Twenty20 cricket was introduced in England nearly two decades ago to arrest the alarming trend of dwindling audiences for the first-class and 50-over formats domestically. It aimed to attract new and previously uninterested demographics to the sport by presenting it in a crisp, short, and attractive package
Once the three-hour format caught the imagination of the fans, it was only a matter of time before the rest of the cricketing world followed suit. This led to the spawning of franchise-based leagues that today threaten the core fabric of the sport, the five-day game. And yes, it initially was a three-hour affair — 80 minutes’ playing time for each innings, with a 20-minute break in between.
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Nine games into Season 16 of the Indian Premier League (IPL), the clock has been thrown out of the window, so to speak. Hardly any match has ended within the stipulated time, which is now three hours and 20 minutes. Most of them have dragged on to a fifth hour; that, simply, is not done.
30-minute cushion serves no purpose
One of the reasons the IPL finally shed its 8 pm starting time and settled for a 7.30 pm slot was the fact that matches often spilled over past midnight and into the following day, causing immeasurable problems for spectators at the venue and those watching on television — parents and kids alike.
Caught up in the adrenaline rush of the thrill-a-minute soap opera and, therefore, unable to call it a night early enough to wake up fresh and eager the next morning, the primary stakeholders privately harboured misgivings of being short-changed. A 30-minute cushion was welcomed with open arms, but the advanced starting time seems to be serving no purpose, what with four-hour finishes becoming the norm rather than the exception.
Each innings in a 20-over game now is officially of 85 minutes’ duration. In the IPL, there are two strategic timeouts in each innings, which means the 20 overs in an IPL innings must be bowled in 90 minutes. That’s certainly doable; indeed, if anything, it must be made non-negotiable.
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Instead, teams are getting away with taking a third of that time more, in spite of the fact that sanctions exist, ranging from penalties on the field — an additional fielder inside the circle for each of the overs that extends beyond the stipulated time — to fines and potential suspensions for captains off it.
Yet, the Playing Control Team (PTC), as the group consisting of the match referee and the four umpires is known, is often lenient and chooses to look the other way, justifying and even encouraging these inordinate delays through ‘allowances’ for reviews, injuries, glove changes, the dew, movement in front and on top of sightscreens, unscheduled water breaks — you get the gist.
Apathy towards the fans
All of this makes for an unedifying spectacle. It points to an unspoken general apathy towards the fan, who has paid good money because he has been guaranteed fast-paced action but instead is forced to settle for extended spells of no play for one reason or the other. As it is, the spectator that is brave enough to make it to a match venue is severely disadvantaged.
Most grounds don’t have adequate protection against the blazing sun — weekend double-headers start at 3.30 pm — and the seats and washrooms test resolve and patience while looming as health hazards. Food and drink is exorbitantly priced and the restrictions on what one can bring to the ground overbearing. One must be a glutton for punishment to return to a ground for a repeat experience, especially for a white-ball international or the IPL.
Yet, they come in their thousands, night after night for nearly eight weeks of the IPL, desperate to catch the eye of their heroes, hoping somehow to catch themselves on the big screen at the ground, believing that 15 seconds of fleeting ‘fame’ can more than make up for six hours of torture. Surely, they deserve better? Surely, they deserve to be treated with respect, because without them, the sport would really be nowhere.
I remember a brief chat with Rahul Dravid during the T20 World Cup in Australia last year, when the organisers announced that for the India-Zimbabwe game at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, a limited number of ‘standing only’ tickets were being released owing to the huge demand to be at the ground. Pleasantly surprised that a stadium that can hold upwards of 90,000 would be packed to the rafters for a game against lesser lights (our words, not his) Zimbabwe, the Indian head coach said, “Cricket is alive and thriving largely because of the Indian fans.” You couldn’t argue with him then, you can’t argue with him now.
Taking the game forward
The fans aren’t complaining, yet, about these severely delayed finishes, but it’s not as if they are getting more bang for their bucks. And it’s one of the novelties brought in this season to ensure that human error doesn’t prove decisive in a close contest that is contributing significantly to the dawdling on the park.
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In the past, contentious no-ball and wide calls have inexorably tilted the balance in more than the odd IPL game. To eliminate this frustrating possibility, the IPL has empowered players to review these decisions too within the ambit of the DRS, and when they believe an error has occurred, players have used this option, which they are within their right to do.
The TV umpire has taken two minutes, occasionally even more, to adjudicate on the ‘challenge’, testament both to an unwritten codicil that places emphasis on proving the on-field umpire right, and to a certain lack of confidence in one’s own decision-making.
Brought in for the right reasons, it will be a shame if this is scrapped going forward simply because of the tardiness of the individual whose responsibility it is to rely on technology to arrive at the fairest decision.
It is equally incumbent upon the players — who saunter between overs, take their time taking guard, summon gloves and refreshment whenever the mood seizes them — and the umpires, who don’t think twice about turning to their TV counterpart for help even when a batsman is well short of his ground, to keep taking the game forward. Four hours and 15 minutes for 40 overs? Two and a half games of football don’t last that long, even with stoppage time.