March 13, 2007

South Asia's natural game

The World Cup could return to the region where it forms part of the fabric



Despite having big names, South Asian teams have found little success in Test cricket outside the subcontinent © AFP

Moans echoed across Pakistan a couple of months ago as the Test series against South Africa slipped out of grasp. Pakistan fought the good fight but for their fans the essential frustration was still the same: an inability to win a competitive Test series on foreign soil. The unkindest cut was to lose the contest after coming within striking distance through a stirring victory in the second Test at Port Elizabeth. Accepting failure is hard enough, but failure from a position of near-success has a special way of hurting.

It's a familiar lament. In decades of Test cricket, Pakistan are still looking for their first series win in Australia, West Indies, or South Africa. And though India have twice won a Test series in West Indies, no subcontinental team has ever emerged victorious in a Test series in South Africa, and the Holy Grail - a Test series-win in Australia - seems so remote it is difficult to contemplate even in fantasy.

Contrast this with Australia's away Test record. Since 1967-68 (when a subcontinental team first won a series overseas - India winning in New Zealand), Australia have triumphed in an imposing 19 Test series encounters (not counting Zimbabwe or Bangladesh), conquering every cricket territory in the world. During the same period, India have managed only four more away series wins (two in England, two in West Indies), Pakistan have managed seven (three in England, four in New Zealand), and Sri Lanka just one in New Zealand (apart from their one-off Test win in England in 1998).

It's something of a puzzle, because South Asia has certainly contributed its share of legends and heroes to the game. Yet for all the Tendulkars and Kumbles, Inzamams and Akrams, Jayasurias and Muralitharans, Test cricket success outside the subcontinent has been very hard to come by.

What explains this history of underachievement in the face of iconic international star power? Poorly organized national cricket set-ups and an erratic mental attitude are commonly invoked, but it may be worth looking at the issue from a different angle.

Test cricket has been the canonical medium for cricketing excellence, but perhaps it is time to recognize that the cricketing canon has diversified. The record suggests that ODI cricket, rather than Test cricket, is the subcontinent's natural game. Consider: India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have each won the World Cup at some point even though some key teams - England, New Zealand, and South Africa - have yet to do so. Indeed, each of the last four World Cup finals has included a team from the subcontinent (Pakistan in 1992 and 1999, Sri Lanka in 1996 and India in 2003).

Subcontinental teams have also excelled in other ODI tournaments that have included all the Test-playing nations. India won the Benson and Hedges World Championship of Cricket (with Pakistan as finalists) held in Australia in 1984-85, and India and Sri Lanka shared the ICC Champions Trophy title in 2002. India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have also each recorded ODI series wins in West Indies. Even Bangladesh, the subcontinent's stragglers, achieved the audacious distinction of beating Australia on neutral ground two summers ago.



The fact that a subcontinental side has figured in the last four World Cup finals suggests that one-day cricket maybe the South Asian teams' natural game © AFP

Pakistan have even won the top prize of a limited-overs series victory on Australian soil - not just once, but twice. In 1996-97 they outplayed both Australia and West Indies in the Carlton and United triangular, and in the Australian winter of 2002 they beat Australia in a best-of-three Super Challenge ODI series. South Africa remains the only ODI territory unconquered by Pakistan, or indeed any subcontinental team. (You can't have everything.)

Many of the major ODI records - most runs; most wickets; highest individual innings; best bowling analysis; most hundreds; highest partnerships; fastest century; fastest fifty - are also held by players from the subcontinent.

Clearly, for subcontinental teams, success in the ODI arena has been far easier to come by, which may reflect something intrinsic to the South Asian cricket temperament. Analysts frequently point out that teams from the subcontinent tend to be weak on the basics - a deficiency for which Pakistan is the archetypal example. Yet the fundamental flaws that compromise Test performance - playing through the line, slogging and reverse-sweeping, audaciously running between the wickets, and experimenting with the bowling - are the very qualities that work to your advantage in the limited-overs version.

Javed Miandad, who excelled at both forms of the game, says that the subcontinent's - and especially Pakistan's - relative adeptness at ODI cricket is an unintended consequence of the region's disorganised state of grassroots cricket. The earliest and often formative exposure for most children is with a kind of rag-tag cricket, played in makeshift surroundings with a taped-up tennis ball, limited overs, fielding restrictions, and instant results. Even at the level of schools and colleges, the effort and diligence required for three-day cricket is shunned in favor of one-day cricket. "By comparison, when a child picks up cricket in England or Australia, his very first exposure is with an organized form of the game, with proper equipment and arrangements," says Miandad.

There are other forces at work. Foremost, one-day cricket is what the South Asian fan base craves. Sikander Bakht, Pakistan's former seam bowler who now hosts a hardnosed cricket show on cable television, believes it is this ravenous public appetite that has pushed subcontinental sides to excel in limited-overs cricket.

He makes a compelling point. Unlike in Australia and England, Test match crowds in India and Sri Lanka have sharply dwindled, and in Pakistan they have become almost non-existent. Yet ODI matches are routine sell-outs throughout the region. In response to this rapacious demand, South Asian teams have ended up playing a good deal more ODI cricket than anyone else. Of the 8 players with 300 or more ODI appearances, for example, 7 are from the subcontinent (Steve Waugh is the only exception). And Sharjah, a certified subcontinental preserve, remains by some distance the venue that has hosted the most ODI games.

One upshot of all this, of course, is that a subcontinental team could well take the World Cup that begins today. If cricket history has a quarter-century cycle, then we can see the outlines of a tantalizing parallel. In 1983, West Indies was everybody's team to beat and they had marched into their third straight World Cup final on the back of two consecutive titles, only to be thwarted by India. This time around Australia come as outright favorites, fueled by the momentum of two titles in a row. Might there be a dragon slayer from the subcontinent lying in wait yet again?

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi