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Why every IPL player owes Zimbabwe a debt of gratitude!
by Peter Della Penna
May 12, 2009
Why every IPL player owes Zimbabwe a debt of gratitude: Zimbabwe's victory over Australia in the inaugural World Twenty20 was the tipping point in a cricket revolution.

By Peter J. Della Penna

Halfway through the second season of the IPL, cricketers from around the world are making merry while scoring runs, taking wickets and increasing the size of their bank accounts on the pitches of South Africa. Most of the players established their reputations in the test and one-day international formats which paved their way into the IPL.

But players such as Yusuf Pathan, David Warner, Shadab Jakati and Dirk Nannes have seemingly come out of nowhere to carve out a handy niche for themselves in the shortest version of the game. The opportunity to become stars on the field and reap tremendous financial rewards as part of the IPL is something they never could have dreamed of two years ago.

And they have Zimbabwe to thank.

Hit and giggle cricket?

It's hard to believe it now, with the hundreds of millions in serious money generated in IPL revenue, but Twenty20 cricket was still regarded as somewhat of a joke right up until the World Twenty20 in South Africa that took place over two weeks in September 2007.

Even though big crowds flowed in to watch the spectacle on the county scene in England for its first two seasons, the first Twenty20 international on February 17, 2005 was approached by Australia and New Zealand as nothing more than a hit and giggle match, with extra emphasis on the giggle. The match is probably more memorable for the throwback uniforms and Hamish Marshall’s garish afro than for the cricket itself. Glenn McGrath got into the spirit of the night by pretending to reenact Trevor Chappell's underarm delivery before bowling the final ball of the match. Making light of a moment that had once created a significant chasm between the two countries was a litmus test of the jovial mood in Auckland and really set the tone for the approach taken to Twenty20 internationals over the next two years.

A few months later, England commenced a famous Ashes summer as they thumped Australia by 100 runs in the second ever Twenty20 international fixture. Even the Kolkata Knight Riders would not be so bad as to lose seven wickets for eight runs in 20 balls. England came out with serious intent, but the loss couldn't sting Australia if they didn't really take it seriously.

At the start of 2006, the Aussies hosted South Africa and Channel Nine in Australia sought to have some fun by wiring up a player from each team. When Graeme Smith dropped a skied chance in the outfield, he didn't mind taking some good-natured ribbing from the commentary box live on the air.

Outside of Australia, Twenty20 showed some signs that it might become serious midway through 2006, when Allen Stanford started up his inter-island Twenty20 competition in the Caribbean. Before the event had even started, Stanford had signed a deal in May with South Africa to stage a $5 million dollar Twenty20 match in November. The match was eventually canceled though because the date conflicted with West Indies' scheduled tour of Pakistan.

While Stanford was taking a professional business approach to Twenty20, back in Australia, administrators seemed intent on putting egg on the face of Twenty20 cricket. In June of 2006, New South Wales announced that rugby league legend Andrew Johns would suit up for them in two matches the following season. The first match of the publicity stunt in January of 2007 cost NSW a chance at victory against South Australia. NSW needed 13 off the final over, but they started with five dot balls because Simon Katich refused to take singles to put Johns on strike.

Just two days later, the world's top cricketing nation demonstrated their nonchalant approach once more as Australia returned to the Sydney Cricket Ground to face England in a Twenty20 match. Only days after completing a very historic, and very serious, Ashes whitewash, the Aussies came onto the field wearing jerseys that featured nicknames on the back such as Church, Punter and Roy instead of Gilchrist, Ponting and Symonds. Australia dominated the one-off match, but the lax attitude was driven home by Adam Gilchrist as he signed off an over of mock commentary while wearing a microphone behind the stumps. "Australia right on top here. England in all sorts of trouble again this summer... 4 for 60," said Gilchrist on the field, as Mark Taylor and Michael Slater struggled to stifle their laughter in the Channel Nine commentary box.

World Twenty20

Despite cries of an overcrowded schedule, the ICC was set to at least make an effort to capitalize on the Twenty20 boom only a few months after the Cricket World Cup in the West Indies by establishing the World Twenty20 in South Africa. The country had seen a fantastic following rise up in the first few years of their domestic Twenty20 season, known as Pro20 in the Rainbow Nation. But World Twenty20 tournament director Steve Elworthy was not kidding when he had to make a statement to Cricinfo less than two months before the event declaring that the on-field officials would be asked to refrain from any Billy Bowden-esque flamboyance when signaling runs or wickets. "We obviously like everything to be high-tempo, but we would not want any umpire to feel out of their comfort zone. Locally, we have left it up to the umpire, but the Twenty20 World Championship has very much an international flavour and the ICC will tell umpires to officiate in their normal, stock-standard way," said Elworthy.

The ticket prices also reflected the relaxed approach to the event. The cheapest ticket in the tournament was priced at 20 rand (approximately $3) while tickets for the final could be found for as little as 100 rand ($15).

Just a month out from the World Twenty20, Andrew Symonds, the same one who wound up fetching the biggest contract for a foreign player at the first IPL auction, gave some more insight into the mindset of the Australian squad during an interview to AAP. Despite selecting the most formidable squad of international talent for the event, Australia didn't really appear to be too concerned with the outcome. "It's a fun game for me, but it looks like it’s heading down the serious route unfortunately," said Symonds. "Playing the games in the past, the captain doesn't mind if you interact with the kids in the crowd and muck around a bit, but now I don't know if that's going to be the case."

