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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.
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