March 4, 2011

Give bowlers a chance

Pitches in the World Cup have not exactly been sporting. Bowlers have been marginalised - and no team exemplifies this better than India

Teams are mismatched, bat and ball are not loved equally, and the quarter-finals are looked forward to like school vacations once were. I know the Associates and the qualifiers have a right to dream of sitting at the high table but we need to see whether being the best of the rest is a sufficient qualification. Ireland may have struck a mighty blow in favour of the non-Test playing nations, but I'm afraid they stand alone. They must earn a World Cup place not just because of the result against England but because they have a structure that is producing young home-bred cricketers. And even they will suffer while we allow the practice of established teams pinching the best players from the Associates.

There is word that George Dockrell, the impressive 18-year-old from Ireland, is on the England radar. It must be fought tooth and nail. If the best of the non-Test-playing nations, which Ireland is, exists as a feeder for England and has to accept those that big brother rejects, they cannot progress.

And so it comes as no surprise that most of the qualifiers have been embarrassingly weak and are a real concern for the product quality that the World Cup seeks to deliver. I have been in the studio every day of the World Cup and decide I am going to root for the underdog. I don't have much artillery on my side. It is difficult to be a believer in the idea that everyone should get the opportunity to play a World Cup. When India played England or when Pakistan played Sri Lanka, you didn't know who was going to win. That is how it must be.

The more immediate concern at this World Cup is that pitches are conspiring against bowlers. It cannot be so. If 338 is easily scored and scarcely defended, and 327 isn't enough, nobody will want to be a bowler. It is reflected in India's bowling reserves too. It is easier to bring down the price of petrol, maybe even to bring peace to troubled lands, than it is to spot a quality bowler now. In politics and business and public life we talk of the need for equal opportunity, but in a showpiece event like the World Cup we bury bowlers in public.

Teams like India, who haven't really worried too much about developing fast bowlers - dropping pace is the more fashionable thing to do here - are struggling therefore to take wickets. England chased 338 and Bangladesh might have embarrassed India if they had batted first and ignored the dew, the fear of which, like that of weapons of mass destruction, was ill-founded. Indeed it is not only the absence of quality fast bowling, or just simple quality bowling, that is hurting India. It is also the fact that they do not have the fielding that can give the bowling teeth. Harbhajan Singh should have caught Andrew Strauss every day of the week, something put into perspective by the catch Paul Stirling took to end an innings by Ian Bell.

MS Dhoni admits there is little he can do about his team's fielding. But the BCCI can, once it gives itself a bit of a respite from finance, its favourite preoccupation, and switches to cricket. Currently I get the feeling there is a sub-clause in the constitution somewhere that says fast - oops, new-ball - bowlers must be bad fielders. India might still go far at this World Cup, but they will do so in spite of the fielding.

I also wish tickets for the India games were easier to get. Sometimes when riches visit a kingdom you forget that the subjects are simple folk who have to work hard for a living. The strength of cricket in India comes from middle-class people who give loyalty and expect little in return. We have to allow them to visit a stadium and see their heroes perform in flesh and blood. They cannot be priced out; we cannot make a hole in their pockets every time they want to watch cricket. The game exists because of them. I fear sometimes that cricket will become a privileged man's sport and lose touch with reality. If stadium seats are limited maybe free public screenings is the way out, but watching cricket has to be a pleasant community event.

Meanwhile Sachin Tendulkar scored century No. 98 in international cricket. With which other player in history would that have been mentioned as an afterthought in an article?

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