Decade Review 2009

Whatever happened to context?

Cricket has become a victim of the culture of fun. Now there are no sub-plots, no drama and no rivalries; it's difficult to gauge the value of players, and hard to get excited about all but a few match-ups

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Cheerleaders perform at the Royal Challengers Bangalore v Kings XI Punjab match, Durban, May 1, 2009
More manufactured enthusiasm, less meaning © Getty Images
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Teams: India

I entered this decade disillusioned with cricket, convinced I would never watch it again. The heroes whose posters had pride of place in my room, now stood exposed. All those wasted hours spent on my calculator, double-checking the required run-rates and tracking real-time batting averages. The game had been turned into a sham. Damn the glorious uncertainties.

Gradually cricket fought back. Some of us returned to see what this Sourav fellow was up to, others were dragged back by VVS' epic, and the rest eventually changed their minds after India nearly ambushed Australia. We could still watch Sachin v Warne, could still see the two Ws bowling against the Waugh twins, could still enjoy a gripping contest between bat and ball. Midway through the decade, when Freddie kneeled to console Binga, there was no sport like cricket.

Now I'm being pushed away again. I can't keep up with who is playing for which team and when; I'm constantly grappling with whom to support, and don't have the time or interest to watch as a neutral. I am tired of the noise that accompanies cricket coverage in India and outright appalled by cheerleaders masquerading as commentators. And I am bored by the actual cheerleaders too.

Even if I were to bypass these irritants, being choosy about which games to watch and muting the TV more often, there is a bigger, more fundamental, shift that pains me: the vanishing sub-plot - that theatrical quality made possible by the clash of individual egos, the heated combat between a batsman and a bowler, the build-up, the frisson, the climax.

Cricket has this wonderful capacity to toggle between being a team sport played by individuals and an individual sport played by teams. Bring up any classic from the past and thoughts usually shift to a phase of play etched in memory. Think India v Pakistan in Kolkata in 1999 and you're likely to remember Shoaib scattering Dravid's and Tendulkar's stumps. The moment mattered.

Personalities mattered too. We loved it when Ambrose, incensed over being asked to take off his wrist-band, fired himself up to flatten Australia. Thank God Devon Malcolm's ego was so hurt he was moved to challenge South Africa with "You guys are history".

Lara's 153 in Bridgetown was a breathtaking effort, but what gave it a glossy veneer was the way he thwarted a livid McGrath. How we loved it when the apparently soft Rahul Dravid was prodded into collaring Donald in a one-dayer - a final at that. The memorable games were incomplete without the fascinating duels, the friction, the sparks.

Gradually, as the decade wore on, things changed. At the heart of the Vanishing Sub-Plot are dopey pitches, crammed schedules and Twenty20. All have marginalised the bowler. In the 90s every team had two if not three fine bowlers capable of electric moments. Ambrose and Walsh, Donald and Pollock, Warne and McGrath, Wasim and Waqar, Murali and Vaas.

You still have potentially great bowlers going around, but they often lack the support to build up the tension. Dale Steyn, Mohammad Asif, Mitchell Johnson, Ishant Sharma and Ajantha Mendis have shown they can conjure up magic, but it's unrealistic to expect them to perform day in and day out, given the jam-packed calendar.

What's made it harder for them is the disappearance of outlier pitches. Perth has rolled up the trampoline, Barbados and Jamaica have lost spice, India no more produces crumblers, and Pakistan has often laid out tarmacs. Every time a surface acts funny, it's termed a shame, when in fact, it's minefields that really get the pulse racing. We can only glimpse raw pace between injuries. Bowlers often rely on swing ahead of seam and bounce (thankfully, they haven't messed with the atmosphere yet).

Then there's Twenty20, a fine innovation for a variety of reasons but one that threatens the very existence of the sub-plot. Here no bowler can hatch a plan for a single batsman and gradually lure him into a mistake. He needs to find a way to bowl a dot-ball. And then another. The next time you watch a Twenty20 game, focus solely on a bowler and the extent to which he waters down his craft.

Which parts of the IPLs do you remember? Maybe Gilchrist's maniacal hundred in Mumbai. Remember his domination of Pollock in that game? (We're talking two great performers here). You might remember what Gilchrist did, but do you remember how Pollock tried to counter it? Do you recall the fields he changed, or the line he was bowling, or him changing from over to around the wicket? Do you remember it as cricketing drama? Personally, all I remember was, the innings gave me a bagful of fantasy league points. The rest just happened too fast.

