April 28, 2010

The importance of Misbah

Would Indian cricket be under a cloud if their side hadn't won the first World Twenty20? Maybe not, but it's not as if the IPL has been all bad either

History is more about ripples than tidal waves. On small, barely discernible changes does the world turn. Rewind to the inaugural World Twenty20 final in Johannesburg in September 2007. Imagine Misbah-ul-Haq's audacious, arguably reckless over-the-shoulder flip had soared six inches to the right or left of Sreesanth. Would the reputation of Indian cricket be wallowing in the mire it is now? Probably not. Would the game as a whole be better off? Now there lies the rub, not to mention the 64 million-dollar question.

Of course, one might just as easily pose the same "What if?" about the 1983 World Cup final. What if the West Indies hadn't gone into that Lord's affair so cocksure of victory that Malcolm Marshall had already spent his anticipated proceeds on a flash new car? Had India succumbed as the world and his wife - and even Kapil Dev - expected, would the 50-over game have taken wing as it did, preserving the medium-term future of flannelled tomfoolery? Would Sharjah have emerged as the spiritual home of match-fixing? Would Hansie Cronje still be revered beyond the Afrikaaner-speaking world, or even alive? The imponderables are endless.

Had Misbah been more judicious at the Wanderers and steered Pakistan home, would the BCCI, hitherto so dismissive of the 20-over format, have been in such a hurry to launch the IPL and bully the Indian Cricket League out of business? Would the name Lalit Modi have induced such fear and loathing in the hearts of administrators in London and Melbourne? Would Allen Stanford have made a laughing stock of the England and Wales Cricket Board? Would the primacy of the international game be under threat as never before?

Why stop there? Would Adam Gilchrist and Shane Warne be lying in wait for England in the forthcoming Ashes series? Would purists be fearful for the future of Test cricket? Would the one-day international be a threatened species? Would the game's lexicon have been sullied by the DLF Maximum? Would the art of television commentary have plumbed such unthinkably fatuous depths?

The common denominator in these two scenarios, it scarce needs pointing out, is India, without whose passionate followers and zealous investors the game might not have any sort of future. To tune into the BBC World Service on Monday morning was to hear a succession of fans defying the doom-and-gloom mongers, as if it was their patriotic duty not to betray the slightest glimmer of doubt to the outside world. Once the dust has settled, and even a trickle of the thick-flying allegations of fraud, bribery, political chicanery, money-laundering and even match- or spot-fixing has borne fruit, will shame provoke a change of heart? The questions are as boundless as the answers, at present, are in short supply.

SO, WHAT IF THE letters I, P and L did not connote one of the best-known acronyms in global sport? Would our beloved plaything be in better, more credible shape?

The downsides are too obvious to bear repeating - start with corruption, naked greed and flagrant disregard for open governance and the wider interest, then work your way down - so let's examine the benefits of the BCCI's golden goose, advertent and otherwise.

Only those with a PhD in philistinism would argue that the sight of the world's leading players competing alongside each other, nationality irrelevant, has not been a decided boon. Granted, those fortunate to have watched county cricket over the past four decades have been similarly blessed, but not to anything like the same extent

To this observer, one of the greatest legacies of the IPL will be the power conferred on the players. Treated as little more than remote-controlled serfs for more than a century, those sumptuous salaries have built on the progress made by the Packer Revolution, allowing the principal generators of wealth to do, if not quite as they please, then certainly more than they have ever been permitted in terms of self-determination.

Never before has cricket reaped such bountiful profits. That the primary sources of those vibrant bottom lines are enjoying a more appropriate share of the plunder seems absolutely right and extremely proper. That prize money for winning the English County Championship has increased five-fold, making the game's most venerable competition 10 times more valuable than the Twenty20 Cup, has been just one of the welcome by-products.

The IPL's intrusion has also obliged the administrators to reconsider the Future Tours Program, a well-intentioned but ultimately slave-driving exercise, one that victimises English players above all. "Burnout" may not be the buzzword it was three years ago but if the upshot is a more humane schedule, one that benefits players as well as spectators, can anyone justly complain?

For all that the novelty has begun to wear off as the fixture list has expanded, only those with a PhD in philistinism would argue that the sight of the world's leading players competing alongside each other, nationality irrelevant, has not been a decided boon. Granted, those fortunate to have watched county cricket over the past four decades have been similarly blessed, but not to anything like the same extent. The next step, a world league comprising more readily identifiable city-based teams, may not be far away.

The success of the IPL has also rammed home the increasingly blatant shortcomings of the 50-over game, whose days must surely be numbered. The prospect of an annual World Twenty20 replacing the quadrennial World Cup is anything but unappetising. This town simply ain't big enough for three variations on the same theme.

For the first time in its history, moreover, cricket is now perceived as a glamorous profession. If the IPL spreads the gospel stateside, and to China, so much the better for the game's long-term health and prosperity.

Above all, the frantic fantastics and transient loyalties of the IPL have highlighted why we still need international cricket in general and Test cricket in particular - and why Test cricket in turn needs a world championship. Fast food is all very well as a path to daily nourishment, but the road to nutrition lies elsewhere.

On balance, then, thank goodness Misbah miscued. A world without the IPL would be a poorer place. If its manifest growing pains can be alleviated, and its wider responsibilities addressed, long may it reign. But that's a mighty big if.

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