Even though India is at the forefront of all things Twenty20 today, they were actually the last team among the 10 ICC full member nations to play a Twenty20 international, and it was their only one before the start of the World Twenty20. India was also the last major nation to establish a domestic Twenty20 competition, with the first season in India taking place just months before the World Twenty20. They seemed to buy into the Twenty20 concept even less than Australia heading into the tournament. Most importantly, the holy trinity of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly all removed themselves from consideration for selection. It was left to Mahendra Singh Dhoni to lead a largely unproven side in South Africa.

The tipping point

A perfect storm converged in Cape Town and the tipping point for Twenty20 being viewed as a legitimate competition happened on September 12, 2007, the second day of the World Twenty20. Lowly Zimbabwe came into the first group match as 50-1 underdogs to beat Australia, who were coming off their third consecutive World Cup triumph. Crucially though, Australia left out specialist spinner Brad Hogg in a format that has proven how valuable spinners are. Instead they were suckered by the wet conditions at Newlands into picking an extra seamer.

After a disastrous start to the batting, Brad Hodge rebuilt the innings to post what should have been an easily defendable 138 in any format against Zimbabwe. But Vusi Sibanda and Brendan Taylor's performance against the pace of Brett Lee at the top was in stark contrast to the early dismissals of Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden. It did not help that the rain throughout the Zimbabwe innings forced a Duckworth-Lewis panic into the minds of Australia. In the end, Zimbabwe needed 12 off the final over and achieved it with a ball to spare.

The humiliation was there for the whole world to see. This time, a Twenty20 loss was a painful sting for Australia. Symonds' worst fears had been realized. Twenty20 was going down the serious route and unfortunately Australia was the last country to get on board and buckle up for the ride. In the post-match comments, Ricky Ponting finally gave legitimacy to the event. "We've got to start respecting the game a bit more," said Ponting. He had officially declared that Australia would bring the same intensity to Twenty20 cricket that they did for test and one-day cricket. It was a crucial reaction. He had the option to project more arrogance as had been the case in the past when a Twenty20 loss had resulted, that it didn't mean anything compared to test and one-day cricket. He could have said that it didn't matter because they didn't care. But it was clear now that Ponting did care. Australia wanted to add the Twenty20 game to their ODI and test dominance of the past decade. From here on out, every result mattered.

Fast forward ten days. Australia proved they were serious by reaching the semi-finals and were set to face off against India. Yuvraj Singh entered the match three days after blitzing Stuart Broad for an over of sixes to complete a 12-ball half century. He continued his assault on Australia, scoring 70 off 30 balls to set-up victory by 15 runs. When he completed a catch in the outfield to dismiss Michael Hussey with three balls to go to clinch the match, one only had to look at the emotional reaction of Yuvraj to appreciate the significance of knocking off the world's best team. He ran around the outfield for a good 20 meters before letting out a primal scream as pandemonium spread through the pro-India crowd in Durban. India, the sleeping giant of world cricket since 1983, had been stirred wide awake.

IPL establishes stranglehold

The stage was set for a dream final. Whereas India and Pakistan could not get out of the group stage in the Caribbean, they were about to face off for the chance to claim a world title in Johannesburg. Despite any claims made by Javed Miandad, the energy on the field and in the crowd validated that this was "real cricket." Shah Rukh Khan's presence in one of the stadium suites showed that in less than two weeks, this event accomplished what could not be done over the previous two years on the international stage. Twenty20 catapulted from $3 tickets into a VIP event.

The BCCI identified that they could seize the Twenty20 market. After taking a cue from Kapil Dev, the IPL was born and when the edict was issued barring ICL players from competition, the BCCI established their swift and ruthless stranglehold on the format.

India prevailed by 5 runs in the final and Dhoni transformed into a superstar. He did what Tendulkar, Ganguly and Dravid could not: make India world champions. Dhoni's status was confirmed in 2008 when he topped the list of contracts at the first IPL auction.

The trickle down effect has been immense. Ishant Sharma, who was not a member of the World Twenty20 champion squad and had only made his international debut less than a year before the existence of the IPL, raked in a cool $950,000 at the IPL auction, the highest for any bowler. And then there is the case of players like Nannes, a 32 year-old who has yet to play an international match, but has forced McGrath to the Delhi Daredevils bench. The next few years present an opportunity to reap a massive payday in the IPL for Nannes, one that previously only existed for McGrath and his test mates.

As the coffers are overflowing for just about everyone involved in the IPL in South Africa this April and May, their neighbor suffers from extreme poverty and hyperinflation. In Zimbabwean dollars, $950,000 works out to about two cents in US currency. Sharma would not be too happy if that was the true worth of his contract.

The irony will strike even more when the second World Twenty20 starts in England next month. The team that brought about a seismic change to the world of Twenty20 cricket in a single match at the first event was essentially forced to withdraw from the second one. It may seem absurd for Zimbabwe to receive money as an ICC full member nation despite playing hardly any cricket, but it is a small price to pay. Cricket owes them for challenging Australia to establish Twenty20 cricket as a serious version of the game.

 
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