The T20 cricket revolution

As the Caribbean Premier League opens for its third year, the West Indies are world champions of Twenty20 cricket. It’s a form of the venerable game that seems especially suited to today’s West Indies players and fans, writes Garry Steckles — and maybe it’s the start of a true regional cricket revival

2015 CPL champions Trinidad and Tobago Red Steel. Photo courtesy www.cplt20.com

When Twenty20 cricket made its competitive debut a mere thirteen years ago, there wasn’t the slightest indication that this abbreviated, crash-bang-wallop upstart would revolutionise the venerable and all-too-often staid game — or that it would lead to a sporting renaissance in the English-speaking nations of the Caribbean.

Back then, the region’s Test and One Day International teams were in the first few years of a decline that continues to this day, interest in the domestic game was flagging, and fans — who were used to the West Indies being the best team in the world — were becoming fed up as loss followed loss.

The first official T20 matches were played in June 2003, and it’s turned out to be a form of cricket that could have been created specially for the swashbuckling players and party-loving fans of the Caribbean. And with the brash youngster barely in its teens, the West Indies are once again on top of the cricket world, winning both the men’s and women’s T20 World Cup titles in India recently — the men’s for the second time, something no other team has achieved. As a bonus, the West Indies’ under-19 team also won the World Cup in the one-day format earlier this year.

With our players dominating the T20 version of the game, and with T20 now far and away its most popular format, the Caribbean is also poised to play a huge role in taking big-league cricket to a lucrative and hitherto impenetrable market: the United States.

This summer, first-class competitive league cricket is making its long-awaited debut in the US, with six HERO Caribbean Premier League fixtures in Fort Lauderdale showcasing many of the players who had hundreds of millions of fans glued to their television screens for much of the recent World T20 championships in India. And just as the T20 game could have been invented for Caribbean players, it could also have been created to appeal to the legions of American sports fans who have traditionally regarded cricket as tedious and boring.

This version of the game is anything but. Big hitting, spectacular fielding, tight finishes, and a user-friendly playing time of about three hours are just a few of the attractions, and, in the case of the CPL, so is a soca-and-reggae-driven good-time vibe. The six-franchise league, featuring teams from Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, St Lucia, Jamaica, and St Kitts and Nevis, bills itself as “The Biggest Party in Sport” and it has lived up to that boast in each of its three highly successful seasons leading up to 2016.

Star-studded team rosters for this year’s CPL fixtures in Fort Lauderdale include current West Indies stars Chris Gayle, Kieron Pollard, Samuel Badree, Darren Sammy, Dwayne Bravo, Lendl Simmons, and Sunil Narine; Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara and Thisara Perera; South Africa’s A.B. de Villiers, Dale Steyn, Faf du Plessis, Morne Morkel, and Hashim Amla; New Zealand’s Brendon McCullum and Martin Guptill; Australia’s Shane Watson and Michael Hussey; and Pakistan’s Shoaib Malik.

One name that’s been synonymous with Caribbean cricket over the years is that of Trinidadian calypsonian David Rudder, whose song “Rally Round the West Indies” was adopted as the team’s anthem more than a decade back, and is played before all their games. He sees T20 as a timely innovation that can have a far-reaching positive impact on the region’s cricket.

Says Rudder: “In this high-speed world we live in, T20 seems a natural fit. And now that we have momentum, I’m hoping to see more people coming out to support the game in the Caribbean, now that we have a home-grown league.

“Oddly enough, I think that the big winner in all this will be Test cricket. We have the young ones interested — seize the time and spread the game.”

The Twenty20 format, for the record, is the brainchild of Stuart Robertson, who was marketing manager of the English Cricket Board (ECB), and came up with the idea after a survey of why England’s domestic game was shedding fans by the truckload. Many of the responses suggested that the traditional versions of the game were boring and took too much time.

The first official T20 competition — the Twenty20 Cup — was given the go-ahead by the ECB in April of 2002, and the first five matches, among county teams, took place in June the following year. The fans turned out in force, most of them loved what they saw, Surrey won the inaugural tournament — and the rest, as they say, is history, with just about every cricketing nation of any consequence now hosting a major T20 league.

Twenty20 could hardly be more different from Test matches, long the yardstick of cricket accomplishment. With each side limited to bowling a maximum of twenty six-ball overs, there’s simply no time for long spells of defensive play by either batsmen or bowlers. A Test match, by contrast, can last as long as five full days, with each day bringing six hours of play along with leisurely breaks for lunch and tea, and brief refreshment interludes.

The first significant T20 competition in the Caribbean was the Stanford 2020 tournament in 2006, financed by the flamboyant American billionaire Allen Stanford, whose Antigua-based business interests were then flourishing in the Caribbean. Subsequent big-money Stanford-backed tournaments were also successful, but they quickly fizzled out after the financier was arrested in the US in 2009, convicted of running a massive Ponzi scheme, and sentenced to 110 years in prison.

Caribbean players, though, continued to thrive in T20 cricket leagues around the world, including the Indian Premier League, the biggest and most lucrative tournament, as well as Australia’s Big Bash — and now the homegrown CPL.

The action begins on 21 June at Kensington Oval in Barbados, with the final scheduled for 26 July at Providence Stadium in Guyana. For more information on the match schedule, teams, players, and more, visit www.cplt20.com.