October 10, 2005

Cricket without faith

Nothing confers wisdom like hindsight, so we must careful while handing out the judgment on the first leg of the Super Series

Shane Watson shows how a strong national cause beats professional pride © Getty Images

Nothing confers wisdom like hindsight, so we must be careful while handing out the judgment on the first leg of the Super Series, which ended as an embarrassment on Sunday night. It has to be said, though, that it confirmed the worst fears of those who were naturally suspicious about it.

The recipe was made for disaster: three one-day matches in an indoor stadium, one supremely motivated team against a congregation of underdone, underprepared, and in some cases, plainly uninterested stars, experimental rules, and the wrong time of year. It was artifice piled up on artifice, collapse was inevitable.

But let's not dismiss the concept out of sight. It had seemed a good idea when it was first mooted. It is an eternal fantasy of the cricket lover to see some of his dream players playing side by side. Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara batting together, Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan combining their wiles, Andrew Flintoff and Virender Sehwag creating double havoc ... these are delicious thoughts so an attempt had to be made to turn them in to reality.

It is natural to be skeptical about the official status granted to this series. There have been legitimate concerns about the ICC's recent propensity to expand the scope of official cricket. The decision to recognise the tsumani matches and the cynically commercial Afro-Asian games seriously threatens the integrity and sanctity of international cricket and creates dangerous precedents which lead to more and more Mickey Mouse tournaments.

But having conceived the idea of a Super Series, the ICC was obliged to give the matches the best chance of succeeding. Getting the top players together was not enough: the ICC had to make sure the matches mattered. There was little point in playing the best of the world against the No. 1 team as an exhibition match.

The Test, which starts at the SCG on Friday, might well live up to be a contest, but the lesson from the one-day matches is abundantly clear. Merely flying down the best players and putting a carrot before them will not turn them into a great team. Cricket, even one-day cricket, is a long game. It requires players to settle in, feel comfortable in the new company, play with trust and understanding and for a common cause.

International cricket has thrived on bilateral partisanship and nationalistic fervour throughout its history. Big prizemoney, high match fees and making these matches part of players' records will not change the dynamics overnight. Professional pride alone can not bind a team in the absence of strong national cause. Australia played like a team out to avenge their honour, the World XI merely went through their paces.

Andrew Flintoff, who was virtually impossible to score off in England just a month ago, went at seven runs a over in the first match and eight in the second. He wouldn't have loved getting carted by the opponents who he had so spectacularly brought to their knees, but after giving himself so wholeheartedly to the Ashes, he could not rouse himself to a cause that was at best symbolic and at worst contrived.

Cricket is a matter of faith, both for the players and the followers. You can be occasionally enthralled by an isolated spectacle, but to be absorbed and involved over the period of a day, or days, you need to identify with, or feel for, a team.

The World XI also suffered from a selection that was obviously based on wrong reasons. Too many players made it to the team on their star value rather than contemporary merit. Shoaib Akhtar was a mere show pony, content at a couple of speedy bouncers in the first couple of overs before he ran out of steam. He was rarely seen at the practice sessions and on his current fitness level, seems good only for Twenty-20 cricket where he can get away with a three-over spell.

Virender Sehwag's one-day form didn't merit his inclusion; Lara had played no cricket for months, and his dismissals betrayed a casualness that should cost him his place in the Test side; and the South Africans looked visibly rusty. Above all, Shaun Pollock, who is not good enough to captain his own country, was a strange choice to lead a World XI. It was beyond him to inspire a team that contained a few who were off the boil, a few prima donnas and, a few who were both.

But despite the mismatch, despite the lack of atmosphere, despite the fact that World XI were a rabble, it was an experiment worth trying. I am ambivalent about whether it should continue, and if it can ever be worthy of being called a Super Series. But without trying it out, we would have never known.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo