or being defeated is a by-product of effort. In team sport, the individual is often helpless despite exerting every sinew to achieve the desired result.
Two performances in the IPL so far have stood out for the sheer ferocity of their purpose. Muttiah Muralitharan turning back to clock for the Bangalore Royal Challengers against the Delhi Daredevils and Dale Steyn spewing fire for the Deccan Chargers against the Mumbai Indians. Murali contributed to victory. Steyn was unable to avoid defeat. Yet both produced a cricketing spectacle. For all cricket fans, except of-course those who regard T20 as an abomination.
The anti-T20 argument goes somewhere along these lines. A spell of bowling in a T20 game isn't really a "spell" in the first place. The bowler delivers a mere four overs, you see. And the batsman doesn't care about the basic premise of his craft: To protect his wicket. So far from being good cricket, T20 isn't even cricket! It is a red headed monster parading around as cricket and cannibalizing the ethos of the great game. It borrows the rules and regulations of Test and one-day cricket only to gain legitimacy. Its intention though is devious: In the long run, T20 aims to gobble up both Test and one-day cricket.
So let us examine what a "spell" or for that matter an "innings" really is. Why must a "spell" or an "innings" rely upon a minimum duration to be classified as such? Why must it be judged by the parameters of a mythical standard? Why is it that Murali and Steyn did not bowl "great spells"? I am convinced they did and here's why.
Chasing 158 for victory on a reasonable batting surface and with short boundaries on offer, the Daredevils were odds on favourites to win. At 55 for 1 in 7 overs, they were up with the asking rate. No risks needed to be taken; and definitely none against an experienced operator. Naman Ojha and Aaron Finch had settled in comfortably. Murali merely needed to be milked and the chase would stay in control.
Instead Murali produced a game altering sequence of overs. Young batsmen who hadn't accounted for his guile were trapped into either playing false strokes or found inadequate to the challenge. Extra turn had one caught at slip, one was trapped LBW and another top edged to short fine-leg. Each of those dismissals weren't "careless" shots but a reminder of one of cricket's seductive themes: When a spin bowler is operating at his pomp, watch for his tricks and find a counter. If not he will devour you. It was enthralling.
Steyn's spell at Vizag against the Mumbai Indians was devastating. Defending a small total, the Chargers needed an inspired effort from their premier bowler. And Steyn produced an effort that will stick in memory. With free flowing shot-makers on the team sheet, a quiet period would have done little to frazzle the Mumbai Indians camp. Instead Steyn plucked Suman and Levi and returned to remove Karthik. He may have been on for only four overs, but only those with their heads buried in the sand would argue every delivery he produced wasn't captivating cricket.
A "spell" or an "innings" is nothing but a passage of play. In cricket lexicon we compartmentalize these to be of greater value in longer formats. Perhaps that is so. But T20 is often a window, a snapshot to the possibilities that this sport can produce. The romantics chase a story line in Test matches. And while those are compelling, little passages of play in a T20 game can be just as rewarding. Unless the premise precedes the argument and a hypothesis must be established whatever the evidence.
Consider six hitting. I often hear how this ability is mocked by baiters of T20. Ahhh, the batsmen doesn't value his wicket in T20 cricket so if in the attempt to hit a six he is dismissed, no one including him really cares. He has a big bat. The boundaries are small. The bowling is often pedestrian and then there is the license to hit out. All conceded. Yet, does that cheapen the skill involved in executing a six?
In the same game where Steyn produced his fiery spell, Rohit Sharma hit a last ball maximum to clinch the contest. This was a now or never moment. His heart I assume was thumping as he considered the task. One ball. Two outcomes. Success or failure. Victory or defeat. All riding on one ball. He needed the skill to execute the shot and the courage to stop his hands from shivering and obfuscating the flow of the blade. In the moment between that ball being delivered and the stroke being executed, a heap of cricket was played. Both in the minds of the combatants and on the field of play. How this was not cricket, I do not know.
Albie Morkel's assault on Virat Kohli the other day was equally breathtaking. 45 to get in 2 overs. There is no "cricketing logic" that suggests this is an achievable target. Yet it was. And was as much a tactical triumph as one of skill. The enforcer preserved at the bottom of the innings in a huge chase, entrusted with the job of backing his gift of clean striking. On this day it came off, on others it wouldn't have. It was delicious cricket.
In T20 cricket, we have been offered invention. Dilshan figured over the keeper's head is a boundary shot. So refined the scoop first played by Zimbabwe's Douglas Marillier. AB de Villiers recognized having played tennis, he could use a similar top-spinning swat while batting. Captains have opened with spin to deny belligerent openers pace on the ball. Fast bowlers have invented clever deliveries like the slow bouncer to confound batsmen. Innovation has helped the sport evolve, discover new angles, new possibilities, new attractions.
Cricket is a deeply divisive sport. Its formats attract and enrage audiences. Some embrace the newest form, others detest it. That is perfectly acceptable. This divide exists among players too. In 2008, before the T20 revolution took root I interviewed Shane Warne. He predicted in the long run One-Day cricket would disappear. In a recent interview I did with Kevin Pietersen, he made the same point. Going further to make the case that T20 cricket has enhanced the pace of Test matches. These aren't arguments without a counter. However, since these are made by excellent practitioners of the sport they must not be summarily dismissed.
As a follower, I admire aspects of every format. At times, I find it very hard to sit through an entire one-day game. Or indeed watch every game in the IPL. Or sometimes watch an entire day of Test cricket. But my engagement remains firm. At a stadium or in front of a TV screen, I am drawn to what this game can produce. If the players appear in pristine whites or in gaudy clothing is of little consequence. 45 minutes of savage boundary hitting or session after session of stolid defiance, both merit my attention. If that makes less of a "devotee", so be it!