Twenty20 no longer a laugh
With the Ashes safely returned and the annual one-day tournament still five days away, Australia's cricket selectors could justifiably have spent last weekend doing anything other than watching cricket.
But the decision by avaricious administrators to turn the 20-over game into a legitimate international event meant chairman Andrew Hilditch and his panel had to pay, at the very least, cursory attention to yesterday's full domestic round of Twenty20 fixtures.
Australia coach John Buchanan said yesterday the International Cricket Council's (ICC) decision to formalise Twenty20 with a world championship changed the way nations would approach the game.
"Once the ICC puts it on the calendar it becomes a far more serious occasion, because teams will want to win it," Buchanan said.
"At this stage, international teams only have the opportunity to play one-off games because of the schedule, but that will change due to the ICC."
In September the selectors will be asked to name their best exponents of the latest phenomenon to represent Australia at the inaugural Twenty20 World Cup in South Africa.
And early evidence suggests the task of nominating the nation's best slogging XI will be a much tougher proposition than settling on a Test or 50-over line-up.
At present, Twenty20 internationals have been used as a tool to bridge teams' transition from the Test game to the traditional limited-overs format, and have been treated as a light-hearted cricket equivalent to golf's pro-am. For that reason, international Twenty20 games have featured 50-over specialists in much the same way as one-day teams once mirrored each nation's Test XI.
As Hilditch conceded yesterday, that view must change now the ICC has sanctioned the light entertainment as a legitimate competitive event.
After tomorrow night's Twenty20 international between Australia and England at the Sydney Cricket Ground, selectors will have to get serious about the hit and giggle concept.
"After this selection, we will definitely be treating Twenty20 as a different form of the game," Hilditch said yesterday.
"I don't think there will be any dramatic changes.
"One-day players will all be able to play Twenty20 cricket, and it is likely to be a similar make-up to the one-day side but the reality is there is likely to be players who are better at Twenty20 than any other form of the game.
"More and more it will be treated as a separate game, particularly with the World Cup coming up. If we are going to that, we want to win it so we will pick our best side."
The selectors' problem will be knowing what criteria to apply to Twenty20 World Cup aspirants, given its newcomer status on the Australian domestic scene.
Obviously talents like Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist and Andrew Symonds will excel at the super-abbreviated game when the 10 Test nations (plus two yet-to-be-determined associate countries) compete over two weeks in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town.
The greater challenge will be evaluating whether a natural slogger such as Mark Cosgrove or Victoria's Aiden Blizzard (who clubbed 89 off 38 balls in Adelaide last week) represent a better prospect than traditional stroke players like Michael Clarke and Shane Watson.
Selecting the best bowling attack will involve a similarly significant element of guess work.
Most wickets fall as a result of over-aggressive batting, and the hallmark of a handy Twenty20 bowler is one with an infinite variety of deliveries, as predictability is severely punished by batsmen on dead flat pitches.
As a result, all rounders who can slog a bit themselves might prove a better bet than clever, genuine bowlers like Stuart Clark or Brett Lee.
Hilditch does not believe the proliferation of the 20-over game will dilute the importance of 50-over or Test matches.
"It is probably not going to be much different to when one-day cricket was first introduced," Hilditch said yesterday.
"Test cricket is always going to be the ultimate for the players, but I think Twenty20 is likely to have growing importance.
"I think everybody enjoys playing Twenty20 cricket, there is an element of excitement and fun about it."
It has certainly captured the imagination of Australian fans, with officials forced to throw open gates at the Gabba last Friday night to allow the huge crowd of more than 27,000 to gain access before the match between Queensland and New South Wales began.
And several thousand spectators sat through persistent rain at Bellerive Oval the same evening before the game between Tasmania and Victoria was abandoned without a ball bowled.
The popularity of the concept also makes a further mockery of Cricket NSW's decision to play rugby league star Andrew Johns in yesterday's match against South Australia in Newcastle.
With huge crowds turning out to watch bona fide cricketers, a gimmick such as using a non-credentialled player seems blatantly unnecessary.
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