The T20 question for West Indies cricket

What does the popularity of Twenty-20 tournaments mean for West Indies cricket?

Tridents player Rayad Emrit celebrates during the 2014 final match. Photography courtesy CPL/Getty ImagesBarbados Tridents captain Keiron Pollard hoists the 2014 CPL trophy. Photography courtesy CPL/Getty Images

As the Caribbean hosts the third edition of a cricket tournament marketed as “the biggest party in sport,” some followers of the venerable game continue to ponder the future of the West Indies team, and debate the merits of Test cricket — the yardstick by which success has traditionally been measured — versus Twenty-20, the crash-bang-wallop upstart that has been packing in fans around the world since it burst on the scene a mere twelve years ago.

It’s an intriguing debate, coming as it does in an era in which the once-mighty West Indies Test team has sunk to new depths on and off the field, while at the same time Caribbean players have been among the most successful in the shortest version of the game.

That Twenty-20’s here to stay is no longer an issue. Its format alone virtually guarantees its success, with each side limited to a maximum of twenty six-ball overs, and the average game lasting about three hours — with big hitting, spectacular fielding, and wickets tumbling virtually guaranteed. An international Test match, by comparison, can drag on for five full days of play, and long spells of relatively sedate action are the norm, along with lengthy breaks for players to eat lunch and tea.

With this background scenario, the big question that has surfaced in recent years is whether Test cricket will prosper (or even survive) alongside its streamlined, sexy younger cousin, as personified by the hugely successful Caribbean Premier League, which opened on 20 June at Barbados’s Kensington Oval and winds up thirty-three matches later, on July 26, with the final at Trinidad’s Queen’s Park Oval  — two of the West Indies’ most revered Test venues.

I asked David Rudder — the legendary Trinidadian calypsonian and lifelong cricket fan, whose song “Rally Round the West Indies” is played before Windies’ games — for his take on the topic. And he’s optimistic that there’s room for both the shortest and longest forms of the game. “Twenty-20 will be with us for a long time,” says Rudder. “We live in an instant world — instant gratification, instant wealth — and Twenty-20 feeds that. Twenty-20 is twittersportism. We now live in a world where history is something you can Google, not that slow accumulated flow of knowledge and understanding that is Test cricket, for example. These times that we now live in reject that idea.

“I believe, though,” Rudder continues, “that there are still lots of young people out there who want to have that deeper understanding of ‘real’ cricket, the one that ‘tests’ every aspect of the human condition, encapsulated in a lifetime of five days. Ebb, flow, ebb, flow. Perhaps two separate teams for each discipline is the answer. I believe that we ‘could be a contender,’ like Jake La Motta, again in the Test arena, but we’ve got to start sooner rather than later.”

Cricket executive Pete Russell, chief operating officer of the Caribbean Premier League, who might be expected to be one hundred per cent in favour of Twenty-20, also speaks positively about Test cricket. “I am still a big fan of Test cricket,” he says, “and I do think T20 cricket has improved cricket skills. Modern Test matches are played at a good pace, with run rates often reaching three to four runs per over — which was unheard of a couple of years ago.”

Not every cricket expert agrees. Michael Holding, for instance, one of the great West Indies fast bowlers of yesteryear, and now one of cricket’s most respected commentators, has spoken about his fears that Twenty-20 is putting the future of Test cricket in serious jeopardy. But if the number of fans who turn out for the matches is anything to go by, the Caribbean Premier League is on its way to being the major event on the region’s cricket calendar.

And the CPL, meanwhile, is even eyeing an expansion, as its six teams — the Barbados Tridents, Guyana Amazon Warriors, Trinidad and Tobago Red Steel, St Lucia Zouks, Jamaica Tallawahs, and 2015 newcomers St Kitts and Nevis Patriots — bring Caribbean style “glam” cricket, complete with big-name international stars and gyrating cheerleaders, to ever-bigger global television audiences. Maybe even in a certain country to the north, better known for a different sport involving bats and balls.

Says Pete Russell: “There is a huge Caribbean diaspora living in the United States — it just makes sense for us to be playing games there, if that is at all possible. Each team would have a natural fan base there.”

Will Twenty-20 be the version of cricket that finally cracks into the US market? If so, you can bet Caribbean players will be part of the advance guard.