August 11, 2013

Missing: the thrill of upsets

Akarsh Sharma
Cricket is not hospitable to its minnows, thus depriving fans of witnessing fairy-tale victories. But T20 could fix that

Ireland's World Cup win over England isn't a story that will only be related over and over in the O'Brien household © Getty Images

Only a couple of years ago, Kevin O'Brien's sensational 113-run assault in Bangalore helped Ireland chase down England's mammoth 327 from a nigh- impossible scenario. This, the greatest upset in ODI history both in manner and magnitude, even attracted interest from the United States, where comparisons to the NFL's greatest comeback were made to help gauge the scale of the result.

That is the beauty of fairy tales. They inspire, they travel and they spread the game. They also remind you that sport's greatest gift is of glorious uncertainties: of minnows finding unearthly resolve to overthrow the masters, of viewers finding solace and hope in the meteoric rise of the ordinary, and of stories to which you can point and say: "That's why we love this game."

Which is why, at times, cricket fans feel short-changed.

Sure, cricket has given us some magical stories: the rebellious rise of lowly West Indies in the 1970s, India's revolutionary triumph in 1983, Sri Lanka's unexpected win in 1996 and Kenya's march to the World Cup semis in 2003 among them.

And it has, on average every four years, thrown up some incredible upsets too: Zimbabwe beating Australia in 1983, Kenya's defeat of West Indies in 1996, Bangladesh rolling Australia over in 2005 and India two years later, and Ireland eliminating Pakistan in the same World Cup, to name just a few.

But the proverbial Cinderella story is virtually non-existent today.

The primary reason is pretty evident. The ICC comprises just ten Full Members, out of which eight are well established at the highest level. Among these eight nations, who dominate the calendar, any unexpected result would be termed a mere "surprise" and not an "upset". An upset must involve a nation other than those eight, for which cricket needs to be an inclusive sport, which it simply isn't: only eight* other countries currently have ODI status, and six of those play very few ODIs.

In the 1992 World Cup, Zimbabwe had the rare luxury of playing all the other eight teams in a league format. Nowadays, once every four years, most of the lesser nations are thrust into a World Cup that is designed to eliminate them as soon as possible. Outside of that, they quarrel among themselves in matches that don't prepare them for the big occasion.

Cricket doesn't give them enough chances. It doesn't allow its fans the option to tolerate lopsided encounters in the hope of experiencing the best thrills more often. It is far too dependent on the commercial interests of a handful of nations.

How quickly has it been forgotten that only a decade ago Bangladesh were rank outsiders. But they have beaten India, Sri Lanka, England and West Indies in ODIs in the last couple of years without raising too many eyebrows. That is a sign of progress and acceptance; a reward for giving them chances.

But lack of avenues for the smaller teams to participate isn't the only reason for cricket's failure to deliver shocks on a regular basis. The game's fundamental characteristics aren't too friendly towards such results either.

The obvious rule of thumb is that the shorter the game, the greater the likelihood of an upset. A 50-over contest or a five-day Test match drastically reduce the chances of a shock result because sustaining skill and effort to match that of a top nation's is too much to ask for from the lesser teams over such lengthy contests.

Cricket, more than most other team sports, relies on individual performances and one-on-one battles. You can't avoid bowling to a Sachin Tendulkar or facing a Dale Steyn, whereas you can strategically double-team a Kobe Bryant or man-mark a Lionel Messi, or even try to keep the ball away from them for long periods to negate their impact.

In cricket, you also require a highly unlikely string of underperformances from top professionals in any given match to stand a chance of upsetting the odds. This is in contrast to most other team sports, where a mistake by one player alone can make a significant difference.

Ben Watson, for instance, took advantage of his marker's failure to track his run, even if the rest of the defenders were doing their jobs perfectly, to score and gift lowly Wigan Athletic a fairy-tale FA Cup win over Manchester City (the richest football club in England) earlier this year.

That day, at London's famous Wembley Stadium, saw the success of one team's strategy in negating the other's much greater individual prowess. Cricket doesn't have enough room for this. Moreover, straight knockout competitions - such as in football and tennis - that allow for a greater variety of competitors and add to the probability of shock results are absent from cricket too. So, the question arises: how can the sport possibly help the Davids stand up to the Goliaths?

To paraphrase, how can cricket raise the level of lesser nations to a point that warrants them more chances to play against the elite (and potentially cause upsets) if it does not let them compete against the elite in the first place?

This is where the T20 format's chief potential comes into play: to introduce clubs into a country-driven sport. Team sports that span the globe showcase their highest standards at club, and not international, level. Football's UEFA Champions League and basketball's NBA serve as prime examples.

Clubs offer players a chance on the basis of individual merit, independent of their nations' stature in the game, which allows them a platform to compete with the best in class. Andriy Shevchenko, for instance, made his name as one of football's best ever strikers, playing for a club in Milan while his national team struggled.

This, in theory, should be easier in cricket. Unlike other team sports, cricket doesn't call for a lot of cohesiveness among players on the field, coordination in sticking to formations, positioning relative to team-mates, or near-telepathic understanding.

Players from the ICC's 97 Associate and Affiliate members can develop in isolation at different clubs and step up to join fellow countrymen for national duty when required. At present we already see too much of the same players in the various Premier League tournaments around the world - an indicator of the scope for blooding in new talent.

T20 can thus offer a development cycle that could translate into better national teams. We could then entertain the possibility of having more participants in international cricket, albeit only at T20 level for starters.

How clubs and countries will co-exist and how that might negatively impact the sport is an altogether separate issue. Here we're merely contemplating ways to have a future with more teams, better quality, and a broader roster to make room for some unpredictability.

It is conceivable that 20 or 30 years down the line, T20 leagues in different countries will run simultaneously, a la football. Clubs will establish divisions and a firm hierarchy. And perhaps, when lowly Baroda Bombers beat the invincible Chennai Super Kings, it'll be talked about for ages to come.

Or it is possible, but rather inconceivable for now, that cricket's international elite will become less rigid - by force or by choice - towards new entrants and they'll forego vested interests to withstand dour India-Scotland contests every now and then for the betterment of the game.

Till then, though, we have no choice but to pin our hopes on the game's four-year cycle of producing a shock or two. And pounce at every little opportunity to say: "That's why we love this game!"

*05:50:04 GMT, August 12, 2013: The article initially said only five other countries play ODIs

Akarsh Sharma himself was once an underdog who was given the chance to climb up the editorial ladder. He is based in India and writes on football and cricket for various publications. He tweets here