Where is the scope for imagination? One of the big casualties of Twenty20 is memorable cricket writing, the sort that requires time for a narrative to unfold. On-air commentators have it hard too. Many have been forced to take refuge in cliché. Every shot is "great", every player is a "genius", everything is "what the doctor ordered".

 
 
Cricket has become way too much fun. It needs to find its serious streak again. It needs to get us nervous, make us sulk, lose our temper
 

Caught in between is the cricket fan, struggling to calibrate the greatness scale. Previously you knew what counted: a series win against Australia, a counter-attacking innings against Donald and Polly, a Test win in Barbados or Karachi, a hundred at Headingley or in Perth, a Test average of 50, a World Cup win. The signposts were well laid out.

Now it's immeasurably hard to actually grade someone. He did well in the Test series in Australia but the pitches were flat and their spearhead was injured. He had a poor IPL but he has shown promise in ODIs and had a couple of important 20s in the Champions League. How good is he, really?

A star is born every day, yet many disappear in a trice. How does one separate the wheat from the chaff? Not only is the modern fan slightly confused, he has also run out of time for detailed analysis. So hectic is the schedule that nobody can afford that deep, introspective breath. When was the last time you analysed an innings threadbare, over by over? And when was the last time you got a chance to look ahead to the next series, gradually building up the anticipation?

Walk into a ground in India and it's difficult to spot fans with binoculars, or autograph-seeking kids on the boundary line, or even a single meaningful stat on the big screen. The purity associated with a cricket ground has given way to the din that accompanies a newly released movie.

Fans don't really have the time to talk about wind direction, overcast conditions or dew. Look, there's Shilpa Shetty.

I feel for the fathers who take their sons to games these days. Cricket, like baseball, is a game passed down from one generation to the next. But while fathers could earlier bond with their sons over a batsman's watertight technique, or an athletic catch (mimicking it while playing in the backyard), today's dads are left with Shaggy. Watch, Chotu, that's how you play the Dilscoop.

Cricket has become way too much fun. It needs to find its serious streak again. It needs to get us nervous, make us sulk, lose our temper. It needs to make us mull over moments, staring at the ceiling and wondering how a batsman of such talent couldn't average beyond 37.83.

We need to chew our nails at work, nervously hoping for our favourite player to win the game for our team. And we need our mothers, girlfriends and wives to think we're absurd creatures obsessed with a silly game. We need to be turned into geeks again.

Cricket usually finds a way to fight back. One hopes it can wriggle out of this fine mess. One hopes those running the game will allow it to.

© ESPN EMEA Ltd.

Comments: 53 
Posted by ashwathu on (January 7, 2010, 19:05 GMT)

..... as the article rightly ended "Cricket usually finds a way to fight back", the last few tests series including the Ashes, Aus vs Pak, and SA vs Eng have produced some mindblowing performances. Today's finish to the SA vs Eng game ensured that test cricket is still well and truly alive. Being an Indian I still watched the entire final day's play that produced a beautiful encounter between Colly and Steyn instead of watching the ball being smashed all over the park once again in the Ind vs Ban match and am proud of that. The pitches in the sub continent has to be revamped if "cricket" is to remain alive in this region.

Posted by ashwathu on (January 7, 2010, 18:51 GMT)

Well, hats off for writing this article. Couldn't agree more about the diminishing value of the game. It seems as though it is no more competition between two nations. Cricket is becoming a business and in the IPL the commentators act as though they are the brand ambassadors. What is the meaning of "that's another DLF maximum"? Great fast bowlers around the world are almost a handful now a days because of the grueling schedule. Look at Australia's schedule last year, they played around 110 days of cricket. Invent new forms of the game to make more money seems to be the motto. The way the game is interpreted has changed completely. What used to be competition between bat and ball has turned out to be batsmen vs batsmen of two sides. Bowlers are made a laughing stock especially in the sub continent........

Posted by Psyc_s on (January 7, 2010, 3:42 GMT)

Sid, i could visualise what was running through your mind while writing this...This very media is spoiling our sport and it is a curse to lament about it on the same media. Just turn off your television volume and watch any cricket match, the game is same. I really don't know how it was like without advertisement they conducted test matches 50 years ago and there were full house matches..are those people just came in because they got bored sitting in home? They are true fans who enjoyed the beauty of game and took it as it was, then who are we? Fanatics, i am sure. we want everything to change for us coz we need flat tracks, loud music, ultra mini skirts etc etc etc for the ticket money we spent. Cricket has never changed but we have...

