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Cricket | More Cricket

Cricket Ball © Gallo Images

Scandals overshadow T20 birthday celebrations



It was meant to be the saviour of cricket – a quick-fire format spiced with cheerleaders and film-star glamour that would reverse a decline in attendance and draw in a new wave of middle-class fans.

But a decade on from the first ever round of Twenty20 matches, there are fears that a string of corruption scandals may have done lasting damage to the game's reputation and concern the format, which places a premium on power-hitting, is ruining techniques.

"T20 is all about big money and how to earn it quickly," the former Sri Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga told AFP.

"We are destroying our cricket by going down the T20 road... When fans lose faith in the game, we're on a very slippery slope."

While the first round of matches were held in England in mid-June 2003, India is now the undisputed centre of T20 as the host of the Indian Premier League (IPL) – a seven-week annual tournament which features the cream of world cricket.

Some of the biggest names in Bollywood, including Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta, are among the owners of IPL teams and match-day entertainment includes performances by dance troupes flown in from eastern Europe.

But the main talking point from this year's tournament was the arrest of three players for spot-fixing, including test bowler Shanthakumaran Sreesanth, which prompted a string of other allegations of illegal betting.

With the president of the Indian board, N. Srinivasan, having to stand aside while investigators probe his son-in-law, the acting head has announced a slew of measures dubbed "Operation Clean-up".

Under the proposals, owners will be kept away from dugouts, mobile phone signals will be jammed and there will be no more cheerleaders or post-match parties.

The proposals have not gone down well with fans who say they will strip T20 of much of the fun that made the format attractive in the first place.

"Any step which cleans up cricket should be welcome. Having said that, you can't take away all the fun element because this is what T20 is all about," said Pritam Kumar Sinha, an avid fan of the Delhi Daredevils team.

"Jamming cell phone towers would be a huge dampener for fans like me... It would mean you can't tweet about a moment in the game that you want to share instantly with your friends."

Former India opener and coach Madan Lal said it was wrong to blame the 20-over game for all the ills in the sport and the authorities are right to try and clean things up.

"There is a huge room for improvement but all is not lost. It is the fan in the stadium who matters and if the authorities can restore his faith, then T20 is here to stay," Lal told AFP.

Shah Rukh Khan, co-owner of the Kolkata Knight Riders franchise, has spoken of his "disgust" at the steady stream of allegations.

"Some greed and meanness has crept in, it needs to be cleaned up," said Khan.

T20 was meant to be a money-spinner for the owners who saw it as a way to tap into India's rapidly-growing consumer market, with cricket consistently topping the TV ratings.

HALF-FULL GROUNDS

But grounds are often no more than half-full and the IPL also finds itself having to compete with the growing popularity of football's English Premier League when it comes to TV audiences.

One franchise, the Deccan Chargers, went bust last year while the Pune Warriors pulled out before this year's tournament had ended.

And it is not just in India where the T20 format is struggling. The Bangladeshi Premier League was scandalised by a confession from the country's star batsman Mohammad Ashraful that he fixed a game during this year's tournament in exchange for a cheque which later bounced.

Former Bangladesh captain Faruque Ahmed admitted the scandals were undermining fans' faith in the game.

"The fans are increasingly doubtful when a catch is dropped or a batsman gets out cheaply," he told AFP.

The format has spawned a breed of hard-hitting batsmen who clear the boundary with a regularity unknown in the pre-T20 era.

But former Pakistani player Basit Ali said the format was "destroying techniques".

"More and more countries now want T20s and they are cancelling their test series. If these leagues are allowed to prosper I fear test cricket will perish," Ali said.

His point was echoed by Ranatunga who led the Sri Lankans to victory in the 50-over World Cup in 1996, but is an unashamed champion of test cricket.

"In two to three years' time, we may not have players who are good enough for test cricket. T20 is turning them into 'baseball' hitters," he said.

The current T20 world champions are the West Indies, once the undisputed kings of test match cricket but now one of the weakest teams.

The Caribbean is about to stage its first domestic T20 tournament, making it the last of the test nations to do so.

The initial T20 matches played in England drew sell-out crowds but attendance has slipped in recent summers as countries struggle to draw the kind of big name players that the IPL attracts.

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