April 6, 2011

East is where it's at

Cricket's power centre seems to have shifted Asia-wards - and not just economically

"We are already living through the twilight of Western predominance." So reckons the historian Niall Ferguson, answering the question posed by the title of his latest TV documentary series, Is the West History? His cricketing counterparts now have every reason to believe that twilight has passed, that we are now experiencing a fresh dawn of a different hue.

Saturday was a red-letter day for flannelled tomfoolery. For the first time since we have been able to apply any form of objective rigour to what was for so long a ranking system best described as strictly barroom, the East became home to both the best in Tests and, after three consecutive final defeats to Australia, the World Cup holders.

Some will see this as a healthy development; some will envy, bridle and seethe; some will be fearful for the game's future; indifference is not an option. First off the field and now, officially, on it, the guard has changed. Not only was the revolution televised, it succeeded.

Some might argue that Pakistan signified this transfer of on-field power by winning the 1992 World Cup. Although there was no formal ranking system, they possessed, unquestionably, the era's most accomplished attack and had had the better of their previous two Test series against the near-totalitarian might of West Indies: the first, in the Caribbean in 1988, required a two-wicket squeak in the final Test for the hosts to share the spoils, the closest Vivi and company came to losing a rubber during their 15-year dictatorship. Yet while the next four years saw West Indies remain unbowed, Pakistan lost in Australia, came perilously close to succumbing to Sri Lanka at home, and failed to prevail in New Zealand or at home to India. So let's stick with the original thesis.

There are those who will trace this uprising back to the start of the 1970s, when India won a Test in the Caribbean for the first time, and clung on, on the back of Sunny Gavaskar's monumental maiden series, to take a rubber against West Indies for the first time, then broke similar ground in England thanks to Bhagwat Chandrasekhar's penchant for Scotch-fuelled googlies. Not until India's World Cup triumph of 1983, however, did the West begin to spot the gentle scrawl on the wall.

Even then, revolutionary rhetoric was scarce. "Enthusiasms wax and wane in India, perhaps more so than in other countries, and there are definite signs that the enthusiasm for Test cricket, so strong in the 1960s and 1970s, has now begun to wane," attested Mihir Bose, the Calcutta-born, London-residing journalist and author, in his 1986 book Maidan View: The Magic of Indian Cricket. "One-day cricket has replaced it but fortune is fickle and Indians could soon discover another tamasha to amuse and titillate them. I hope it does not happen, but I fear it might."

Such fears have thus far proved utterly unfounded, thanks in no small measure to the wonder potion known as Twenty20. And if the jury remains out on Bose's contention that soccer could eventually steal cricket's thunder and throne, there is scant reason to believe that such an unthinkable future is all that much closer to reality now than it was 25 years ago. The daunting challenges of the Post-Tendulkar Age, on the other hand, are still to come.

If sheer weight of population and economic progress lent a degree of inevitability to India's rise, Sri Lanka's has been the more remarkable transformation. That they came so close to upsetting the odds in Mumbai testified to the strength and unity of a dressing room steeled by the direst of straits - living to tell the tale of a long civil war, a tsunami and a terrorist attack on the team bus can work wonders for one's sense of proportion, and perception of what constitutes a crisis. That Muttiah Muralitharan came so close to signing off in glory did lovely things for the cockles, all the more so since the talisman's accustomed burden was appropriated by other, younger, shoulders. But for the baffling dropping of Ajantha Mendis, the tournament's most effective run-squeezer, even MS Dhoni might have been denied.

Asia dominated the tenth World Cup individually as well as collectively - unprecedentedly so. Eight members of the ICC's team of the tournament. The top two wicket-grabbers, and four of the leading six; five of the six best analyses; five of the top seven economy rates (among those delivering 25-plus overs); three of the five biggest knocks, the top three run-getters and seven of the leading eight.

Sachin Tendulkar, Tillakaratne Dilshan, Kumar Sangakkara, Shahid Afridi, Yuvraj Singh and Zaheer Khan were the most influential players. The finest innings of the entire shebang was built, brick-by-exquisite-brick, by Mahela Jayawardene. Sri Lanka had the sharpest attack, India the beefiest bats, and in Dhoni and Yuvraj respectively, the most resilient heart and the least fettered soul. Future generations might wonder whether any Australians actually turned up.

