The Problem for International T20 Cricket is the Sobering of the Spectacular

A sporting achievement is only commemorated when it can be shown to be discontinuous from the mundane. T20 cricket is yet to make that graduation.

V.V.S. Laxman's 281 against Australia in the second match of the 2001 Border-Gavaskar Series has been rated as the greatest test knock in the last 50 years. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

V.V.S. Laxman’s (left) 281 against Australia in the second match of the 2001 Border-Gavaskar Series has been rated as the greatest test knock in the last 50 years. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“I was there” – a phrase that imbues our experience of sport with meaning. The sheer thrill of being part of a historic sporting event in real time, at the venue or otherwise, comes to define our recollections of sport so often. The day Rafael Nadal defeated Roger Federer at Wimbledon for the first time. The day M.S. Dhoni hit a six to win the World Cup for India in Mumbai. The day South Africa chased 435 down against Australia in an ODI…

These events are relatively recent and yet, when they happened, you could sense that you were witnessing something that will remain relevant even in the distant future. It could even be said that, for some, therein lies the attraction of sport.

On March 14, 2001, I wasn’t there. V.V.S. Laxman and Rahul Dravid batted all day to turn the Test match around in Kolkata versus Australia. India had been asked to follow on but that humongous partnership allowed the team to recover and eventually post a thrilling win. Australia’s 16-match winning streak was snapped. With the win, India began its path to becoming world-beaters. There were hiccups on the way but that victory was a harbinger of a more confident and successful side.

However, I didn’t watch a single ball of the day’s play. Of course, I couldn’t have known how significant it would become in the years to come. But my aloofness deserves no pardon. The day is hazy in the memory but from what I can remember, I returned from school and only switched the TV on after play had finished. The sheer scale of Laxman and Dravid’s achievement didn’t strike me until India won the following day.

The ‘so what’-ness of sport

Yet, written and oral recollections have almost lulled me into believing that I was witness to that bit of history. The highlights from the day’s play of course gave me a base to exploit. On that base I have come to actively construct and reconstruct what went on that day. Now, this is not a process unique to any individual. All of us exercise memory in this manner. Even collective memory is subject to these forces.

The way we undertake this exercise with respect to Test-match cricket reflects the gifts of the format. Due to its episodic nature, the reconstruction of memory needs to encompass vividness and detail. ‘Laxman and Dravid batted all day to turn the Test match around…’ doesn’t even begin to do justice to what went on that day. I’ve been alive to this need in discussions of the Test. There’s a Dravid forward-defence to admire, a Laxman on-drive to be hagiographed; the incidents may or may not have occurred, but the likelihood of their occurrence adds pleasant hues to the developing canvas.

The ‘so what’-ness of sport can only be fulfilled by a radiant recollection. A sporting achievement is only commemorated when it can be shown to be discontinuous from the mundane. The spectacular accomplishment of Laxman and Dravid stands out by itself and satisfies the one who asks ‘so what’. But it also gives rise to a desire to know more about the moment that birthed the unexpected.

Thankfully for those of us attempting to convey the significance of March 14, 2001, Test cricket provides enough in a day to satisfy the production and reproduction of collective memory. As we engage in the effort, we realise that the length of time that it’s played over is conducive to a detailed account. The numbers stand out as monuments; the descriptions are plaques below them. Laxman’s 281: there’s a story to be told about how he got there; but also the importance of him displacing Sunil Gavaskar’s 236, the highest individual score by an Indian Test batsman until then. There’s a story about his partnership with Dravid to be recounted – as well as one of his personal battles with Australia in Test cricket.

Now, I recognise those are themes that stand out instantly. But the duels that occurred that day add anecdotal strength to the account. Incidents that live on the fringes of memory, waiting to be recalled. Themes and anecdotes from Test cricket have a special staying power, deriving their strength from the nature of the format. Tests are spread over days, allowing the nurturing of storylines and settlement of narratives.

What it means to win at T20

On March 19, 2016, I was there. Although distanced from the venue of play, I watched the entire Twenty20 match between India and Pakistan that the former won in Kolkata (yes, again). Unlike some matches, I managed to watch this one with the utmost concentration. India’s fate in a World Cup that it’s hosting hung in the balance after a bad loss to New Zealand in the opening game. Forget the India-Pakistan rivalry; this was a crucial match anyway.

Then again, it’s likely that I won’t remember much of it a month from now. Now, this could be an indictment of my flaky memory – but I would argue that this has something to do with the way the T20 format functions.

This isn’t an attempt to excoriate the shortest format of cricket. While not entirely appreciative of what T20 cricket stands for, I can see that it brings something new and challenging to the sport. But the way we remember T20 cricket should differ from the way we recall Tests. This is important for keeping the historical relevance of T20s alive.

Next year, it will be a decade since India won the first World T20. It will be an occasion to remember those days in September when the national team erased some of the scars that had been left by an early exit from the 50-over World Cup earlier that the same year. But the way T20 cricket is organised internationally limits its significance.

The current World T20 is its sixth iteration in nine years. While the tournament will turn to a four-year cycle after this tournament, the way teams approach international T20s demonstrates a lack of seriousness on their part. Often, we see weakened sides being fielded as established players opt to take a rest from the punishing routine of international cricket. With a lack of relevance haunting bilateral contests in this format, it’s difficult to ascertain the significance of winning the World T20. It often seems that teams are groping in the dark, still trying to learn the best way to play it. This unpolished endeavour brings the ‘so what’ question into play. Sure, winning the World T20 was a major achievement in 2007, but what does it mean now that we know what we know?

It’s not on par with the Kolkata Test because it is in line with the mundane – a squad that found a successful approach almost by chance. You could say the same about the sides that have won the tournament after India. Of course, you could also say that this happens at major tournaments across all sports. It does but at some point an Australia comes along and wins three titles in a row.

Producing defining moments

The chance success is exciting but its repeated occurrence brings a withdrawal of suspense. The problem for international T20 cricket is the sobering of the spectacular. Sixes have come to define the format. One can debate the usefulness of the generalisation but its presence can hardly be doubted. And when sixes become ordinary, you need songs from the DJ to keep the crowd excited.

So, how can T20 cricket be kept alive in the collective memory? It has been achieved to an extent by the numeric and anecdotal. The records broken after the advent of the format will continue to stand as monuments. But again, the record-breaking has lost its once-in-a-blue-moon characteristic. The anecdotal however will continue to fill the well due to its permanence. It remains immune to any format.

The ephemeral characteristic of T20 cricket, however, can be countered by the ephemeral. Test cricket may present it occasionally but it’s the shortest format that provides the fertile ground for the defining moment. Virat Kohli’s match-winning knock on Saturday is a case in point. Despite the reign of chaos in the beginning of India’s innings, Kohli kept a calm head to steer his team home. The moment that captured his brilliance is worth remembering; although it is likely to wither away from memory in a few months’ time.

On the last ball of the 14th over, Kohli timed the ball so well that a slight push was enough to guide it to the boundary through cover. It’s not his signature shot – unlike Rahul Dravid’s forward-defence, so you may struggle to recall it in the distant future. But it was the defining shot of his controlled knock. It had the elegance and maturity of a player who took the responsibility of winning the match for India.

Photographers almost always look for the defining picture of a match: a photo that captures the essence of the contest. Now, a picture of that shot probably wouldn’t convey what it meant for the match. But it would give a hint of its significance. The memory of this match can be reconstructed through that glimpse of excellence.

In that defining moment, Kohli wrestled control of the match. Pakistan’s last hope was Mohammad Amir. But after denying the bowler the wicket he so badly wanted all over, Kohli produced the brilliant shot on the last delivery and landed a crushing blow to the opponent’s chances. It was a shot that will be ephemeral yet eternal. It’s unlikely to define Kohli in the future but it will continue to define the match. In moments when you fail to recall what happened yesterday in Kolkata, the shot will bring your memory to life.

Priyansh is a Chevening Scholar studying the sociology of sport at Loughborough University, United Kingdom.

  • Shivakumar Kasnoor

    So true.. There are few moments which shocks us & that gets remembered for a longer time…for instance 2003 world cup final -sachin’s wicket of 1st over… Sehwag’s run out in the same match… South Africa – Aus 1999 world cup semi final match…. There are so many.. Recent match will be forgotten because it is being trend of India defeating Pak in world cup! Had it been Pak won the match- then it would have stayed in memory for quite a long time…