T20 cricket at IPL level is the sport's abstract expressionism, manifesting itself in the many bursts of invention and energy that drive each game.
On one side of the white line, batsmen explore "360", while bowlers revert to any one of a myriad options, and fielders take the role of ball-playing acrobats. On the other, celebrity ownership and endorsement, sponsorship, product placement, advertising sales, and above all, jaw-dropping sums of money for television rights, give full licence to the business of cricket in the age of populism.
To those who praise the immediacy of creation and the overwhelming attack on the senses that comes with it, it is the only game in town. To others, it is the very devil itself: the end of the classics and of romanticism.
As in art, there is room for both. It is part of cricket's attraction that the many formats appeal to its many people. Only the narrow-minded fail to see that.
Cricket is without limitation but various disciplines are required to ensure its success: to pitch a knuckleball, the bowler must have learnt the fundamentals. Test cricket will live on. Michelangelo spent a long time at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; Jackson Pollock less so over the fibreboard for "No. 5, 1948". T20 may no longer be cricket's abstract incarnation, but powerful elements of expression remain in a game that continues to thrill on the field and provide a force for good off it. Never has this been more so than in the UAE these past two months. Cricket is out here on its own in the desert, not a spectator in sight, and it is alive.
Were I pushed to pick one cricketer who best illustrates both the sporting and artistic appeal, who inspires the young, intrigues the old, and transcends the formats, it would be the young Afghan, Rashid Khan.
Last night his team, the Sunrisers Hyderabad, were knocked out of the competition. Next stop was the final, but it proved beyond them. Their talisman has been a legspinner from a country that got ODI status only about a decade ago.
Khan is just 22, fascinated by the intricacies and possibilities of spin bowling, and fiercely competitive. Around the tournament people watch and talk: statisticians tell stories through the medium of cold numbers, coaches plan their application. There is spin everywhere at the IPL. On Friday, the Royal Challengers Bangalore picked four of the blighters.
Wristspin leads the way but the best of the finger merchants - R Ashwin, Shahbaz Nadeem, Washington Sundar, Axar Patel - have had good days. All the twirlymen look to Khan now, the boy who emerged from hard-working parents and many siblings as the best spinner in the family. Together, they fled the Afghan war, taking refuge in Pakistan before returning to Nangarhar and the schooling that taught him to rest easy in the global reaches of modern-day professional cricket. He captained his country at 19 and took ten wickets against Bangladesh in their first Test victory. He is a man for all seasons.
You would be surprised at how fast Khan bowls the cricket ball. Or perhaps I should say how hard. His pace is good club-standard medium. If the ball were to hit an unprotected inside thigh, and it often does, the recipient will know about it. The overspin gives it the impression of a threat, hurrying the opponent and bouncing high to hit the splice of his bat. It is as if the ball has an energy of its own, imparted by Khan, but seemingly increased by interaction with the pitch. Of course, this is not possible, but as Shane Warne famously said, "The art of wristspin is the creation of something that isn't there."
If you are lucky enough to stand close to Khan at release, the good ones fizz out of his hand, just loud enough to be heard. Warne did that too. Warne was more sidespinner to Rashid's overspinner, though the Australian could be either and tended to let the pitch decide. He had the legspinner that Khan would like to have. Khan has the googly that Warne only briefly had.
Having seen a lot from afar of Afghanistan's favourite son these past two months, and on occasion, sneaked up close in the hour before play when the bowlers work out on the practice pitches, I have found myself in awe. Even Muttiah Muralitharan, a coach to the Sunrisers, is impressed; so too the batsmen who are wary and lack the courage to take him on. By no means is Khan done yet, for he works ever harder on mastery of the legspinner and has bowled more of them in this IPL than any previous. He was bothered, he said, by the slog-sweep, so he thought he'd get the batsmen guessing. The googly - or wrong'un, as Warne would call it - is his default position and a pretty solid one at that.
Young Indians are in his wake, tugged along by the developing legend. Ravi Bishnoi is 20, super-smart and quick with his go-to, which, like for Khan, is the googly; Rahul Chahar is 21, with a strong action and an inclination to give the legbreak a rip. Both bound to the wicket, all energy and enterprise, unburdened by failure. Mention must also be made of Yuzvendra Chahal, 30 now, but such a skilful bowler, a craftsman indeed, whose happy knack is to have the last laugh.
I like the story of Varun Chakravarthy, the Kolkata Knight Riders spinner who began a cricket life as an unsuccessful wicketkeeper-batsman and ditched it to pursue a degree in architecture. After five years studying, qualifying and briefly working freelance, he pined for the life of bat and ball and took upon seam bowling. Then he messed up his knee and took up spin. Somewhere during this period, he acted in a movie.
Dinesh Karthik liked the look of him in the Knight Riders nets, where he exchanged ideas with Sunil Narine and resolved to become fitter and stronger. Now he has an IPL contract with them and is to tour Australia with India's T20I team. He claims he has all the seven variations - offie, leggie, googly, topspinner, carrom ball, flipper and slider - and says so without a hint of conceit.
