Commentary

An unknowable but exciting future

Cricket traditionalists fear changes, but Twenty20 excitement cannot be denied

Updated: October 10, 2012, 11:49 AM ET
By Wright Thompson | ESPN.com

Twenty20 Cricket illustrationESPN.com Illustration

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- The West Indies team arrived at the hotel past midnight, to mayhem. Every cook in the Cinnamon Grand, still wearing their white toques, crowded around to watch. Fans pushed and shoved. Security guards held hands, bending but not breaking against the surge. An official led the team in, carrying the trophy won two hours before, the 2012 ICC Twenty20 World Cup. The crowd pressed closer, chest to back. The team paraded through the hotel, following its star, Chris Gayle, the most dangerous man in cricket to opposing bowlers and an establishment terrified of what money and fame are doing to its game. Behind him, the trail grew: teammates, then television cameramen, then reporters reaching with outstretched microphones, then fans, all holding up cell phones, which made the swarm glow with the light of a hundred screens.

That's when the reggae started.

It came from inside the center of the chaos, from the players, thumping and echoing over the tall open lobby. Obviously someone carried speakers, but with a little imagination, it was easy to pretend the music was the players' soundtrack, conjured to life by the force of their personalities. Then a heavy door shut, and the team was gone. The lobby was quiet again.


For the last week, I've been in Sri Lanka for the ICC Twenty20 World Cup. This trip completes a cricket trilogy for me. A year and a half ago, knowing nothing about the game, I went to India for the One Day International World Cup -- the real World Cup, as it's described over and over. A few months after that, hooked, I flew to London, to the posh and historic Lord's Cricket Ground, for a five-day Test match. That's when I understood cricket, about the hidden dramas and the subtlety of purpose that draws aficionados to the game. Everything about Test cricket, from the traditional whites to the break for high tea, suggests something ancient and meditative, a rebellion against a hyper-connected culture.

I'd never seen a Twenty20 match.

Twenty20 is the third and newest form of cricket, invented nine years ago specifically to capture the imagination of new, more modern fans -- and the television dollars that fund all sports. A five-day Test match, or even an eight-hour ODI, doesn't work in a medium in which an 11-minute feature is considered an eternity. A Twenty20 match, by comparison, is the same length as an American baseball game.

In Twenty20, cricket has a concept familiar to Americans: privately owned franchises. The Indian Premier League, the IPL, has nine teams spread around the country. The best players in the world bank millions for seven weeks of work every year. Other countries are starting leagues, which means that players can make a living in cricket without the powerful national boards.

If you immerse yourself in the world of cricket, you will be amazed at how many conversations around lunch and dinner tables end up returning to the future of Test matches, and the crass brutality of Twenty20, and how a game is giving up its soul to chase a profit. When cricket fans find out I'm an American -- which means that I carry no emotional attachment to Test cricket and come from a culture familiar with highly commercialized sports -- they ask, with an unmistakably leading tone, which form of the game I prefer.

I have always answered honestly: Test cricket.

For the first week in Sri Lanka, I didn't see what the fuss was all about. Twenty20 didn't seem revolutionary, or dramatically different from a One Day International. It seemed, to my amateurish eyes, a shorter version of the same game, not a completely new game altogether.

Then came Friday night.


The Australians are one of the best teams in the world, and for three hours on a sweaty Colombo night, during the second semifinal, the big guns of the West Indies hit them so often, so hard and so far that you could see the Aussies give up.

It was violent and personal.

The press box erupted not in gasps, or cheers, but in laughter after each massive 6. A team gets six runs for hitting it over the boundary, and 4 for reaching the boundary on the ground or on the bounce. Most balls barely clear the line -- traditionally a rope, now replaced by ads.

Gayle almost hit one in the upper deck. Then not much later, he did hit one in the upper deck. It measured 334 feet. Once, in London, he landed a ball in a school across the street from the stadium. He hits tape-measure shots. When he's particularly excited, he does the "Gangnam Style" dance.

On Friday night, most of the West Indies lineup hit long 6s. Gayle finished with a total of six. Each time a ball cleared the field, the fireworks popped off into the night, leaving low-hanging smoke. Dancing girls ran up on stages, and speakers played loud hip-hop. Strobe lights popped like paparazzi flashes and towers shot flames. In the final over alone, the West Indies hit four 6s out of six balls, teeing off on the beaten Australian bowler, crushing the last few with massive turns. One was actually a baseball swing, like Ken Griffey Jr. A ball ricocheted off of a luxury suite window.

"Barbarians," a cricket writer says after.

