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So that was the Naughty Noughties, eh? A decade that will look wonderful in Wisden (has any 10-year period in the game's history donated so many delicious records and luscious landmarks?) and repugnant in newsprint (has any 10-year period supplied us with so many villains and so many moments worthy of instant deletion from our hard drives?).
But what of the Tens? What can we expect of them? Much as one deplores the modern tendency to deal exclusively in extremes - history, after all, is more about the steady, cumulative impact of greys and beiges than a noisy procession of blacks and whites - let's consider the best- and worst-case scenarios, the better to find a reasonably happy medium.
Through A Glass Darkly
"With the match-fixing scandal temporarily swept under various carpets, the English crisis is now the greatest crisis in world cricket." So lamented Matthew Engel in the 2000 Wisden, the deadline for his Editor's Notes having been brought forward by the need to produce an edition celebrating the recently departed 20th century, and hence too early to mention Hansie Cronje's fondness for leather jackets. Oh that such a tiny quandary as the unfitness of the England team should be our gravest concern now. Cricket has never been more profitable, nor followed so widely, nor so lacking in unity and direction.
The most grievous fear is that the Gordon Gekkos running the game will continue to believe that fixture congestion is good, that quantity is more important than quality, that greed is good. Among those of a certain age, paranoia reigns: will our beloved anachronism, the five-day Test, be sacrificed on the altar of artifice and wafer-thin concentration spans?
The coming decade promises to ask two searching questions above all. Come 2020, it is fiendishly hard not to wonder: will Twenty20 be the only game in town? And if so, will the domestic game gain precedence over the international model? Thanks to the IPL, and Lalit Modi's recent hubristic pronouncements about expansion and the availability of contracted players for national service, it is becoming all-too easy to envisage city-based franchises ruling the economic roost.
In itself, this may not necessarily be an entirely bad thing. Nationalism, after all, is scarcely an untarnished creed. But will the profits hatched by our latest golden goose be deployed to ensure that the representative game, so long the inspiration for the highest standards and the most straightforward means of identification and source of support, remains viable?
We cannot look to the players to take the lead, nor should we. Not since the 19th century have they enjoyed such bargaining power. The security of board contracts is gradually being traded in for the instant gratification of the quick buck. Given the choice between flying the flag and making the most productive use of their limited shelf life, who can honestly blame them for following the scent of the almighty pound/dollar/rupee? The Modis and Stanfords, therefore, will continue to tempt and seduce. And so long as the Full Members of the ICC persist in pulling in different, self-serving directions, and refuse to see the players' unions as partners to be valued and respected, the prospects for harmony and common purpose, even a vestige of selflessness, are dim to non-existent.
In this context, moreover, to imagine that match-fixing will not disfigure the game anew would be the height of naïveté.
Through A Glass Brightly
Lord's, September 2014, and the summer-long celebrations for the 200th anniversary of the first match ever played at the St John's Wood pleasuredome are reaching a fitting, palpitating crescendo.
Every member of the rapt packed house hovers on the edge of their floodlit seat as Mohammed Aamer surges in to serve up the first offering of the final over, to Adrian Barath, the white ball he is gripping almost luminous. The West Indies require seven runs with one wicket standing. A London lass, 10 years old if she's a day, leaps to her feet in the pavilion and screeches her support: "I love you, Ay-dreee-aaaan!" All around her, black, brown and white faces beam in unison.
Barath defends the first ball, tucks the second off his pads for two, then plays and misses at an outswinger as keeper and slip cordon howl. Aamer shrugs and stalks impassively back to his mark. Barath nods and smiles, acknowledging his luck and the bowler's skill.
The next delivery, pitched on middle-and-off and moving away, sees the opener adjust late and guide an educated cut beyond gully: he and Kemar Roach sprint one and seem destined to complete a second, only for Danish Kaneria's return to detonate middle stump at the striker's end. An 11-man chorus rends the twilight air. Aleem Dar consults his replay assistant and the verdict comes down: the toe of Barath's bat has broken the line just as the bails vacate their groove. The crowd roars. Two balls to go, three runs to get.
The penultimate delivery is an inswinger that clobbers Barath's front toes. Another raucous appeal. Dar lifts his right forefinger a shade too quickly. The Pakistanis celebrate as Barath shakes his head vigorously, utterly convinced the ball had pitched outside leg. A year earlier he would have been entitled to refer the decision, but those shameful scenes in Perth the previous November, when Phil Hughes expressed his fury at a rejected challenge by jabbing Dar with his Mongoose bat, had prompted a refinement. The buzzing in the umpire's ear indicates the need to consult the replay assistant. The ball, he is speedily informed, had indeed pitched outside, albeit by the slenderest of margins. Barath is reprieved. Another 30,000-strong chorus of approval, not so much because the assembled masses favour West Indies but because they want to see the drama prolonged.
Aamer trudges back to his mark, dismayed but stoical. After everything he and his team-mates had endured in reaching this point - the kidnapping of Umar Akmal in 2010, the ball-tampering allegations in Mumbai in 2013, the defection of Mohammed Yousuf to India later that year - coitus interruptus of this ilk is a minor distraction.
In spurts Aamer once more. At a loss as to what to expect, so varied is Aamer's arsenal, Barath is tentative. Play safe and ensure survival, and hence the most honourable of draws, or chance his arm in search of glory? Yes, immortality has its appeal, but to lose now might undo all the efforts of those who had sought to bury the memory of all those barren, disputatious years. He decides not to decide.
Aamer's head is buzzing with much the same conundrum. After all Pakistan's trials, defeat could be catastrophic, yet victory would do so much to boost the spirits of his 500 million beleaguered countrymen. He contemplates pinging down a bouncer that would soar over Barath, but that would risk a wide. He settles on a yorker.
Barath detects the trajectory early, considers moving forward to turn it into a full-toss but then suppresses his instincts and stays back, jamming down as the ball swings late, squeezing it into the covers. He and Aamer meet in mid-pitch and hug. Thirty thousand voices bellow their appreciation. The first World Test Champions are a double act.
At the closing ceremony, Sir Vivian Richards, voice creaking with emotion, takes the microphone. "When I was asked to become West Indies coach three years ago, I thought long and hard before accepting," he begins, face creased by a toothy grin that, unchecked by his cheeks, would surely have crossed the Thames. "I asked myself: Vivi, do you really want to throw yourself back into a game so obsessed with money and so negligent of the future?
|So long as the Full Members of the ICC persist in pulling in different, self-serving directions, and refuse to see the players' unions as partners to be valued and respected, the prospects for harmony and common purpose, even a vestige of selflessness, are dim to non-existent|
"What made up my mind was the sight of this boy, Barath, playing a majestic cover-drive in an inter-island match, a shot I'd have been proud to call my own, a shot he could not possibly have mastered had Twenty20 been his sole means of education and expression. I wanted to help, to do my bit to ensure the game I love had a future beyond fast bucks and fast food.
"Now I'm the proudest man on the planet. Proud of my team, yes, but proud of Pakistan too, and proud of the game I love. We have found a way to prosper and preserve. The advent of the World Twenty20 League two years ago, after Lalit Modi was discredited for impersonating a member of the ECB, was the key: that spread the power and the profits.
"Bangladesh now have as many world-class players as Australia. The national boards have finally recognised that they all need to be rowing in the same direction. The players are regarded as stakeholders, the fixture list is sensible now we've eliminated one-day internationals, and a sense of anticipation has returned. When was the last time you heard anyone mention the word 'burnout'?
"And now this, the World Test Championship, which has proved that the game's highest form of expression can excite young people. Better late than never, eh?"
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton
© ESPN EMEA Ltd.
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