April 13, 2011

An Indian-origin XI and other proposals

How about getting players of Indian origin from across the world together into a team to play India?

With the World Cup behind us and the IPL season in full swing, it may be the moment for a few stray thoughts on international cricket, prompted by both tournaments. Here are four such reflections, on which I would welcome comments.

The best of the rest
The ICC's reprehensible decision to prevent Associate member countries from participating in the next edition of the World Cup in 2015 has already been extensively commented upon. Perhaps indeed there is no room for more than 10 teams in the next edition, though the arguments for and against that conclusion can certainly be debated. But why not give the best of the rest an opportunity to participate in the World Cup in one team rather than several?

Couldn't the ICC hold a competition for Associate members (like the ICC Trophy that produced the last two qualifiers for this World Cup) and pick a stellar 15 from that event - comprising the most able Irish and Dutch, certainly, but also Afghans, Kenyans, Americans and Arabs? Call it "The Rest of the World".

I have often mused about the huge loss to world cricket represented by the inability of a world-class player like Steve Tikolo to parade his talents on cricket's global stage. I am sure that comparable talents are going to emerge from other associate countries, who might otherwise have to "blush unseen" in the desert of associate-nation cricket. I have no doubt that such a team, drawn even from this year's associates, would give at least Zimbabwe and Bangladesh a run for their money.

A PIO XI
The same line of thinking prompts a second suggestion - not for the World Cup but for an exhibition match guaranteed to raise interest (and possibly funds for a good cause) in India, which is already the fount of much of world cricket's revenue. A number of cricket-playing countries now include cricketers of Indian (or part-Indian) origin. The government of India even recognises them distinctively as People of Indian Origin (PIOs), a special category eligible for assorted benefits, including an annual jamboree in the motherland: the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas. Why not select a PIO cricket XI to play India in an annual match on that occasion, with the proceeds going to a fund to construct and maintain a memorial and museum commemorating the history and experience of Indian émigrés?

In years gone by, the great West Indians Rohan Kanhai, Alvin Kallicharran, Sonny Ramadhin and Joe Solomon; the Britons Nasser Hussain, Raman Subba Row, Ronnie Irani and Min Patel; and the New Zealander Dipak Patel might have been automatic selections for such a side. Today a contemporary PIO XI, in batting order, might read: Hashim Amla (South Africa), Dion Ebrahim (Zimbabwe), Ramnaresh Sarwan (West Indies), Shivnarine Chanderpaul (West Indies), Ravi Bopara (England), Narsingh Deonarine (West Indies), Samit Patel (England), Denesh Ramdin (West Indies), Ravi Rampaul (West Indies), Jeetan Patel (New Zealand), and Monty Panesar (England), with Devendra Bishoo (West Indies) in reserve as 12th man. A bit light on pace, I know, which is probably inevitable given the mother country's own weakness in that department. But the match would be played on a slow turner in India!

Permitting Indian domestic teams to include up to two foreign players in their playing XIs would sharpen the skills of the Indian cricketers playing alongside foreign professionals; improve the quality of cricket on offer in the domestic tournaments, and therefore improve the audience for domestic games

Internationalising India's domestic cricket
The World Cup demonstrated India's dominance in the world of cricket, the size of its market, its financial and political clout, and the range of resources and venues at its disposal. If India's ambitions go beyond remaining the big fish in a relatively small global pond, it needs to work to strengthen the sport elsewhere in the world. In the circumstances the time seems ripe for India to open its game to players from other countries. There are two things it could immediately do.

One is to permit all Indian domestic teams (including in the flagship Ranji Trophy) to include up to two foreign players in their playing XIs. This would have the merit of sharpening the skills of the Indian cricketers playing alongside foreign professionals; improve the quality of cricket on offer in the domestic tournaments, and therefore improve the audience for domestic games; and, incidentally, help provide sustainable livelihoods to foreign players currently deprived of such an employment opportunity. It might be argued that an infusion of foreign talent would deprive an equivalent number of Indian players the chance to shine, but there is little doubt that the overall beneficiary would be Indian cricket. An Indian Test batsman who has grown up facing foreign pacemen in domestic cricket would be far readier for the rigours of the international game than a flat-track bully of medium-pace bowling, who may be quickly found out the moment a Steyn or even a Klusener is unleashed on him. And an Indian paceman bowling alongside a Morkel, or even an Anderson, would rapidly improve and refine his own craft.

The second initiative would be a more altruistic one. India has in the past invited the occasional foreign team (the England Lions come to mind) to play in a domestic tournament. I propose that we build on this and seek to strengthen subcontinental cricket by expanding the current, oddly-configured five-team Duleep Trophy into an eight-team South Asian tournament with three foreign sides - from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka - permanently participating in it. All three suffer from insufficient opportunities to play first-class cricket, and though Sri Lanka's strong club-cricket culture has helped them overcome this deficiency, they could use the Duleep Trophy to blood players on the fringes of Test selection. There is little doubt that such a tournament would strengthen cricket in the subcontinent, help Bangladesh establish their credibility at this level and prepare Afghanistan for greater honours in due course.

And finally, seamless Pakistanis
On sleepless nights during the World Cup, I read Shehan Karunatilaka's extraordinary first novel Chinaman (and have reviewed it elsewhere). One of the delights of the book, quite unrelated to the main plot but a potential source of endless diversion, kept me happily distracted in Mohali. This was the "Seamless Pakistani" game played by the novel's protagonist, "WG", and his friends, which consists of seeing how many Pakistani cricketers' names one can string together so that the surname of one becomes the next player's first name, and so on, till you run out of possibilities. The novel's winner has nine: Saqlain Mushtaq Mohammad Zahid Fazal Asif* Iqbal Sikander Bakht! In my idler moments I came up with 11 Seamless Pakistanis: Saqlain Mushtaq Mohammad Wasim Akram Raza Hasan Iqbal Qasim Umar Akmal. I'm sure there are enough fans on ESPNcricinfo who can do better than that.

The sequence of names is reproduced as published in the novel, though there does not seem to be a record of a Pakistani cricketer called Fazal Asif

Shashi Tharoor is an Indian MP and a former United Nations Under-Secretary General

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