/ 28 September 2007

Twenty20: No reason to be grumpy

Let’s not talk about Jacques Kallis, shall we? Controversies around non-selection are the most boring aspect of sporting discourse and rarely confront real problems. Besides, the batsman’s reputation is glowing thanks to his omission: by not being picked, he was saved from two-stepping Sreesanth, trying to glide a Yorker to third man, and being bowled for three.

Which really was as likely as him making 60 off 60 to see the lads home. We’ve been there before, remember? Oh, wait, you’re not supposed to. That’s what 20-overs cricket is about. Goldfish memories, blacksmith arms, ballistic arcs under the lights.

But even the most disappointed and jaded Protea fan cannot be grumpy for long. The ICC Twenty20 World Championship, which ended this week in Johannesburg, was by some distance the happiest and most watchable limited-overs spectacle in a decade.

Some of the credit must of course go to the local organisers, who managed to make it as human as the ICC had made the World Cup in the Caribbean awful. The BBC’s Jonathan Agnew remarked this week that he’d enjoyed not being ”strip-searched by men with rubber gloves”.

It was the on-field action, however, that sparkled.

India and Pakistan are teams transformed. Without their stars — the ponderous Inzamam-ul-Haq and the baggage-laden Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid — they played their most spirited and skilful cricket in years. For the first time in a very long time, one caught a glimpse of 22 young hotshots playing. You’ve got to be some kind of cricketer to rise to the top of half-a-billion aspirants and, finally, here they were.

At last Yuvraj Singh has found a stage on which to strut, large enough to fuel his feel for the big occasion but small enough to allow him to bully everyone else. Test cricket has proved too sophisticated for his brutal talents and the 50-overs game has never actually been about clean hitting, no matter what powerplays and fielding restrictions might promise.

He dazzled, his arrogant midwicket pick-ups beautifully offset by the touch and panache of his studious opposite number, Misbah-ul-Haq.

But it wasn’t all heave-ho nonsense. Umar Gul bowled like a man possessed by the spirits of Wasim and Waqar and his lines and lengths made angels sing. Daniel Vettori single-handedly kept the Black Caps in the hunt, curiously making ambivalent statements about the new format before captaining and bowling like someone who cared a great deal about Twenty20 cricket.

Then there was Andrew Symonds, with a moment of fielding genius that brilliantly illuminated why the Australians are a breed apart: a slightly fumbled gather at cover, a robotic turn to the keeper’s end and, finding it deserted, the most perfectly weighted and aimed throw to the other end, blowing away Robin Uthappa’s middle stump with the batsman a foot short of his crease.

But the finest flash of fielding excellence belonged to India and the exuberance that took them to the title.

Dinesh Karthik, launching himself back and to the left to grab a slash off Graeme Smith, taking the ball two-handed behind him. Indians haven’t slung themselves about in the field since the prime of Ajay Jadeja. Sourav Ganguly won’t get dirty, Dravid’s too tired to get dirty and Tendulkar dares not get dirty in case he twangs something on the way down. But this is a new team, a new India.

Where to for South Africa, other than Pakistan? It’s not all ghastly. Morne Morkel emerged from the tournament with a burnished reputation. He is fast, miserly and willing to have a word. And with Shaun Pollock now held together by a prayer and chewing gum and Makhaya Ntini drifting, he couldn’t have arrived soon enough.

As for what happened, that’s not really a difficult one. Almost every player who was asked how this game differed from the 50-over format had the same answer: you’ve got to think more quickly.

Even if the maths had been kind to the Proteas, they are simply not quick-witted enough to compete with the fastest minds and hands in the game. Put a bowling machine 22 yards away and South Africans will hit it as far — perhaps further — than anyone in the world. But put a brain and will behind that ball and, well …