Think of it as the inverse of the 1970s: India and Sri Lanka are the new England and Australia. Granted another Abdul, Mushtaq or Saqlain, Pakistan could emerge from their recent depths as the new West Indies. And if Bangladesh really ought to become the new Sri Lanka, it doesn't seem all that outrageous to suggest that Afghanistan might beat them to it

Perhaps, considering it was the subcontinent, this was only to be expected, though host nations had never previously exerted such a grip there - or anywhere. Individually, the 2007 World Cup was skewed in the opposite direction - three of the top 10 bowling returns, two of the top 10 wicket-takers, two of the top 10 scorers. Comparisons with the last World Cup held on the subcontinent, in 1996, are more illuminating. Then, Asia supplied 50% of the top 10 run-makers, five of the 12 top scores and six of the top 16 wicket-takers; in terms of economy, of those who bowled 25-plus overs, Muralitharan, ninth, was the highest-ranking home player. The stats may well be distinctly less flattering in the Antipodes come 2015; then again, Sri Lanka did pull off a splendid mugging in Australia last winter, and India and Pakistan both won their most recent ODI series in New Zealand.

But how long will the pendulum swing eastward? West Indies and Australia sank fast after their titans retired, so life after Murali and Sachin (and "The Wall" and VVS and Bhaji) won't be easy. Still, even if we bypass Mohammad Amir - as we must for now - the game's likeliest 25-and-unders include Virat Kohli, Hamid Hassan, Tamim Iqbal, Asad Shafiq, Wahab Riaz, Shakib Al Hasan, Cheteshwar Pujara and Murali Vijay. And while the West appears to boast just as many contenders - Devendra Bishoo, Darren Bravo, Graeme Cremer, Martin Guptill, Eoin Morgan, Usman Khawaja, Kemar Roach, Andre Russell, Tim Southee and George Dockrell (who'll doubtless be spinning his webs for England before long) - such resources are more thinly spread.

Come 2015, even if they haven't already entered terminal decline, Dilshan, Jayawardene, Sangakkara and Virender Sehwag will almost certainly be approaching the end of their pomp, but of the batsmen who will have graduated from twentysomething to thirtysomething, and hence attained, all things being equal, their prime, the likes of Yuvraj, Gautam Gambhir and Upul Tharanga appear to be heavily counterbalanced by Hashim Amla, Alastair Cook, JP Duminy, Brendon McCullum, AB de Villiers, Ross Taylor, Jonathan Trott and Shane Watson. The seasoned bowling looks more evenly matched - Mendis, Tim Bresnan, Morne Morkel and Umar Gul will be 30, Lasith Malinga, Munaf Patel and Dale Steyn 31, Stuart Broad 28 - but it is not difficult to imagine the pendulum shifting westward: to England, who boast the deepest reserves of pace, and South Africa, who in Imran Tahir may have finally found a match-winning spinner.

Indeed, the Empire may be about to strike back rapidly. Sri Lanka and India are due to tour England over the next four months, by the end of which Andrew Strauss's troops could be at the summit of the Test rankings. Those who sneer at that Reliance table - inhibited as it is by a bloated and incoherent schedule - ought to be mollified two years hence, when the World Test Championship is finally due its belated takeoff. Maybe only after the Lord's final - for which the quartet of contenders should be England, India, South Africa and Sri Lanka - will there be complete agreement as to the identity of the longest format's top banana.

There'll have been another World Twenty20 by then, of course, but though the very nature of the shortest format militates against hard conclusions - three tourneys have yielded three different winners - two of the three finals have been all-Eastern affairs.

So much for tomorrow. For now, let's salute the completion of a sea-change, the end of a period of transition that took centuries but has been accomplished, in effect, inside three decades. Think of it as the inverse of the 1970s: India and Sri Lanka are the new England and Australia. Granted another Abdul, Mushtaq or Saqlain, Pakistan could emerge from their recent depths as the new West Indies. And if Bangladesh really ought to become the new Sri Lanka, it doesn't seem all that outrageous to suggest that Afghanistan might beat them to it.

"The West is the best," declared the late Jim Morrison in "The End", the Oedipal ditty he wrote for The Doors and, unwittingly, Apocalypse Now. Ray Manzarek, the band's keyboardist, characterised the band's ethos as "poets versus the manufacturers of crap… dancers versus the bringers of war", so it does not take a massive leap to regard that declamation as sarcastic rather than patriotic. The Lizard King may have been born in the wrong Melbourne (Florida rather than Victoria) but he would have appreciated this radical change in cricket's landscape.

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