October 26, 2009

The problem with burnout

It's not just players who are affected - fans and the media too are, apparently

"Burnout" is back. Until a few years ago, it seemed to be all that players and their union representatives used to talk about, cricket's version of sick building syndrome and yuppie flu. Then, with the rise of the Indian Premier League, players suddenly couldn't play enough, and burst with renewed energy that was in some cases remarkable. When Andrew Symonds had a kick of the footy the day after his sale to the Deccan Chargers 18 months ago, his Australian team-mates pulled his leg: it was amazing that a man could jump so high with so much gold in his pockets.

Now Australian coach Tim Nielsen is worried about burnout ahead of Australia's one-day series against India in the context of those New South Wales players who have just enjoyed a massive Champions League collect. Sounds like the kind of burning out you could get used to, doesn't it? In a two-week period, Simon Katich's team fielded for 114.2 overs, batted for 111.5, and won $US2.6 million. They might have the aforementioned Andrew Symonds problem, but surely not much else.

Nielsen does have a point, of course, insofar as it is not so much the playing that grinds players down these days as the relentless travelling and the protracted absences from home. He has watched it wear the keen edge from the likes of Michael Hussey and Stuart Clark; he has seen it finally get the better of Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden, relatively young men with good cricket still in them. But hold the violins: these are supremely well-paid professionals, and the modern have-iPhone-and-Blackberry-will-travel professional is mobile, motivated and global in perspective. Twenty20, moreover, can be a high-pressure game, but it is hardly a physically extenuating one. At Oxford University earlier this year, Sourav Ganguly remarked dryly that he sometimes finishes Twenty20 games feeling as though he's hardly played. That was the warm-up, wasn't it? Say, when does the cricket start?

Yet is burnout an affliction troubling only to players? Leni Riefenstahl's camerawork could not have disguised the gaps in the crowds at the venues outside Delhi during the recent Champions League. The organisers were fortunate that the spirit and élan of Trinidad & Tobago gave locals something to cheer for; Indian cricket without its matinee idols, the Tendulkars, Dhonis and Yuvrajs, felt a bit like Carnegie Hall with buskers being given the run of it.

It's not a year since Australia played six of the most enthralling Tests of the modern era, against South Africa; they are just about to begin a best-of-seven 50-over head-to-head in India. Yet between times have been squeezed, inter alia, the Indian Premier League, the Wisden Trophy, the World Twenty20, the Ashes, two Natwest Series, the Champions Trophy and the Champions League, most if not all with the capacity to be marquee events, but slotted together instead as tightly as Meccano. Actually, I'm being unkind to Meccano: Meccano is satisfyingly logical and coherent; the cricket year has been like trying to make the Lego Stars Wars collection integrate with adobe brick, to slot K'Nex Railroad Pals into Carrara marble.

Crowds, to be sure, are not always a reliable index of interest for cricket. There will have been numberless millions keeping track of the Champions League on their alternate screens at work and fast-forwarding through games taped overnight. But the sheer disorganisation of cricket's calendar is now itself fatiguing, and cannot but bring cynicism and contempt in its train. One half expects Lalit Modi to decree an extra month of the year, modestly named Modember, for a Champion of Champions Championship.

The sheer disorganisation of cricket's calendar is now itself fatiguing, and cannot but bring cynicism and contempt in its train. One half expects Lalit Modi to decree an extra month of the year, modestly named Modember, for a Champion of Champions Championship

Speaking of cynics, the other potential victim of burnout, not that many will be able to summon so much as a glycerin tear, is the media itself. Of course, journalists are terminal malcontents, popular really with neither players nor public. Sit in an airconditioned press box watching cricket, do you? What a life! Well, yes it is, quite, and one would sometimes wish to do more of it. For it's not so much the journalists feeling the strain of the calendar today so much as media proprietors. With the decline of newspapers, even big media organisations like News Corporation are becoming picky about tours and tournaments, especially long ones. Online media is not a like-for-like substitute, idly prone to the cheap shortcuts of seating a junior journalist in front of a television in the office, and/or soliciting dashed-off tripe from wannabe pundits and try-hard humourists.

As their own game grows rich beyond the dreams of Mammon, the game's governors will not spare too much time worrying about the straits into which daily print media is slipping, with advertising migrating to the web and circulations continuing their long-term downward trend line. On the contrary, the recent catfights over intellectual property between boards of control and news agencies have the former's position abundantly clear: they like the money on their side of the table. The print media, too, can be a little irreverent for some tastes, inclined to making a nuisance of itself by being critical, by being tasteless and tactless, by pointing out problems, by holding administrators and players to account.

For all its faults, and these are many, the print media has a credibility that a handsome Bollywood star and a popular model walking towards a camera and holding microphones while reading a script cannot quite attain. And a game so prone to making a horse's arse of itself needs its gadflies. Journalists, for example, did much to reveal cricket's dark match-fixing heart a decade ago; one wonders whether they would now be sufficiently vigilant, curious and numerous to do the same. Players are not alone, then, in suffering from a surfeit of cricket. What they are alone in is benefiting from it.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer