August 27, 2010

Cricket can't afford meaningless games

The game cannot risk alienating audiences with irrelevant matches

A topsy-turvy, irrelevant and largely unnecessary tournament lurches towards a final. It has been characterised not by outstanding cricket but by wildly fluctuating performances. If a team vanquishes its opponent by 200 runs one day and loses by 105 a week later, which is the better team? One-sided games are not good contests and there hasn't been a good contest so far in Sri Lanka.

It makes you wonder if teams might have played differently if this were a World Cup, where every match counted towards something, where a defeat strengthened resolve for it meant a greater peak had been installed in the way. I have long argued that increasingly audiences are only concerned with whether or not the home team is playing. It now seems that we are progressing towards a stage where audiences ask whether or not a game is relevant. Sri Lanka could not produce crowds for a home game against India. It is an alarming, and peculiarly welcome, sign.

Cricket cannot afford to throw up meaningless games before its benefactors, which is what spectators and television audiences are. If you want their money you must offer them a spectacle, and while sometimes the promise may not be fulfilled (even the football World Cup threw up many duds, including the final), the intent has to come shining through.

Players cannot afford to treat a contest as just another game. They are living a dream that few see realised. And the opposition is quick to spot laziness and arrogance anyway. Like an author, a cricketer signs his name on every innings he bats or bowls in; indeed for every cricket ball that challenges him on the field. It is a mandate he must feel privileged to uphold. Over the last couple of weeks I am not sure I got that impression every time.

India must also be concerned by the inconsistency of the younger players. Across professions, consistency is a direct product of work ethic. The greats were defined by their consistency because they were wedded to work ethic. No oddball gambler ever achieved greatness. Some, like Shane Warne, suggest occasionally that they might be mavericks, but when Warne's legbreak didn't obey his command, he worked harder than anybody else on it. Sometimes I feel the lessons from the legends are misplaced in satiated youthfulness.

And so, in the four games played at Dambulla, India's batting seemed to revert to the old movie formula: one hero, one supporting actor, and no one else of any consequence really. This was the opportunity for challengers to Tendulkar, Gambhir, Harbhajan and Zaheer to make a statement. They haven't yet. If anything has been gained it is that Sehwag is doing his one-day career some justice. With every innings he seems to rise above his generation and earn for himself a more exalted place.

Meanwhile the IPL and the BCCI lurch from one controversy to another. Clearly no organisation is run by monks, and who knows there might be political undercurrents in monasteries as well, but the quality of governance must remain non-negotiable. With disciplinary issues smothering cricketing ones, the IPL must wake up to the blow its image is taking. Whether or not media allegations are true, the damage in the eyes of the public has to be addressed. An outstanding brand cannot lapse into somnolence; cannot be defined by committees and a bureaucracy.

Outside of India's private sector, which has many islands of excellence amidst other less agreeable ones, Brand India has rarely been characterised by outstanding governance. For every success story in software, telecom and manufacturing, we have the Commonwealth Games to portray us as pathetic, bumbling organisers. The IPL promised to be different, to be a genuine global sports brand born and nurtured in India. It can still be but its mind seems to be elsewhere, caught up in committees and personal conflict. Like India's young middle order, it needs some refurbishing.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here