Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Winds of Change

Cricket has forever been a colonial sport. For all the vagaries and intricacies of the game, it has not been able to register a beep outside the erstwhile British Empire. While the game and its fans have gone through some changes over the years, they remain largely the same. It is still prone to the possibility of neither side coming out on top and the fans, especially those of the longer version, are purists who wouldn't mind sitting through 5 days of mind-numbingly slow cricket before looking at the silver lining in a draw/tie.

Every ambitious entrepreneur looks to expand his business to new horizons. Every explorer looks to go where no man has gone before, from Columbus to Amundsen to even the fictional James T Kirk. Sadly, the torchbearers of cricket have not always shown the same zeal in taking the sport outside the Empire.

Cricket's encounter with the One-Day Internationals was just as accidental as Columbus's discovery of America. One has to thank the rain Gods for providing us the first Limited-Overs International during the rain-affected MCG test in 1971. The ODIs have gone through a whole lot of changes thereafter, with the emphasis being on entertainment for the masses. But increased workloads, a general sense of instant pleasure and competition from other sports have meant the ICC has to come up with a more "entertaining" brand of cricket. What's more, the ICC has finally awakened to the idea of making cricket a global sport. Better late than never,eh?

Twenty20 is the first real endeavour by the ICC to take cricket outside the Empire. There have been feeble attempts like the Sixes competition and Max Cricket in the past, but they were confined to the nations which introduced them. The early signs are encouraging enough. Twenty20 is already a rave in England and South Africa, and it was the most popular cricketing event in the Caribbean thanks to Allen Stanford, an enterprising and cricket-crazy businessman from America.

The basics of line and length and technically correct batting still apply, but the game moves at such a fast pace that the straight drive with the high elbow turns into a flamboyant lofted drive over the bowler's head. The cuts are more ferocious, the sweeps more cross-batted and the hooks become pulls. Twenty20 is a brand of cricket to which a fan can relate to, as we see international players play like most of us did in school or college.

It is also a more convenient form of cricket to watch. The game starts at 6 in the evening and lasts about 3 hours. It's ideal for a family to spend some quality time together, there is some popular music in the audio system, the parents can unwind after a hard day's work and the kids can watch and play some unadulterated cricket. There's something in it for those who're not at the stadium too, with player interviews from the dugout and real-time conversation with the on-field players. Channel 9 did something really interesting during the recent Twenty20 game between Australia and England. They actually got Adam Gilchrist to give ball-by-ball commentary for an entire over. It was truly amazing and if that were an interview with Channel 9, it's safe to say Gilchrist came through with flying colours.

While there is a lot of skepticism among the players, it is definitely more appealing to the casual viewer who only seeks entertainment from the game. While it is a wonderful effort to woo a target audience comprising people of all age groups, it also presents the opportunity to market the game in places like mainland Europe and America where the psyche of people is more result-oriented. The one complaint they have about cricket is how can two teams play for 5 days and still not produce a result? You can see where they're coming from, as they have grown up on penalty shootouts, overtime and extra innings.They would no doubt find the idea of a bowl-off in Twenty20 quite thrilling, although the Poms would be very jittery considering their record in Penalties.

There was a lot of opposition from all quarters when One-Day Internationals came into existence. The purists thought it didn't really test the qualities cricket was supposed to. Perhaps they were resistant to change, but One-Day Cricket was there to stay. But the "visionaries" who championed the cause of the shorter version of cricket are now skeptical of Twenty20 for the exact same reasons and it once again highlights our tendency to resist change. 36 years after the first Limited-Overs International, Twenty20 is threatening to replace 50-over matches as the most popular brand of cricket. Let it be known that both forms are children of the same glorious family that is cricket, and we need to embrace both for their different qualities. Twenty20 is here to stay...

Sunday, January 07, 2007

One Step Forward and Two Steps Back

The Indian team concluded a testing tour of South Africa and their performance over the past 18 months have resulted in the side coming full circle since Greg Chappell took over.

Greg Chappell had a vision for the Indian team, and he seemed well on-course to make it a reality until last May. Sourav Ganguly had been condemned to first class cricket, Laxman and Kumble were considered test specialists, and the One-Day side had a youthful if not professional look to it. Irfan Pathan and Mahendra Singh Dhoni were the new pin-up boys of Indian cricket and Yuvraj Singh's exploits in the shorter version were Bevanesque.

But all this changed with one slower ball from Dwayne Bravo. Instead of registering a nail-biting 1-wicket win and a 2-0 lead over the West Indies, India crashed to a heart-breaking 1-run loss with Bravo bowling Yuvraj out with a slower ball after the latter had sent the ball screaming to the fence off the last two deliveries.

The rest, as they say is History. India lost the One-Day series 4-1 with Pathan & Dhoni being rendered ineffective (the former has still not recovered thereafter). That was followed by an historical yet unconvincing 1-0 test series victory over one of the weakest West Indian side in ages.

India have worn the tag of "chokers" for the past few years for their insipid performances in the finals of One-Day tournaments. In the next few months Rahul Dravid & co. set about eradicating that reputation by making sure they didn't reach the finals altogether. They had two do-or-die matches against World Champions Australia and lost both. They were in with a shout in the first one but Dinesh Mongia chose to put more faith in numbers 9,10 and 11 than in himself, and India remained winless when chasing in matches against Australia since 1998. The second defeat was even more debilitating as it came at home & in the Champions Trophy, a tournament in which India had knocked out the World Champions twice.

By now, the warning bells were ringing loud and clear with calls to bring back those who had for years served Indian cricket with distinction. A change in the selection panel saw a slight change in personnel, with Kumble getting the nod for the One-Day series in South Africa. The young brigade comprising the likes of Kaif, Raina, Mongia and Pathan were already under the cosh for their poor form over the past few months, and this tour was a baptism by fire for them, with the South African bowlers testing their technique and temperament with searing pace or subtle movement. Dhoni was the only one to give a good account of himself, the rest were promptly sent back & it was time to call on Laxman and Ganguly. Both played a couple of crucial knocks in the context & look set to make a comeback to the One-Day side.

The juggernaut that began with the sacking of Ganguly looks to have come to a halt and the Indian side bears a very similar look to the side that reached the finals of the 2003 World Cup against all odds. Expect the Indian version of Dad's Army to be the nucleus of the World Cup side. Only time will tell whether they will be as successful as their Australian counterparts.