Its not just a game, they say. Its an artefact which we must preserve. And they’re right, of course. Cricket is a game of immense skill and strategy. Of ebbs and flows. The essential cricket battle is not just about which side scores more runs – but the manner in which innings are constructed and bowling strategies countered. A drama of ability calibrated to such high levels that everything extempore seems beautifully choreographed. The time honed skills when on peak display are a rivetting spectacle – their spontaneity making it better than theatre.
But what good is that theatre if it isn’t watched? And how far can we go to make it watchable ?
Thankfully for us, cricket has always been up to the task.
In its early form, Test Cricket was a timeless fight to the death, so to speak. Once a game began , it would end with a result. No rain nor storm could force a draw. It was a Test of many things, not the least of which was patience.
Then, the “I-have-to-catch-a-boat” Test happened and Timeless Tests morphed into those with an end date. 5 days (with an interspersed rest day) was a major innovation which fiddled with Test cricket’s fundamental traditions and actually set a deadline for when a match would finish. Now that one thinks about it , it must have been fairly blasphemous when first suggested but it brought a new set of nuances in. Now you had to construct and pace your innings, strategise (occasionally declare) and develop plans with time constraints. The idea of this first major – and all subsequent – innovations was to retain the sanctity of the inherent skills while also respecting the time of those involved ; spectators, players and administrators alike.
By the 1960s, having tasted the aggression of people like Don Bradman earlier, even that was beginning to seem long – and in response to growing demand for more action , One Day cricket was first introduced in England. This not only reduced the format from the existing 6 days to a single day but also brought it to one innings per side ! With limited overs !! As with all things which are built in response to market needs, it was (despite its fair distance from the traditions of the game), a resounding success. In 1971, somewhat by accident , a Limited Overs international was born and although it was the first time that national sides were playing each other in this form, it captured the World’s attention enough for the World Cup of One Day Internationals to be born a few years later.
Test cricket meanwhiled trundled alongside. It had travelled a long way from the Timeless Test age when it all began and now cohabited the sports’ stage with a compressed form of the game which increased the sports popularity as more countries joined in striving to compete with the best. Surely it could only be downhill from here. And for a while it seemed like thats what it would be.
Kerry Packer came and with him came the World Series Cricket circus. Not only were players not playing for the establishment, but there were other breaks from tradition to infuriate and sadden the purists. Night cricket , coloured clothing (pyjama cricket, if you please), white balls, players wearing double entendre’ T shirts (Big / Bad Boys play at night), Tina Turner videos and players playing (gasp !) for money rather than nation. Kerry Packer’s crew played Tests as well as Limited Overs Games and admittedly they were not well received initially but soon, the concept of the Day-Night game caught on. And Kerry Packer became legend. “There is a bit of whore in all of us, Gentlemen. Name your price”, he said to the Australian Board. And ultimately they did. In the words of Dr Greg Manning ” Packer paid $12 million not to buy cricket but to turn the cricket into something he could buy. The real meaning of his victory was that the game would never again be beyond price.”
At the height of the dramas surrounding World Series Cricket, Packer vouchsafed in a press conference that cricketers had long been exploited by authorities, and that they deserved better pay and conditions because of the pleasure they gave to millions. A journalist took up the thread for his remarks and wondered if the businessman was saying that his enterprise was “half-philanthropic”. Packer’s realism was too embedded for him to agree. “Half-philanthropic?” he said. “That makes me sound more generous than I am.”
Kerry Packer was the “commercialisation of the sport” as we now know it.
And yet, Australia now consider him the second biggest influence of the game (in a good way) for the sport in Australia after The Don. On his passing , the MCC observed a minute’s silence as a mark of respect for his contribution to the game.
Justifiably so. For Kerry Packer not only provided a much larger audience for a sport, and money that made the crumbing finances of cricket worldwide viable , but with the influence of his initiatives and the growing popularity of one day cricket – Test Cricket changed forever as well.
The ODI inarguably enhanced Tests. More results , more entertainment (of the pure cricket kind) and more revenues made it a bigger audience attraction than ever. Most importantly, in terms of skills – Better running between the wickets and fielding standards were natural offshoots but techniques went outside the textbooks and worked ! Of course, players of aggressive intent were part of the sport before the advent of ODIs but clearly that aspect of the game got more widespread.
So why this big hue and cry about Twenty20 in general and the Indian Premier League in particular ? How different is it from the Limited Overs game and how different is the inherent commercialisation from what Kerry Packer was doing ? Why are we so keen to dismiss the format at its very inception ? Why is there a school of thought that considers it so sacrilegious that they won’t watch ! Why are some so upset that obits of Test cricket are being considered and no positives – absolutely none can be seen ?
