May 27, 2009

Beware the freelance cricketer

How long before board contracts are torn up? How long before Test cricket becomes a three-day game?

If the intention is to hang, draw, quarter and exterminate the golden goose with extreme prejudice, cricket is certainly making a dashed fine job of it right now. Not even 24 hours separated the start of this season's Twenty20 Cup and the Indian Premier League final, the end of the first half of the former competition comes a day before the commencement of the World Twenty20, and proceedings resume the day after the World final.

Does anybody in authority understand the meaning of the word "overkill"? The fact that the attendance for Monday's Middlesex-Surrey match at Lord's was reportedly 10,000, some 16,000 down on the gate for the first such contest at HQ in 2003 - and on a Bank Holiday at that - suggests not. Nor, needless to add, does the England and Wales Cricket Board's decision to launch its P20 tournament next summer, nor Lalit Modi's plans for two IPLs a year, nor the growing talk of a Southern Twenty20 League, hint at moderation, much less common sense.

Carping, though, comes almost too easy to the purist, not least when one is watching and wincing as Roelof van der Merwe adds a new phrase to the technical lexicon - the shut-your-eyes-and-throw-yourself-off-your-feet interplanetary hoick. The inarguable fact is that the game's shortest medium of expression is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future; resistance is pointless and useless. Just as it was when the 40-over John Player League was launched in 1969, and when the tri-nation World Series bulldozed its way into - and reshaped - the Australian season in 1979-80.

Nonetheless, equivocal feelings abound. The IPL final was both an irresistible advert for the form and a source of near-primal fear. On the one hand, the way the game rollercoastered and switchbacked towards its less-than dramatic conclusion was apt to convert even the hardiest non-believer. When Anil Kumble brought himself on for the opening over and ducked his counterpart, Adam Gilchrist, and again when he bowled Andrew Symonds with the scoring-rate hovering at well under seven an over and the Deccan Chargers innings nearly halfway done, who would have guessed that a match-winning total was in prospect?

On the other hand, the fact that the Royal Challengers proceeded to emphasise, ludicrously, that teams are now more likely to be bowled out inside 20 overs than they are inside 50 says something profoundly rotten about the state of techniques, temperaments and concentration spans, something that augurs horribly ill for the future of Test cricket, for all that Ravi Bopara's seemingly effortless switch between the forms offered a plausible and encouraging riposte. Those of a pessimistic disposition might find it hard not to wonder whether, within the next decade, the game's pre-eminent form will transmogrify into a three-day affair. At most.

So what has the IPL - and, for that matter, the recent spate of 20-over internationals and the first of this term's Twenty20 Cup encounters - taught us about the game's evolution and direction? Well, the undiminished productivity of Gilchrist, Kumble and Matthew Hayden has shown that there is life - and vibrant life at that - after international retirement.

The tipping point will come when MS Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh espy the riches on offer beyond the IPL, jump ship and declare their independence

Kumble and Muttiah Muralitharan, along with the likes of Daniel Vettori, Chris Schofield and Ian Fisher, have demonstrated that spin, contrary to most if not all prognostications, can be the most lethal weapon of all, a development to which nobody with the wider interests of the game at heart can object. Moreover, as the opportunities afforded the likes of Martin Guptill and David Warner have underlined, the advent of a third format has made it feasible to blood players earlier than would otherwise have been possible or even sensible.

Yet much as the unexpected and, as Gerald Majola put it with due flair for hyperbole, "enormously resounding" success of the transplanted IPL has evidently emboldened its organisers and sponsors to the point of arrogance - and there has surely been nothing more arrogant than Modi's pronouncement that there is no need whatsoever for him to seek a "window" for the IPL - it would be foolish in the extreme for them to imagine that they now have a product that is beyond criticism or modification.

Their first and most obvious headache will become acutely apparent when the Kumbles and Haydens have hung up their jockstraps: how will they replace such marquee names, and hence keep the crowds and broadcasters queuing up, when the means by which reputations and auction fees are earned - first-class and Test cricket - are being undermined and eroded? That, surely, is reason enough to believe that the game's most venerable forms may not be on their last legs.

So where - apart from consigning the 50-over contest to a belated and unmourned grave - do we go from here? The advent of the full-role, fully entitled substitute, inadequately handled and brusquely dispensed with in ODIs, surely cannot be far away. Injuries have yet to confer a significant advantage, granted, but how long before somebody breaks a leg stretching every sinew to stop a (and it pains me beyond expression to type these words) "DLF maximum"? And why not follow baseball's lead and permit captains to relieve underperforming or expensive bowlers in the middle of an over? Similarly, why not enable slow-scoring batsmen to be relieved of their duties? The penalty for "retiring" such a liability could be to treat such withdrawals as a wicket conceded. Let's be imaginative out there.

But back to Modi's disdain for an IPL window, one that could and should forestall the festering club v country disputes that are threatening to disfigure the game. As Richie Richardson recently remarked, what on earth was Dwayne Bravo doing playing in the IPL when he should have been helping West Indies avoid humiliation in England? How long before board contracts are torn up in admission of an unwinnable battle? How long before the notion of the freelance cricketer takes hold? In itself, that would not necessarily be A Bad Thing - after all, the game functioned more than tolerably before the Australians began rolling that particular ball - but the prospect of players following Bravo's lead is far too real and far too terrifying to be taken lightly.

Is it too much to hope that the BCCI, the captain of this particular ship, takes a hand and restores a semblance of order? Right now, yes. The growth of Twenty20 tournaments worldwide, however, could be crucial. The tipping point will come when MS Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh espy the riches on offer beyond the IPL, jump ship and declare their independence. Who knows? Out of overkill may come sanity.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton