When the 2012 ICC World Twenty20 gets underway on Tuesday in Sri Lanka, it will be a grand opportunity for the sport of cricket to gain greater exposure and recruit more fans in America than ever before. In the past, cricket’s World Cup tournaments have been hidden away on satellite subscription services.
There may be some people out there wondering not just what is cricket but what is the ICC World Twenty20? Isn’t a cricket match supposed to go on for days? Yes and no. Twenty20 cricket is a relatively new format of the game, which has opened up the sport in unprecedented fashion, making it more appealing to sponsors, television networks and hopefully to casual sports fans in the U.S., who might not have had time for a game going on for several days but just might take to the sport if a match wraps up in a tidy three-and-a-half hours. The level of interest the sport has gained is remarkable considering that the first major global Twenty20 tournament did not take place until 2007.
Five years ago, when the inaugural edition of the ICC World Twenty20 kicked off in South Africa, it was not meant to be a great money-spinner but more of a festival event. Ticket prices were dirt cheap and some countries like India sent what can be politely described as an understrength or developmental squad to participate. Compared to the five-day Test format, Twenty20 was not seen as a high priority. It was a relaxed form of cricket, or an inferior one depending on who was pontificating.
When Twenty20 was first introduced to cricket at the professional level during the early to mid-2000s, players were open to wearing a microphone and earpiece on the field of play to communicate live on air with television play-by-play commentators. On the back of their jerseys, some stars opted for goofy nicknames like “Bear,” “Pup” or “Church” rather than their actual surnames. The very first Twenty20 international match in 2005 between New Zealand and Australia saw players take the field in retro 1980s uniforms, wild Afros and Bjorn Borg headbands.
Despite the kitschy atmosphere on the field, the large and often vibrant crowds at these Twenty20 affairs could not be ignored. So just four months after an all-round debacle at the 2007 ICC World Cup in the Caribbean -- the mysterious death of Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer, overpriced tickets resulting in empty stands and an umpiring calamity in the final all served to dampen the mood at the sport’s premier 50-over tournament -- the 2007 ICC World Twenty20 ignited a revolution in cricket that has spurred rapid growth for the sport.
A major reason things unfolded in such a fashion was simply a matter of fate. The tournament final was contested between India and Pakistan, longtime rivals on and off the cricket field. If the atmosphere was not very serious at the start of the event -- evidenced by that year’s 50-over ICC World Cup champion Australia putting in a lackluster effort in a loss to perennial bottom-feeders Zimbabwe on the second day -- it couldn’t have been more serious by the end. Australia had cleaned up their act enough to make the semifinal, but it was toppled by India. When Pakistan clinched the other spot in the final with a win over New Zealand, there was no doubt that India and Pakistan would go all out for a win at a sold-out New Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg.
India’s dramatic five-run win spawned two professional Twenty20 leagues in India. The Indian Premier League wound up devouring the Indian Cricket League and the success of the IPL has spurred other countries to develop their own franchise leagues centered on the Twenty20 product. Even the U.S. is trying to get in on the act, with a six-team professional Twenty20 cricket league proposed to get underway in America next June. Cricket has become a hot commodity in the eyes of sponsors and television networks. Meanwhile star players are making money that couldn’t have been dreamed of before Twenty20 took off.
Five years ago, Mahendra Singh Dhoni was asked to captain the Indian team at the inaugural ICC World Twenty20. This was only four months after India suffered a humiliating first-round exit at the ICC World Cup in the Caribbean. The 26-year-old wicketkeeper was still relatively new to the Indian team, having made his international debut less than three years earlier. He looked like a rock star with his long, flowing hair.
After leading India to the ICC World Twenty20 title in 2007, Dhoni didn’t just look like a rock star, he was a rock star. In 2011, he led India to victory again in the ICC World Cup, the major championship in cricket’s 50-over format. He’s also led his Indian Premier League team, the Chennai Super Kings, to two IPL championships and a Champions League Twenty20 title. In June, he became the first cricketer to break into the top 50 on Forbes Magazine’s annual list of the world’s highest-paid athletes, landing at No. 31 with $26.5 million in total earnings through salary and endorsements.
It may not be long before fans in the U.S. begin recognizing cricketers in the same way that they do other international athletes like David Beckham, Roger Federer, Michael Schumacher and Usain Bolt. In fact, India’s Yuvraj Singh was featured alongside Bolt and other international stars in a Puma commercial during the lead-up to the London Olympics.
So buckle up and get ready to experience a high-octane, action-packed version of cricket over the 20 days. Be prepared for the likes of Chris Gayle, David Warner, Lasith Malinga and Dale Steyn to captivate you with their explosive batting, 90 mph bowling and superbly athletic fielding. This isn’t your grandpa’s cricket. No tea breaks allowed.