Many fans and former players of the game have been getting uneasy over the past two years with the advent of the IPL and the Twenty20 boom because they feel it is taking attention away from Test cricket. Big attendances and even bigger contracts indicate that Twenty20 is a major vehicle that will drive the future of the game.
Test cricket faced an assault many decades ago with the arrival of ODI cricket and Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket revolution, but it survived and arguably came out stronger at the end of it. Now, people want to know if Test cricket is primed to survive in the face of an onslaught from Twenty20 cricket. The answer lies in one of the most treasured parts of any sport, but especially cricket: statistics.
Unlike most athletes in team sports, cricketers are not shy talking about their individual performances ahead of the team. Often times in a post-match interview, a player from the losing side who has scored a century will speak unabashedly about how it was one of his best while a replay shows him swinging his bat and ripping off his helmet to reveal an ear-to-ear grin upon reaching the landmark. Cricketers can be an awfully selfish lot, i.e. Geoffrey Boycott, and in Twenty20 cricket the chances for individual glory are limited.
Centuries are perhaps cricket's most revered statistic, and the statistic in which singular greatness shines brightest. A Test batsman will play proper shots, working over three or four hours to raise a ton. However, sometimes when a batsman crosses that century plateau, the coaching manual is thrown away and so is the rest of that individual player's innings. The batsman's concentration eases off because anything over 100 is a bonus. Reaching three figures is all that matters.
In the IPL, centuries are an endangered species. AB de Villiers scored the only hundred of this year's IPL while batting at number three. Of the top 20 individual innings in the IPL so far in 2009, 19 of them were scored by players batting in the top three, including 12 by opening batsmen.
It is very easy to see why Chris Gayle would make the comments that he did last week, because he is an opener and opening batsmen have the most opportunities to stand out and make a name for themselves in Twenty20 cricket. After all, Gayle and Andre Fletcher were the only two players to bat for the Stanford Superstars against England last November, even though all eleven players collected a million dollar paycheckâ€¦ not that the other nine were complaining about the new size of their wallets.
Likewise for the bowlers, a five-wicket haul is a special statistical mark to hang your hat on, or their way to get their name etched onto the honors board at Lord's. Surprise, surprise, Anil Kumble is the only player this year to have taken five wickets in an innings in the IPL. It'll be a long time before a bowler makes comments like Gayle's, indicating a burning desire to get smacked for 50 off four overs and jog back to fine leg all smiles.
Twenty20 statistics are fleeting, just like the matches themselves. Conversely, great performances in Tests seemingly live on forever. A hundred thousand people in Bangalore might remember some major details about Kumble's 5 for 5 for the Royal Challengers against the Rajasthan Royals this year. A hundred million people in India definitely remember every minor detail of Kumble's 10 for 74 against Pakistan in 1999.
There is also not a lot of room for variation in Twenty20 like there is in Test cricket. The IPL statistics that do exist are just as banal as the outcome of most matches. Almost every 30, 40 and 50 is smashed in half as many deliveries. However, in the same Test match that Virender Sehwag scored a blistering 319 off 304 balls last year in Chennai against South Africa, Rahul Dravid grinded out his runs, scoring 111 off 291 balls. Variations don't get much wilder than India's famous victory over Australia at Eden Gardens in 2001. The second innings fifth-wicket partnership by Dravid and VVS Laxman of 371 more than doubled the entire first innings team score of 171.
Along with the statistics, there is an immense amount of pride involved in cricketers. Ajantha Mendis is an emerging match-winner for Sri Lanka in all forms of the game, but especially in the Test arena. He won't have too many fond memories of the IPL though, if he canâ€™t get a regular game for the worst team in the league, the Kolkata Knight Riders, no matter how much money he is making. He definitely won't think there is anything super about a match ending in a tie either. Daniel Vettori is the captain of New Zealand, but he can't be chomping at the bit to get back to the Delhi Daredevils any time soon if he has to sit on the sidelines while Amit Mishra plays ahead of him.
While there are plenty of players wallowing on the bench, even the ones playing must be dying to show what they can do in the longest version of the game. Ishant Sharma is making $950,000 and the best single-game performance he has to show in 11 matches for cellar-dwelling KKR is a return of 2 for 15. He must be itching for the red cherry to bowl a dream spell like the one against Ricky Ponting at Perth in 2008, the one that announced him to the world and went a long way toward getting that hefty price tag. He doesn't want to be associated with a bunch of losers. He wants to win matches for his country. Graeme Smith has had a mixed bag opening for the Royals this year. He'd happily trade a high score of 77 and an average of 19.27 in the IPL for last summer's historic, Test series-clinching 154* in the fourth innings at Edgbaston against England, not to mention another 17 tons and an average of 50.33 in Tests for South Africa.
There are good things that can be drawn from Twenty20 cricket to enhance the Test game. Ravi Bopara said after his recent hundred at Lord's against the West Indies that he honestly felt the IPL was good preparation because it got him into a positive, attacking mindset. Bopara would have had a hard time keeping a straight face though if he tried to convince people that a quickfire 84 for Kings XI Punjab was more gratifying than a Test century at Lord's for England. As long as statistics and pride are involved, no Johnny-come-lately version of the game will be able to deliver a knockout blow to Test cricket.
(Peter Della Penna can be contacted through Twitter @DPMilGaya.)