After KKR's game against the Chennai Super Kings, he asked for a selfie with MS Dhoni; the same with Ricky Ponting after the Delhi clash; and with Harsha Bhogle. But this is not the age of innocence! Next time he played the Super Kings, he knocked over Dhoni, who said Chakravarthy was hard to read and quick off the pitch. These spinners are such characters. Warne would tell you they have to be, or else the next stop is whipping boy.
Whether by design or the law of unintended consequences, the IPL is a pathway. The young talent on show, under the spotlight, with a price on its head and many miles from the womb that made it, has the platform to go big. If a player turns it on here, he can cope. In the end, given the talent, it is only whether talent can cope that matters.
Devdutt Padikkal is 20 and has scored more runs than anyone else in their first season. He is an upright left-hander who brings calm to the frenetic and style to the base. He has left some balls alone, an act of minimalism that takes courage and suggests judgement is at the core of his performance. He drives the ball over extra cover - a shot to warm the heart of a purist - with grace and to good effect, while he works the back-of-length stuff off his hip with the look of Bill Lawry, a man of whom he may never have heard. Lawry scored a lot of runs for Australia before the television days of "Got 'im!" took hold. Padikkal looks to have a few runs in him too.
He is from Punjab, where his family owned and farmed the lands. His father dreamt of playing top-class cricket but the reality failed him, whereupon he made the ascent of his son the dream, encouraging first the child, then the youth, to sleep with bat and ball - he is neither the first nor will he be the last to do so. Gill's match-winning hundred in the semi-final of the 2018 Under-19 World Cup brought praise from the gods - Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar among them. Like his team, the Kolkata Knight Riders, his form this IPL has been fitful, but when good, it is better than those around him. Sunil Gavaskar thinks Gill the real deal - tall, strong and with that most essential of gifts, to play the ball late. If he sticks with straight lines and simple thoughts, his father may yet sleep more happily than he could ever have imagined.
There are others, all with their wings at full span. Sanju Samson and Ishan Kishan are wonderful timers but of a very different type. They are atop the six-hitting tree - Samson with a right-hander's easy straight-hitting power; Kishen with the left-hander's punchy strong forearms and hyper-rotating wrists.
A word on Ruturaj Gaikwad, whose name alone prompts interest (albeit spelt one letter differently from the great defender of years long past). Barely able to lay bat on ball for three innings, he was dropped from the Chennai Super King's middle order but successfully returned late in the tournament when their race was run.
In build and stance, there is something of Ajinkya Rahane to him - slim, slight and orthodox. The similarities do not end there. His batting has an efficiency to it, as if the frills are for others less down to earth. His driving of the ball is at once clinical and crisp, with energy conserved for the six inches either side of contact with the ball, during which time his hands are - well, big call, I know - Dhoni-fast. From the commentary box behind the bowling arm, we see a lot of the face of the bat in his defence. The second Mr Gaikwad is another to watch.
Amongst the young quicks are Navdeep Saini and Kartik Tyagi, the first a little longer in the tooth than the second, each lively and spirited. Then Shivam Mavi and Kamlesh Nagarkoti, hustlers both. But none has a story like T Natarajan, who came penniless but eager to Chennai from a rural area and got a break in the Tamil Nadu Premier League. From there, the IPL scouts circle like vultures.
After doing bench time with the Kings XI Punjab in 2017, he was picked up at auction by the Sunrisers Hyderabad. Again, he had a season on the sidelines and itched for more. He sent most of his money home to his parents and used the rest to set up a cricket academy in the village, at which all coaching is free. He built a house and refused to let his parents work anymore. Lockdown helped him. With no cricket to play, he worked on his fitness. For the best part of six months, he lifted 20kg water jars and pulled and pushed the roller. Last night, he was a key figure in the Sunrisers' push for a place in the final. Next week he flies to Australia with the India squad. He has been included to pick up experience on the tour, but don't back against him getting a game.
Natarajan is a feisty competitor, street-smart, and a master of the yorker. Ask him to bowl six of them at a handkerchief, he will suggest there is no chance. Replace the hanky with a batsman and he reckons he will nail six from six. T Natarajan is everything the IPL pathway stands for.
Has the tournament surprised me? Yes. The standard is high, the drama ongoing, and the spirit as it should be. I've had my favourites, as any onlooker should, because over seven weeks and across 60 matches, you cannot help but warm to the stage and its players. There are days when you think "Enough now!" and days when you thank your lucky stars.
I have talked mainly about the young cricketers setting out on their journey in a limited-overs game that has changed beyond recognition since the time I first marvelled at it. That time, incidentally, was the 1967 Gillette Cup final at Lord's. I sat on the outfield behind the boundary rope, a little boy, too shy to ask for an autograph. Kent - 193 all out in 59.4 overs - beat Somerset - 161 in 54.5. That is a total of 354 runs in 114.3 overs. Last night, the Delhi Capitals reached their first IPL final in a match that yielded 361 runs in 40 overs. That's entertainment.