An editor from Wisden, the cricket Bible, says, "Chris Gayle is the coolest man in cricket."


The cricket batting stroke is a carefully preserved and rigidly taught art, with a set of commandments handed down from generation to generation in the MCC Coaching Manual. Lead with your foot toward the ball, then keep your foot, elbow, shoulder and head parallel. Swing down on the ball. Clean lines and control. This is how it's always been done. The philosophy behind the swing is to keep the ball flight low, which protects the batsman from being caught in the air, the easiest way to get out. The greats of the game used timing and a light willow bat to hit the ball through tiny spaces between fielders. Most bats weigh about 2 pounds, 8 ounces.

[+] EnlargeChris Gayle
Ajay Aggarwal/Hindustan Times/Getty ImagesChris Gayle's swing is at times more baseball than cricket.

Gayle uses an almost 3-pound bat, and when the ball is bowled, the first thing he does is blaspheme against the holy scriptures of cricket.

He plants his lead foot wide to the right, away from the ball, so he can turn and drive, giving him room to clear his hips. It is, at its essence, a baseball or a golf swing, constructed to generate power. Waiting down at his end of the pitch, he's still and coiled, menacing. Bowlers who've faced him say that they can feel him lining them up. Desperate captains pack the boundary with fielders, which actually tells Gayle where the ball is being aimed, really allowing him to step into his shot. The only hope is to get him out early, to confuse him with variations of speed, to try to catch him off-balance with spin. He starts a game slowly, getting a sense of the conditions and his opponents, and when he's ready, the head of his bat rises and it's on. That's the tell, and the fielders notice. Once he gets started, he's almost impossible to stop.

"You know he's lining you up," a bowler who's faced him told me, shaking his head. "If it's anywhere near his strike zone, you know it's gone."


The day before the final, I hung out in the lobby of the West Indies hotel, trying to set up a meeting with Gayle. Philip Spooner is the team's media manager, and he comes down and finds me in the tea bar. Last night, he looked at the team's trainer on the bus back from the stadium and asked "Can you believe this?" The trainer silently raised both arms above his head and balled each hand into a fist.

Spooner ties this team to the last great West Indian cricket side of the late '70s and early '80s, led by star Viv Richards, made famous in America by the documentary "Fire in Babylon." Richards and captain Clive Lloyd believed the showy Calypso cricket of the past needed to be replaced with power and aggression. Any team representing the West Indies should reflect the people who lived on the islands, not those who came down to lie in the sun. The rebirth of the team found its voice when England's star, the South African-born Tony Greig, said before a series in 1976, "I intend to make them grovel." That comment, which still follows Greig, focused the anger and determination of the Windies, who heard a lot of other things buried in the word "grovel." They became known for their fast bowlers, who launched bouncers screaming for the batsman's head. They played to win, and the cricket establishment responded in a spasm.

Thousands of pages of newsprint -- thinly veiled racism wrapped in the familiar clothing of traditional values -- decried what the Windies were doing to a gentleman's game. When Australia bowled at opponents, of course, it was hard-nosed cricket. When the Windies did it, they were destroying the game.

Richards, tall and intimidating, remains a hero in the islands. He stood up. Opponents bowled at his head. He refused to wear a helmet.

"He was Chris Gayle before there was Chris Gayle," Spooner says. "Viv was anti-establishment. Viv was the Bob Marley of cricket."

He smiles.

"As you know," he says, "Chris has had his issues with the establishment."


Chris Gayle, you'll hear in some corners, is destroying cricket.

[+] EnlargeGayle
Matthew Lewis/Getty ImagesGayle is the most dangerous man in cricket -- to opposing bowlers and to an establishment terrified of what money and fame are doing to its game.

He told the Guardian in 2009 he wouldn't be sad if Test cricket died. He said he'd like for Twenty20 to replace it. In the middle of that interview, which caused a storm in the cricket world that would surprise even American fans used to overreaction and overanalysis, he is clearly hitting on the female reporter. Seriously. It's unbelievable to read. He sipped hot chocolate while talking, smiled and said "It's sweet, and I'm sweet."

About two years ago, he ripped the West Indies cricket establishment in a radio interview, and the board banned him from the team. That's always been the nuclear option of cricket boards around the world. They are notoriously iron-fisted. When a television network tried to start a competing Twenty20 league in India, the Indian board threatened its own players with excommunication should they join it. I heard from cricket writers that it even refused to let its players participate in a game if one of the announcers had played a match in the upstart league. For a century, talented players have seen their careers end because of politics, or petty jealousies, or simply as casualties of someone else's self-interested power or money grab. Yet here comes Gayle, and he looks at his ban as a gift.

