Finally,crickets oldest format gets its own marquee play-off
During the final few hours of December 6,2009,Mumbais Marine Drive and Delhis ITO intersection had a routine end of the day deserted monotony about them. India,finally,had become the No 1 Test team,but the roar from inside the Brabourne Stadium,after the expected nationwide echo,had died well before midnight. On Marine Drive,the late-shift commuters would have casually crossed the mostly empty six-lane boulevard alongside the Arabian Sea,to get on the last train from Churchgate,while at ITO a handful might have endured the slow trickle of shared autos to reach home across the Yamuna.
About two-and-a-half years later,a more acclaimed Indian triumph,coincidentally not far from Brabourne,at the more eminent Wankhede Stadium this time,was significantly more celebrated. On April 2,2011,Indias ODI World Cup win party refused to end. At ITO,there was a surprise sighting. Sonia Gandhi leaned out from her SUV waving a Tricolour,freezing the traffic flow in the bargain. Roughly around the same time,in the wee hours to be specific,the Mumbai fans didnt disappoint by doing the obvious and expected. They dutifully jammed Marine Drive till close to dawn.
These contrasting pictures of fan reaction after India had planted its flag on two equally important global peaks highlighted an old but hard-to-understand sporting phenomenon. When it comes to titles of global sporting supremacy,the No 1 rank fails to match the dazzling aura that radiates from the world champion badge of honour. The feeling that comes with suddenly possessing bragging rights of being the best in the world,after winning an all-or-nothing title contest,is far more heady than the gradual swelling of the chest during a slow and arduous climb up the ranking ladder.
For years,the Test match faithfuls,that dying breed of cricket romantics along with the games long-form specialists,had learned to live with short-lived and muted celebrations. ODI and T20 junkies would be part of the Boys in Blue bus-top victory parades and endless felicitations to which the Men in White would never get invited. Players of limited talent,such as Yusuf Pathan and Piyush Chawla,both part of Indias T20 and ODI World Cup winning squads,have handled more garlands and bigger cheques during their short careers than the 100-plus Test cricketers and all-time greats such as Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman. Life certainly isnt fair.
Periodically,an Ashes battle or an Indo-Pak Test series did get hyped up,but Tests still needed an equivalent of a Super Bowl. As for the Test stars,they too deserved something similar to a heavyweight boxers championship belt. The ICC presents the No 1 Test team with a sparkling mace but that decorated heavy club makes cricketers look like champion mud wrestlers at a Bharat Kesri rumble. Imran Khan with that cut-glass trophy in 1992 at the MCG or M.S. Dhoni with the World Cup at Gateway of India: those were crickets iconic images.
Since the emergence of T20 cricket,crickets leading voices have repeatedly stressed how the oldest format needed a marquee play-off that would get a global television audience. Tests,they said,lacked a high-stakes,eagerly awaited,big on global hype event that could excite Indian fans,which in turn would force the big-spending corporates and the moneyed BCCI (in that order) to focus on the much-neglected long format.
Exactly a year ago,and six months before he died,the late Tony Greig,while delivering the MCC Spirit of Cricket lecture,had hit the nail on the head. And it would hurt India the most. Although the current Test ranking system is working well,I think a play-off for the Test crown is essential. The euphoria in India after it won the ODI World Cup was amazing. That euphoria was not duplicated when India became number one in the Test rankings. That can probably only happen by having a play-off for Test supremacy,say once every four years, he had said.
Last week,the ICC decided to hold its first Test Championship in England in 2017,with the top four teams,based on ICC rankings,clashing over three games two semifinals and a final. This was an important change that would give Test cricket a new dimension.
The bigger picture of teams playing at neutral venues,moreover,is quite exciting for crickets many daydreamers. Imagine India and Pakistan playing in an overcast morning at Lords or,later in 2021,when India hosts the Test Championship,say England playing Australia on a muggy and sweaty afternoon at Eden Gardens. These will be never-before-seen contests worth waiting for. As has been the case with the ODI World Cup,Test teams will prepare keeping in mind the venues of future Test Championships. Selectors will be told to groom and preserve the pacers for 2017 and advised to unearth spinners for 2021. Unlike in the past,teams cant just stick to time-tested templates for ages.
Most importantly,Test teams can no longer expect to reach lofty heights by unfairly using home advantage. No,this isnt just about subcontinental teams preparing dustbowls,but even instances like England laying out unusually green tracks for India in 2011. Despite this change,teams can still remain No 1 in the rankings by winning on tailored tracks in their own backyard. But in case they aspire for the heady feeling of being World Champions and want to bring an entire nation on to the streets,they need to win at neutral venues and on ICC-monitored pitches.