Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Sick-Man of Sports World

Today was supposed to be the D-Day of the showpiece tournament of world cricket, when India would have taken on Pakistan in the 9th edition of the ICC Cricket World Cup, at the one-time Caribbean fortress of Barbados. Instead, we have Bangladesh taking on Ireland, for a Battle of the Minnows. I should be careful, Rahul Dravid had said that the World Cup can be won by any of the eight nations, he had conveniently forgotten all about the ninth (or is it the tenth?) country Bangladesh, who knocked out his team.

The so-called most open World Cup has easily turned out to be the worst one in history, much inferior to the 1996 Wills edition. The only reason we do not know all the semi-finalists yet is because Bangladesh caused another upset, of the then ICC-ranked world No.1 team South Africa. You cannot blame the ICC, they rank teams basis all the meaningless ODI games played around the world. And every country is fast discovering a niche, certain set of conditions, which suit them best. So for instance, South Africa and Sri Lanka have almost a 50-50 record in ODIs, because in their respective home conditions, both of them thrash each other. Teams now simply collapse if the pitch has any juice, any thing different, whatsoever. Australia stems the rot to some extent, India accentuates it to a much greater degree.

As Ian Chappell points out in his article below, cricket is in serious jeopardy, mainly because of an administration which is as money-hungry as Bernie Ecclestone, and as competent as KPS Gill.

Like most humans, I root for the underdog. I like upsets, and David slaying Goliath. The Irish team did almost that when they defeated Pakistan, but what I don't like is what happened next? It is a joy to see Johnston celebrate his dismissal of Gilchrist, but it looks good at the street level too (which is more like my level). Does that mean I should be playing the ICC Cricket World Cup Super Eights? The Irish team reminds me so much of Kenya; wonderfully talented, who conquered the then still-substantial West Indies a decade back, and reached the last edition's semi-final, yet are currently struggling to impose themselves on the game at a global level. I will be much happier to witness Kenya lift the Afro-Asian first-class tournament, not go on causing flash-in-the-pan upsets. Instead, the ICC (or the ACC) is organising the stupid Afro-Asian Cup in the heat of Chennai in June.

The key to sustained success in cricket can only be a strong and competitive feeder structure - first-class, club, junior, at whatever levels. India's Junior cricket, in spite of the fudged birth-certificates, has become relatively strong, and now is the chief supplier of talent and coaches to the senior team (any wonder why Robin Singh and Venkatesh Prasad have been preferred over all the other Ranji team coaches; in fact, Ranji stalwarts like Gagandeep Singh and Joginder Sharma will always be edged out by the Irfan Pathan of youth cricket). Imran also made the Under-19 his favourite haunt for scouting his Wasims and Waqars.

Australia's historical dominance of the game - except for a brief blip in mid-80s caused by three retirements and a rebellion, a chapter which they never forget and hence are always prepared for - has been mainly on the strength of their feeder system. A similar system in place was the reason South Africa walked back into International cricket as giants, not as minnows.

The first-class system in the sub-continent has always been weak, or non-existent. In spite of all the hype, we have been a relatively poor cricketing nation, hoping destiny and individual drive to throw up the Gavaskars, the Tendulkars, the Dravids and the Kumbles (whom we cherish more than our overseas statistics). Pakistan somehow has unearthed quality fast-bowlers, which have made them a lot more competitive in the crucial Test arena. And the Sri Lankan Sinhalese survive mainly because of their natural sporty, outdoorsy nature. Their Board is currently in the worst shape of all.

New Zealand have a record quite similar to India - world-beaters at home, relatively poor travelers, and individual talent to excite the senses (the key difference is fielding). In fact, if the Indian economy would have been of any lesser volume and size than it is, our standing in world cricket would have been very similar. The West Indies always survived through fabulous natural talent, honed on the beaches, and polished in the grind of the County circuit. Now with year-round cricket in place, the structural deficiencies and the economic backwardness of the Caribbean countries are coming to haunt them. For Zimbabwe, President Mugabe has sunk the nation, so there is not much hope for the Cricket Board with Patron Mugabe around.

Where does it leave my favourite game? In very unsafe hands, I fear. Indian money finances world cricket, and we all know that this money generates itself from an extremely unnatural, rather artificial, structure. The day the market decides to correct itself (if it is already not doing so), the game around the world will be in serious trouble.

Even more worrying is Australia's continued domination of the game. I actually do not think they are as good as their record suggests. For example, in the match against England, their captain Ricky Ponting himself admitted that they had decided not to give lip to Pietersen, as it helps him concentrate better. Yet, Ponting himself broke the dikat, totally unneccesarily as Pietersen was just settling in, without being threatening. For some this might denote aggression of intent, for me it denotes lack of discipline and self-restraint, worse as it happened unprovoked, hence a weakness to be exploited.

I can go on and on about the ills afflicting the game, about how only lawyers and scientist can now understand what constitutes throwing when bowling, how batsmen cannot raise an eyebrow when dismissed wrongly, while bowlers can get away with murder, and what not?

At the end of the day, cricket also happens to be a sport (or depending upon perspective, a very healthy entertainment option). Having the best system in place does not necessarily ensure success (ask the English or the Spanish, who have the best Football leagues), but it goes a long way in ensuring competitiveness. I am not sure if there was any correlation, but the A-League was launched in Australia in 2005, and the next year the Socceroos qualified for the Football World Cup after a gap of 32 years.

Currently, Cricket Australia, along with the ECB to some extent (the recent whitewash not withstanding), are the only boards working in the right direction to ensure the relevance of the game. If the rest do not catch up soon, we just might be back to the 19th century, witnessing the battle for the Ashes as the only top cricketing option.

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