For 18 months, as the Windies struggle all over the world, Gayle moved from domestic tournament to domestic tournament, cashing huge checks, an island of one. His biggest payday came from the IPL. He is the league's leading run scorer, playing for the Royal Challengers Bangalore. The season lasted seven weeks. He reportedly made almost $13,000 a day.

Finally, a few months ago, with no Twenty20 leagues on the horizon, Gayle was returned to the national team lineup. They needed him more than he needed them, and in that dynamic teeters a century of tradition and power.


The world of cricket is small, with generations of former players trying to cash in on the influx of television dollars. Here's what I mean: As Spooner told me about Viv Richards, a heavy-set man with bad knees wobbled into the bar and sat down two tables away.

It was Tony Greig.

He's spent the past 35 years atoning for the groveling comment, and is known for understanding where the game is going and why. His phone buzzes while we talk. His ring tone is calypso music. A lot has changed since the days of Viv.

I ask Greig how the emergence of the IPL is impacting the game.

"Cricket has been following American trends really, in terms of entertainment," he says. "We've now come up with what everyone thinks is the shortest possible game, and I'm not sure that's the case. I'm not sure it won't end up at 10 overs."

The English cricket powers are believed to be considering a change in the scheduling of Test matches to allow their cricketers to play a full IPL season. For generations, the boards have held all the power. The Indian board, which owns the IPL, still does. But around the world, groups used to being autonomous are forced to make nice. Players, like the West Indies team three decades years ago, are close to finding their voice. The boards have decisions to make. Whatever is happening to cricket is happening right now.

"They will try and work with the IPL eventually, try and rationalize what's happened," Greig says. "The IPL is a steamroller. It's like a runaway train. As a result of this, players from all over the world want a piece of it. So this is, at the moment, playing itself out."


I strike out with Gayle -- maybe after the game, I'm told. He is staying in his hotel room, which is probably a good idea. A few nights before the semifinal, he made headlines in Sri Lanka. Security in the hotel is tight, because organizers are so worried about gamblers influencing the outcome of the matches, a not unreasonable fear since the Pakistani team has been plagued by match-fixing and Gayle's close friend and teammate, Marlon Samuels, was banned for two years for passing information to a bookie. Samuels has only just found his way back, trying to resurrect his career. So when Gayle and some teammates had three women up on their floor, in violation of the rules, the local police arrested the women for trespassing. Someone with the team was asked about their strategy in the final against Sri Lanka. He laughed and said, "We've got five girls coming up tonight."


The next night, an hour from the first ball, the air smells fungal and sweet. Gayle is in the nets, working on defending "Yorkers," a ball bowled to land right at his feet, which is a good way to stop a powerful attack. The problem is that a bad Yorker, like a hanging curve, can end up in the upper deck. The clouds are pink on gray, slowly turning orange, then a jaundiced yellow. I slip on a photographer's vest and take a seat right on the boundary line, 10 feet away from Gayle's warm-up. The crowd is loud and most fans wave flags, which, combined with the strange, filtered light creates a dizzying feeling when surrounded by it. It's loud. A television producer wearing a headset comes up to Spooner and tries to get Gayle on camera during the pregame show. Spooner shakes his head. To traditional cricket lovers, the Twenty20 World Cup is an oddity, something to pass the time while waiting for the real thing. To someone who once told a London newspaper he wouldn't mind if it replaced Test cricket, it is more important than being feted in the pavilion at Lord's. "It's a final," Spooner told the producer. "It's the biggest event of his life. I can't pull him."


The Windies win the toss and elect to bat first. The players prepare to take the field. Loud music pours out of speakers lining the grandstands. Allman Brothers loud. Soldiers, arms swinging, march in time around the wicket. Then it's time.

Five minutes into the game, the Sri Lankans take the first wicket. Gayle can't get started, facing a mix of speeds and deliveries. Three or so times, he seems to let a ball destined for the stumps hit his pads -- known as leg before wicket, an automatic out if the umpire judges that the batsman would have been bowled -- and the crowd and Sri Lankan players roar, begging for the call. The umpire smiles thinly and shakes his head. A drummer in the stands keeps rhythm and will for the entire game: bum, bum, bumbumbum. It's electric, and the time passes quickly. Everyone is waiting for the Gayle eruption. "It's like you're in the Colosseum," a South African photographer next to me says.

