Here comes the flood
Welcome, Twenty Eleven! This is how Indian cricket is going to fill you up. South Africa tour in progress, the World Cup, the IPL, a tour of the West Indies, one of England, probably a tour by the West Indies too, then a tour of Australia, and the Champions League, and only a fool would bet against the World Twenty20 popping up because that is what it does. In short, a pretty hectic and crucial year across formats, the first time, as far as I can tell, that India will play Test matches on all five continents in the same calendar year, besides participating in the great 50-over and 20-over galas. There's only a couple of syllables between Twenty Eleven and Twenty-four Seven.
As you read this, torn-down stadiums all over India are confidently missing their deadlines, so everything seems to be in order for the tenth cricket World Cup. It will commence as soon as confirmation has come in from the Caribbean that the 2007 edition has indeed concluded. After numerous global summits in the wake of that endless event, the ICC used its collective wits and spreadsheets to compress the competition to... 43 days, or two-and-a-half times the length of the Olympics. And not to worry, India will not crash out in the first round, as they did four years ago. The whole structure has been designed to achieve this purpose.
The format - a long, quasi-warm-up league phase meandering towards quarter-finals - is much like the last subcontinental World Cup, in 1996. So forgiving was that format that teams could forfeit league matches, as Australia and West Indies did to Sri Lanka out of security fears, and still qualify for the knockouts. Following those forfeitures, in a display of Asian solidarity, India and Pakistan fielded a joint team to play an exhibition game in Colombo. The situation today, alas, is far beyond that. And though it is being held in the subcontinent, with Pakistan no longer hosting any part of it, this is not a truly subcontinental World Cup.
One-day cricket itself has come full circle since that tournament. The tidal wave of 50-overs cricket was cresting then, rather than lapping against indifferent feet as it does now. You can see the trend: the World Cup of 2015 is to be pared to 10 teams from 14, the Champions Trophy is to be done away with altogether, and Australia have begun to play their domestic one-day matches over four innings. So it will be interesting to see if one-dayers can show people a big night (or 43) on the town. For what it's worth, I think it will be a flat five weeks and a raucous, rousing last week. One of Bangladesh or West Indies will make the semis.
Not just one-day cricket but the entire landscape has changed since 1996. To leaf through War Minus the Shooting, Mike Marqusee's polemic about cricket's tryst with the global economy in that World Cup, is to be transported to those nascent days of cricket profiteering: Jagmohan Dalmiya and IS Bindra and Mark Mascarenhas, Pepsi and the "Nothing Official About It" campaign at a time when ambush marketing was not a term in any cricket fan's lexicon, the proliferation of VIP enclaves and hospitality boxes in stadiums. Observing it all, the venerable Pakistani critic Omar Kureishi tells the author of his fear that in "coming years private sector interests would organise their own mini World Cups and the ICC and the boards would lose control of their players".
In 2010, Kureishi's fears were partially borne out as a corporate-franchise tournament, cricket's richest, found itself embroiled in a financial scandal. Only partially, because the IPL was not a rebel start-up but an establishment creation, and because almost as dismal as the scandal was the Indian board's ultra-establishment response.
For better or worse, the BCCI had sold franchises for millions of dollars, and having slept at the wheel thereafter, with no respect for due process it decided to terminate two of them without so much as a notice. It was classic BCCI arrogance, founded on vengeance rather than principle. In trying to decimate the monster they'd created, they themselves turned into monsters.
One crore rupees (US$ 223,713 approx) per season was the slightly excessive token to governing council members to rubber-stamp Modi's decisions. So Shashank Manohar and N Srinivasan decided to apply that cutting-edge BCCI fix: they turned the governing council into an honorary committee. The honorary committee acted as honorary committees do. They came up with a tournament format so convoluted that it requires an honorary sub-committee to decode it (the short version: some teams will play each other one time and some teams will play each other two times - no more questions!). They crafted rules for player retention that, one cannot help but suspect, were pushed through by the board president-in-waiting, who by one of those innocent little coincidences also happens to own the team that retained the maximum number of players.
The fourth IPL is slated to get off the ground some five days after the World Cup. Many things about Modi will not be missed, but his energy and execution skills probably will. It promises to be less of a Page 3 tournament than its predecessors, which will be nice, but with a slew of court cases in progress, I'm not sure if anyone will be able to get it off Page 1.
Otherwise, from his bunker in London, Modi can look back at 2010 with satisfaction. His legacy to cricket coverage was further secured. Not content with turning commentators into hucksters, his last idea - and one of his many dodgy deals under the scanner - was to insert advertisements not just between overs but between deliveries. He had this done by zooming into the giant screen at the stadium, which beamed the commercial. Or so we thought. The truth, it emerges, is far more cunning than that. The commercial only appeared to be coming from the giant screen. In fact, it is simply a television recording played on loop so that we are lulled into thinking of it as ambient advertising.
With such innovations, little wonder that commercial intrusions invaded even Test cricket. Watching, and listening to, television coverage of India's Tests in Sri Lanka on Neo, Suresh Menon mused in a column: "Great car. Stupendous phone. Incredible bike. The IPL-isation of cricket commentary is complete." And a few months later, from the Tests in South Africa on Ten, viewers were subjected to advertisements not between deliveries but during them, in the form of branded patches leaping into view on either side of the batsman as the bowler let go the ball.
Most right-minded fans are all for commercial support for their sport, but only if it leaves it in better shape. In this respect there was one board initiative in 2010 that deserves proper applause: it increased Test-match fees, and by almost threefold, so that Tests are no longer the poor cousin of the limited-overs formats. Its motive was probably the same as it was when it conjured up Test matches out of nowhere in 2010: to keep India at No. 1. Any incentive will help, because 2011 is the year that India's hold on the position will be seriously challenged. Apparently some nefarious souls have been complaining about Test cricket, but with away series in England and Australia, there is much to look forward to. It's going to be a grand rock show year, or an extended dirge, and if nothing else then at some point Sachin Tendulkar will score his 100th international hundred and all will be right with the nation.
Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of the cricket tour book Pundits from Pakistan and the forthcoming novel The Sly Company of People Who Care