It is a colossal undertaking to explain to a yank the “Religion” we call cricket. It is complete with its own unique set of rituals, beliefs, abstractions, principles and last but not in the very least, its fanatic multitudes who embrace in toto its every doctrine, whether or not logical.
“Who in the world plays a sport for five days on end?”, ” How do people have the time to watch something for five days?”. These are some of the initial reactions that you elicit from your yank buddies when you break it to them that “Test” or “Days” cricket is played over 5 days on a trot. And then you set about explaining to them how the word “Test” in Test Cricket literally translates into its foundational premise i.e. it is a test of character, a test of endurance(both physical and mental), a test of strategy, a test of patience, et.al. It is a “war of attrition”, where the winning team is the one which outlasts the other over fifteen sessions of grind spread over five days. What makes it all the more special is the fact that all this while both sides have an additional and a common adversary to negotiate; the elements.
An application of a generous amount of saliva to the “red cherry” to maintain its lusture would be as loathsome to some Baseball fans, as would the chewing of tobacco and the subsequent spitting frenzy to some Cricket aficionados. But these are the idiosyncrasies of sport that make it the “opium of the masses”.
Well, neither did I start this article with the intent to enlighten the yanks about Cricket nor did I embark on this literary endeavor to extol the virtues of my religion(read cricket); so let’s get down to business.
Cricket has evolved as has everything else under the sun and so we have come to know and love it in its three avatars; Test, ODI and the T20. Test cricket has always been the staple for the connoisseurs of cricket but experienced a decline in popularity during the eighties and early nineties partly due to the time it demanded from its average fan and partly due to the format’s inability to produce results especially in the face of direct competition from the new kid on the block – The ODI . It has recovered some of the lost ground though over the past decade thanks largely to the aggresive brand of test cricket now being plyed by the top cricketing nations thereby exponentially increasing the number of test matches producing results. Nevertheless, as time progressed, it did give way in terms of viewership to its result-guaranteed and less time-demanding cousin, the ODI. The ODI has from that point on basked in its time under the sun for a better part of over 3 decades capturing in that time some of the greatest cricketing moments only to pass on the baton to its brasher, swankier and infinitely more edgier cousin, the T20.
This though hasn’t happened without its share of opposition or controversy as befalls every new concept or idea that is introduced in the public domain( ODI was no stranger to the same persecution). The puritans immediately dismissed the T20 format as a vile machination of the devil which aims to subvert the very essence of cricket. They declared that T20 was the creation of a group of individuals who were looking to make a fortune at a grievous expense to cricket. Their other contention was that T20 was going to bereave cricket of the need of possessing a sound technique, so vitally needed to strike gold at the highest echelon.
Nothing could be farther away from the truth . Well, it’s true that T20 has taken cricketing revenue to dizzy heights especially the IPL which has also ensured that the top cricketers can at least be counted in the same breath as players from its more illustrious counterpart – football albeit they are at the bottom of the heap. This can only be good as this amounts to upward mobility. Right??.
It also for the very first time introduced the concept of a truly global “professional” league which has unprecedented reach and social change potential(as described below). This needs some explaining, so here goes…..
Let’s start out with a kid in India who is 12 yrs old and is “cuckoo” about cricket. He dreams of donning the Indian blues and making his “baba” as well as the entire “mohalla” proud. Every night he has this recurring dream of taking a “five-fer” against Pakistan in Sharjah followed by a victory lap with the Tricolor in hand taking in all the adulation from the ebullient crowd and somewhere as a by-product of this gargantuan feat, exonerating Chetan Sharma of his past sins. What the heck? – Methinks, he should have a name. Ok, Let’s call him Paddy(his friends call him that, short for Pradeep). He has woken up every single morning at 5 AM without his mom having to yank him out of bed and then rode his bicycle to the “Maidan” well before the proverbial “early bird”. He along with a fellow junior have already rolled the practice wicket by the time the seniors and the coach show up. You get the picture!!…dedication, dedication and more dedication. Let’s cut to the next scene. Paddy graduates to the first class level after his trials and tribulations through school, under 13, under 15, under 18 Under 21 levels. He represents his state side at the national level with a fair amount of success which is rewarded with a berth on the India colts squad. He unfortunately, is perpetually on the bench throughout the home series. This is partly due to the abundance of talent at the coach’s disposal and partly the result of a lack of “State Lobby” at the national level. He is conveniently dropped from the squad for the upcoming overseas tour under the pretext of blooding “New” talent. Bad conniving luck, isn’t it?. Well, for the most part this is where the buck stops and we begin to draw the curtains over the dreams, hopes, aspirations and whatever bloody else Paddy had in mind.
What happens next is that Paddy is resigned to his fate. He now has to plan for the “grown man life”. You see that is where Paddy is on a “sticky wicket”(all puns intended). All this devotion to cricket over all those years has meant that Paddy never pursued any serious education and so he is seriously “short-handed” in his quest for a job. Hey!!….it’s not that bleak….Thanks to the government agencies like the Railways, Indian Airlines, National Aluminium Company, SAIL et.al Paddy will get a job on a “sports quota”. In his case he does, a TTE(Train or Travelling ticket examiner) with the Indian Railways. His salary Rs 10,000/ month(USD 208). How’s that for a career??. All those years under the cruel sun for what??.
Well, I had you choked up there for a moment. Isn’t it?…Ahem..clear your throats people. The IPL has arrived. You ought to have heard or read by now that many unheralded names from the Indian domestic scene have landed lucrative IPL contracts. How about the ICL??…It was full of B and C listers who were making a decent buck before it was run over by the BCCI juggernaut. It’s not necessarily a bad thing as I’m confident the so called rebels now will be welcomed back into the BBCI fold after they serve out an year’s ban. Well, it is after all the age of merge or die. Ultimately, this will ensure that professional league cricket will grow and make room for more and more cricketers who have chosen to take up cricket as their “profession”. A “profession” that now affords a decent pay and a decent life even if you do not make it to the summit as most of us don’t in our respective professions.
Now, to address the other gripe that the puritans harbor against T20. “It takes the technique out of cricket and the art of bowling is being persecuted to extinction”.
Well, if anyone has been watching the soon to conclude ICC World T20(or T20 world cup) both the above contentions would fall flat in the face of mounting evidence with every passing match that the bowlers have ruled the roost and there is no survival for the batsmen without sound technique, let alone winning.
This is further evidenced by the fact that the Sri Lankan duo of Muralitharan and Mendis have bamboozled the batters with some mesmerizing guile and spin and the lanky pakistani speedster Umar Gul and his protean counterpart the teenage riot Wayne Parnell have given ” Need for Speed ” a new definition.
India sadly have rebranded themselves as the poster boy for a team without the requisite technique to negotiate the “short stuff” on even less than lively tracks. This was cruelly exposed twice, first against the rampaging West Indians and then touching nadir against the clinical English attack. It was hard to watch the reigning T20 world champions so “at sea” against the fast rising deliveries . This though should serve as a “lesson learnt” for the Indian cricketing firmament which includes its fair sprinkling of Puritans at the helm, that dust bowls(read grassless and abrasive fields) and flat pitches are the true nemesis of the ” need for technique” and graveyards for the art of fast bowling and fielding alike. The national and state sport governing bodies need to provide our young’uns with green outfields to dive around on and prepare wickets which give both the batsmen and the bowlers due reward for good technique and craft respectively.
In closing, it is not the T20 or any other avatar of cricket that awaits us in the future that is the culprit but the attitude that cricket is only an outlet for recreation and not a viable “profession” will sound the death knell for the sport we know and love.