In the sixth over, Sri Lanka brings in an aggressive bowler, targeting a weak looking Gayle. Gayle has seemed uncomfortable, his bat head sinking lower and lower. On the fifth ball, Gayle misses and it strikes his pads. He's called out, LBW. He's only scored three runs. The crowd stands as one, and a roar echoes around the steep grandstands of R. Premadasa Stadium. The fireworks go off, and the music cranks up and the cheerleaders run onto their stages to dance.

A friend who lives in Sri Lanka texts "Start the bus."


It's Samuels, back from the gambling scandal, who takes over and saves the match. He smashed six 6s, sending them deep into the stands. Before finally being caught, he scored 78 runs and shifted the momentum back to the West Indies.

[+] EnlargeSamuels
Ajay Aggarwal/Getty ImagesWest Indies' Marlon Samuels, center, captain Darren Sammy and Gayle celebrate Samuels' performance during the ICC World T20 cricket Final between Sri Lanka and the West Indies.

When the second innings begins, Windies captain Darren Sammy sprints down the steps from the pavilion, his jaw set, running out onto the field. Sri Lanka can't get anything going, and slowly the crowd realizes the game is slipping away.

This game had seemed won by Sri Lanka when Gayle was called out, and the crowd danced and waved flags in celebration. When the energy left the building, it left suddenly. The flags disappeared. Fans held their hands to their faces, mouths open, the hope from an hour ago now gone. Behind me, a man looked at the scoreboard and shook his head. The dim quiet on the field level is shocking after several hours under a bright moon of noise.

Kieron Pollard comes out to defend the boundary line in the last few overs, the game now secure. The crowd chants "Sri - Lan - Ka! Sri - Lan - Ka! Sri - Lan - Ka!" He turns and shakes his head, pointing to the West Indies logo on his jersey. Finally, the match ends. The Windies crowd around Gayle, the superstar who needed help to become a world champion, and everyone does the "Gangnam Style" dance together. Chris Gayle might not need the cricket officials, but he needs his teammates, both on a night when he underperforms and in other, larger ways. Something called him back to this team at a time in his life when he doesn't need the money. He is after something more than commerce, which is the reason Test cricket will survive no matter how much the IPL grows. The older and more successful people become, the more they care how they will be thought of when they're gone.


We're back at the team hotel, two or so hours after the game. On the way out of the stadium, Spooner saw me in a stairwell and told me to come here. He introduced me to Gayle.

A phalanx of security guards formed a bubble around us.

Cameramen and television crews walked backwards, flashbulbs popping and bright lights blinding me and Gayle. If we stopped, the mob would swarm, so I had between the business center and the elevator to ask as many questions as I could. We both laughed at the insanity around us in the hotel lobby. "This is nothing," he says, in a high-pitched Jamaican accent. "You ought to go to India."

The guards walked us through the crowd, pushing people out of the way. We had a few clear feet in every direction inside the circle. It was, without question, the most bizarre interview I've ever done. The essence of cricket might once have been country gentlemen, the landed gentry delicately playing shots on long afternoons. But the purest essence of cricket today is a mob of mostly Indian television cameras, forming a bubble of light around the biggest star in the game, who is being interviewed by an American. Cricket isn't tea and club ties any longer. It is paparazzi and shouted questions in chaotic subcontinent hotel lobbies. One day it will be something else, then something else after that. There is already talk that the IPL bubble is close to popping, with teams over valued and television ratings declining.

"How do you think the old-school cricket establishment views the way you guys play the game?" I asked.

"Eventually," he said, nearing the open elevator doors, "they have to accept it, to be honest with you. A lot of them didn't accept it. But it's become a big thing so they have no choice. Everybody's loving it."


The energy of the game is gone, and I am, too. Exhausted, I find a tuk-tuk and head home. I still don't know how Twenty20 will change cricket, or what might happen to the game. I don't think anyone does. The very first thing written about cricket hundreds of years ago lamented the loss of tradition. Modernity has always been the instrument of destruction, whether admission fees or a free-swinging batsman named Chris Gayle. But on a Sunday night in a Sri Lankan stadium, when the sky turned pink and orange before it set, I felt angst, sadness, euphoria, and joy, a night full of reversals and drama. I won't ever forget it, and in those moments when the outcome hung in the balance, nobody would remember how many hours the game would last, or how many days. The only thing in the world was the moment, a winner and a loser, the bat and the ball. When Gayle stood in the crease, I didn't think about some unknowable future of cricket. The crowd noise rose as the bowler began his run, ringing in my ears. I leaned in, watching the head of the bat, hoping it would rise.

Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.