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Twenty20 rises to top of short entertainment

Brevity is not only the soul of wit. After staging two turgid World Cups and two even more tedious Champions Trophies, the International Cricket Council have finally discovered that brevity is also the essence of a global cricket tournament.

Last October, England spent almost four weeks in India to play three games in the Champions Trophy. In the World Cup in the West Indies some teams went more than a week without playing – and there is no better definition of ‘wasting time’ than spending a day on a Caribbean island watching a limited-overs mis-match. But this inaugural Twenty20 will be over in a fortnight from start to finish.

Staging a tournament at the right tempo means that a mis-match – any game involving Kenya or Scotland – is quickly forgotten as another match is played the same day. Sometimes, even in the Super Eight phase which starts today, there are three games in one day.

Only a conspiracy theorist would see this growth of 20-over cricket – not merely this tournament but the Champions League for domestic teams starting next October – as ‘Americanization’. It is simply making the sport fit into the lifestyle of today. And if 50-over cricket contracts into a World Cup every four years, and 40-over cricket disappears, leaving Test and 20-over cricket supreme, then so be it. Cricket is unique not least for having so many forms.

Of course 20-over cricket has its minuses: slip fielding disappears, and short-leg fielding. The aesthetics of batting are spoiled slightly when batsmen, forced to score at more than a run a ball, hit to leg rather than caress through the covers. Umpires can deter a spinner from turning the ball by being a touch over-zealous in calling “wide”.

But there are pluses too, so that as much good is being done as harm: the improvement in all areas of fielding away from the bat; the urgent need for bowlers to vary their pace, not that West Indies noticed before they were knocked out; and there is no time for sledging.

The best four cricket teams will go through to the semi-finals on Saturday, without much luck involved, and the winner will have to master a variety of conditions.

Johannesburg has offered high-summer conditions and one belter of a pitch where anyone who scores at less than 10 runs an over is a cissy. Durban has been rainy so that Kingsmead has offered seam assistance. It was good to see there is still one young world-class pace bowler left standing by the sport’s schedules: Pakistan’s Mohammad Asif, who took four wickets for 18 against India and reminded everyone that 20-over cricket is not just a slogathon.

Cape Town has been chilly. As the sun illuminates Table Mountain, grass is frosty; trees wear spring leafage. In the cordon sanitaire around the Newlands ground, vendors selling cold drinks do little business. The pitches have been prepared under a tent for two months during a wet winter, but the outfield is a sponge.

Crowds have responded to the low ticket prices by turning up in good numbers, even for games when South Africa have not been involved. Although schoolkids are bussed in, most spectators are white, but it was ever thus at cricket matches in this country. The black indigenes, invariably, are the groundstaff hauling on and off the covers.

There have been teethings. The quality of the television camera-work, and commentary, is seldom high: if a boundary is hit, the focus becomes a dancer’s midriff not the replay. Cape Town’s scoreboard credited Michael Clarke with some accurate fast bowling, not Stuart Clark. The umpiring standard has not been high either, in the absence of Steve Bucknor, Aleem Dar, Rudi Koertzen and Billy Bowden, all punished for cocking up the World Cup final.

Sporting South Africa is more interested in other World Cups. Yesterday, the countdown said 1000 days to go before they stage the football event. Last Friday, the rugby community enjoyed the second England World Cup campaign of this year that seemed sterile, the work of players who are over-played and under-skilled. But this 20-over tournament is becoming more and more of an attraction, being a brief distraction.

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