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Cricket’s identity crisis

At a time when the Sochi Games are reminding us why sport matters, and the football World Cup is months away with its proven capacity to bring millions of spectators without a team to call their own into a shared narrative, cricket’s identity crisis is particularly noticeable.

To talk of cricket today is to be aware that the traditional fascination for cricket and cricketers has given way to an unsettling curiosity about where cricket is already headed. (Photo: PTI) To talk of cricket today is to be aware that the traditional fascination for cricket and cricketers has given way to an unsettling curiosity about where cricket is already headed. (Photo: PTI)

It cannot keep rolling along parallel tracks. Its various formats will have to find a way to accommodate each other.

The IPL is under the spotlight this week, with the spectacle of player auctions once again upon us but also, just days after India’s takeover of the International Cricket Council, with the Justice Mukul Mudgal committee drawing attention back to allegations specifically of spot-fixing and generally of conflicts of interest in the league and, by extension, in the overall affairs of cricket. The report is with the Supreme Court, as is a potentially explosive sealed envelope containing names of persons believed to be up to little good (or “sporting fraud”, in the committee’s words). The fate of N. Srinivasan, currently the most powerful man in global cricket, and of his franchise, the Chennai Super Kings, may hang in the balance or it may not, who’s to say — such is the resilience of the entrenched order in Indian cricket and, equally, its brittleness. And who knows if the powerful men of Indian cricket will voluntarily take more than passing notice of the committee’s recommendations to cleanse the game’s ecosystem. But this is, perhaps, a better time than any other to dwell longer on the question, what ails cricket today?

The answer is, of course, a three-letter acronym, the IPL, and in so many ways. Its mismanagement, much of it possibly deliberate, as Justice Mudgal and his co-author have explained in detail. Its success in making every participant in the game a direct stakeholder in the BCCI-dictated order so that any possible check has been completely externalised. Its arrogance in determining the centrality of the league, so that Indian cricketers will not have any other conflicting engagement and foreign boards’ consent is purchased by the cash that comes their way if their players participate. And so on.

The point is that these concerns can be addressed — in fact, it would be to the IPL’s good, for cricket and franchise-holders. Not so easy, however, to address the incomprehension discernible in all independent commentary on cricket today, incomprehension about what it is that is being spoken of when a reference is made to the game of cricket. To talk of cricket today is to be aware that the traditional fascination for cricket and cricketers has given way to an unsettling curiosity about where cricket is already headed.

Sure, every sport has its various formats, domestic and international matches, national teams and domestic leagues, but the contest is comprehensible and comparable across formats. There is general agreement on the skills and standards by which its hierarchy of priorities may be listed.

And sure, most sports keep updating their rules to inject pace into matches — for instance, hockey has incrementally brought in rolling and self-passes and junked offside fouls to limit breaks in play and inhibit defensiveness. But the changes have been in the game as it has been subsequently played.

Not so in cricket. Progressive abbreviation, 50 and then 20 overs, has fragmented the sport, adding new formats while retaining the old five-day framework. Changes have enhanced the appeal of formats other than its traditional measure of greatness, one perceived to hold the essence of the sport. Cricket’s most profitable format, profitable for bringing in the largest number of spectators and television viewers , is not its most obvious platform for determining a sportsperson’s skill. Twenty20 is what we watch in the greatest numbers, day after day when it is available, but it is Test cricket, and also the one-day World Cup, where the best in the game are judged. There have been one-day specialists, and so looked at a little less respectfully than Test players, but during Australia’s almost two-decade reign as cricket’s best, it was accepted that the one-day game did have a good effect on the five-day game, with the champions importing a healthier run-rate to their Test innings, thereby enlivening proceedings and forcing a higher percentage of victories/ defeats to reverse the boredom of too many safe draws. The case has yet to be made how T20 may hone new skills to benefit the longer formats.

Put simply, the abbreviated format that has grown cricket’s audiences in its biggest territory — which gives cricketers their heftiest pay-cheques — is not one by which its national teams settle the best amongst themselves. We devotees of Test cricket may sigh, thank goodness for that, but there is reason to worry about this unstable equilibrium.

The death of Test cricket, which appeared imminent a few years ago, may not yet be, and perhaps the ICC’s current makeover of the Test schedule may make contests more keen, and therefore interesting. But the IPL is a signal that cricket’s appeal is deepening in India in a way that separates it from most other cricket-playing nations. Allowing Test series to be bilaterally negotiated could shrink the exposure of the best to the rest that the ICC’s Future Tours Programme guaranteed, but it is also a recognition that in many countries, cricket just does not draw enough crowds any more.

The aspiration of those countries’ best is a contract with an IPL team. Why, even in England, part of the Big Three with India and Australia, the IPL’s capacity to unsettle internal lines of authority is evident from Kevin Pietersen’s eviction from the national squad and his almost simultaneous placement in the IPL auction with the highest reserve price. For players from other sides, the so-called freelancers, notably West Indies’ Chris Gayle, the IPL’s allure obviates the need to factor in their national teams’ requirements.

In form, a T20 match does not have the narrative heft of a Test to enable us to judge how exceptional a match may be by the background or the specifics of its drift. A T20 match is not engrossing enough in and of itself — it gains relevance from being part of a league table. It does not even work bilaterally, as an ODI series may between two countries — to be truly interesting, it seems that T20 matches need to be part of a championship.

At a time when the Sochi Games, the most closely tracked Winter Olympics ever, are reminding us why sport matters, and the football World Cup is months away with its proven capacity to bring millions of spectators without a team to call their own into a shared narrative, cricket’s identity crisis is particularly noticeable. Its best players are competing across all formats, but the game is not able to comprehend the comparative worth of each format.

That can’t hold. Cricket cannot keep rolling along parallel tracks, with its most popular and lucrative form barely tolerated in appraisals of its greatest players. Somehow, the various formats will have to find ways to accommodate each other to make their stats mutually comprehensible.

The writer is a contributing editor for the ‘The Indian Express

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