Posted by grills on (January 6, 2010, 18:51 GMT)

Took the pains to register just so I can comment on this article. Congratulations on an astoundingly-mind-blowing-hit-the-bloody-nail-on-the-head article! May God bless you. Will make it a point to read all your articles in future.

Posted by uchitdesai on (January 6, 2010, 17:13 GMT)

I really miss friction between players like eg: Prasad v/s Sohail in world cup.The best which any current player that comes close is Sreesanth and I think ICC should allow some sort of sledging and stuff to increase the TRPs.I also miss how eagerly i used to count number of days left for next series and had by heart full tour itinerary of India which i cant today.

Posted by Supratik on (January 6, 2010, 11:57 GMT)

A masterpiece Siddhartha! And a great article on Cricinfo after sometime. Exactly what an old cricketing hag is feeling at the end of the 'noughties' (don't like that term either)! Moments & drama are long gone from Cricket. What goes to make one feel that way is that the game is a 'helter-skelter' with bikini clad cheerleaders, and 'characters' are punished with gay abandon by administrators. Further T20 is a fly by night game. The sub-plots are gone because 'pseudoism' is in. 'Right areas', 'Playing for the team', 'finisher' are all murderous words. 'Right areas' is too general a word to describe a complex game like cricket. 'Playing for the team' a big joke. As if they are playing a single-wicket tourney! If I score runs it is for the me and for my team. Both are equally important. A losing/match saving hundred can be equally great as the one which was scored in a match that was won. 'Finisher' - A big hog wash. As if starters are served only in Michelin star restaurants!

Posted by gp-gp on (January 6, 2010, 11:32 GMT)

sid, a heartfelt piece and one that i, and obviously many other respondents here (as well as more professional commentators) share. it's about the magic of cricket - picture the packed, partying, grounds from the queen's park oval in the east to the WACA in the west; recall the excitement around tuning into radio commentary for whatever match your long-wave picked up; and of course remember when people, though they may have supported their 'national' team, were fans of the game first and foremost, and identified with individual cricketers no matter where they were from - as a sport, a drama and spectacle and source of enjoyment no matter your age or location on a map. i for one can't keep up with the 'international' game anymore - but that's a personal failing. more upsetting is that the magic is gone.

Posted by azure99 on (January 6, 2010, 9:46 GMT)

I agree with the plummeting standards of cricket coverage in India. It is hard to filter out the noise, both audio and video as the area of screen devoted to ads has increased beyond belief. Also, gone are the days when commentators were allowed to analyze the situation, most of the non-live screen time seems to be reserved for several repetitions of 'medley of fours and sixes' .

For me, Test Cricket continues to produce memorable contests , however being an Indian supporter the frustration of 15 years ago continues - it is impossible to plan to attend Tests in India, the calendars are not available even 6 months in advance. Realistically, busy professionals with time commitments find it harder and harder to get the six hour chunks to savour a day's play!

The result is that I spend way too much time on cricinfo , where the details still matter :) and analyses are not hard to come by. Maybe there's a new type of 'cricket geekdom' for the decade.

Posted by Shafi79 on (January 6, 2010, 7:02 GMT)

IPL to me is like a TV series, i will watch to entertain myself, i know what to expect, sometimes all that big hitting gets boring, i have no emotions attached to the games and it never feels like watching international cricket but it's good fun when i have nothing better to do.

Posted by Shafi79 on (January 6, 2010, 6:59 GMT)

Rubbish!!! Cricket is in better health than ever, i have been watching cricket since i was around 12 (thats 18 years now) and i still feel all the highs and lows, it's just different depending on what you are watching. Yesterdays ODI when SL played IND was great, heart stopping moments and then Thissara Perera's cameo, absolutley enjoyed it, the times we botched up in the ODI series in India I was really mad and angry and swore i wont watch another game for a while, but i am back supporting the boys, The T-20's are immense fun and go at a hectic pace and even the wives are interested. All the cheerleaders and everything else i can live with, also while all this is going on the two test series, SA vs ENG & PAK vs AUS is providing the kind of viewing you are talking about (the wives dont watch this). THe only complain i have is about the kind of test series IND & SL had, i think in test matches we need more competition between bat & ball.

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