Equally importantly, why is something that was invented (yet again) by the British (in 2003 in response to the “Man and his dog watching County Cricket” syndrome), suddenly now Brutish ?
The origin of Twenty20 was really to bring cricket into a time “zone” which was comparable with other popular sport like Soccer or (Grand Slam) Tennis. The idea was, as most ideas are, a response to market needs as Cricket sought viewership. The idea was not to replace other forms of the sport – and just as the ODIs have not replaced Test cricket or other forms of first class cricket, its early if not erroneous to assume that Twenty20 will.
Initial cynicism is acceptable – and even welcome. After all, sixes and fours rain. Bowlers feel good with 7ish economy rates. Batsmen ostensibly don’t value wickets. Building an innings is almost a sin. Greed obliterates fear. Almost each toss has the losing skipper saying “conditions won’t change much”. With 3 hour match durations those are understatements. Things move lightning quick. Dot balls are gold. Risk is not a four letter word.
And without denying one’s own early cynicism , its also completely wrong to call T20 a parody, caricature or clone of the game. As we’ve said before , there are always those that will crucify themselves between regret of the past and fear of the future. Understanding the value of every delivery is an intensification of the game rather than a dilution of it. Striving to maximise returns and cut down errors from the word go is placing a big premia on performance.
As far as the IPL itself is concerned, the criticisms are many but the targets keep moving so they’re hardly easy to address. Is it the amount of money ? The source of the money ? Bollywood ? The T20 format ? Lalit Modi ? Loyalty ? Royalty ? Media ? All of the above ? There must be something right, surely.
How different are these concerns from the ones that were doubtless raised when Kerry Packer surfaced ? How long did that last and how much good did it bring ? These are questions which we are in the process of answering every passing day.
Somewhere the “off the field” entertainment, which is causing so much unrest amongst the connoisseurs, will find the right balance with the on field skills but as of now its doing the same job that coloured clothing, black sightscreens and their ilk were doing in the 1970s. And getting as much attention at the expense of the cricket from fans and critics alike.
Somewhere we’ll begin to realise and accept that Brendon McCullum’s 150 in 20 overs (an astonishingly good score for a team at the 20 over mark in the one day game) was an act of great cricketing skill and while the element of orthodoxy was missing , it was perhaps telling that Mike Hussey of the phenomenal Test average nearly matched it soon enough. For those that say that this does not adequately test enough to separate the best from the rest, its equally significant that at the time of writing , these two share the top batting slots with cricketers such as Matt Hayden , Sangakarra, Adam Gilchrist, Andrew Symonds and MS Dhoni. Isnt it a vindication of skill that 4 of those 7 are Australians and come from a team that are thrice World Champions ? Haven’t Glenn Mcgrath and Mohd Asif shown their class ? Haven’t the leadership bluffs of the weaker captains been called?
Another concern is that it pays so much that it’ll destroy the first class structure – already moribund in terms of spectator interest. And there are two aspects of this – money and format.
Money first : These are professional sportsmen and if they bring in the revenue, a share of that to them is really a matter of justice. How else would we like it to be ? But spectator interest for the longer version first class games is a concept that struggles because of the premium that we now place on our time. The ICC bravely tried a “Us and Them” Super Test as a concept and it failed from the start and thats because the problem isn’t one of quality, which is high enough to justify interest – but of time.
Perhaps the format itself will go through changes. Maybe we’ll now have 4 innings of 25 overs each instead of 2 innings of 50 in a One day game to get a hybrid of sorts. But either way, the better cricketers will adjust. Sachin Tendulkar was born about the same time that limited overs internationals were. As were Rahul Dravid, Saurav Ganguly, Shane Warne and Glenn Mcgrath. They grew with, and indeed helped grow One Day internationals – but so seamless was their transition that its unlikely that any of them will be considered as having harmed Test cricket. If anything, they have embellished it.
And the performances will undoubtedly improve. And the IPL – and maybe other leagues of value – will contribute to them because they remove barriers to learning that geography created. First class cricketers and newbie internationals are rubbing shoulders with all-time greats. Getting encouragement, strategising along , playing in the nets , understanding preparations, celebrating victories and analysing losses alongside and imbibing mindsets. Even seasoned players see the value in competing with and against contemporaries that national duty would not typically allow them to.
Test Cricket has survived as long as it has because it has adjusted along with the times. Its monumental oceanic presence taking in the shades and shapes of all the new streams that joined in.
Test cricket is not going to die because the highest form of theatre lives on and because the art form is constantly evolving. It’ll probably get squeezed into an increasingly niche audience but those that are willing to carve the time to watch a performance will always stay. However, if we are to make time for it , then it too must keep with the times.
“Without tradition“, said Winston Churchill, “art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd“. Then, as with all things Churchillian, he added the punch line – “Without innovation, its a corpse.”
Earlier post related to the IPL here.