January 19, 2012

Prayer for a strong India

Lloyd's West Indians kept coming to Australia because they played good cricket and everyone made money from it. India and Australia keep playing because everyone makes money from it

"Kerry was in love with them," the old Australian Cricket Board chief Bob Merriman once said. By Kerry he meant Packer. "Them" were West Indies. The love was real love, not an "I love ice-cream" sort of love. This love was widely shared, across a nation. Boys batted with Viv-approved SS Jumbos and dog-owners named their dogs Eldine and men dug the swagger of these cricketers and an abnormal number of normally non-cricket-mad women dug that too. "Just the attractiveness of them," said Merriman. "I think Kerry himself loved watching them." So six summers out of eight, from 1977-78 onwards, Clive Lloyd-led West Indian teams came to perform their lethal magic in Australia and, more particularly, for Packer and his Channel 9. Other than on Sesame Street they were just about the only black faces seen on Australian daytime TV.

Six summers out of eight felt like a lot. Throw in Australia's two Caribbean trips and that made it eight encounters in eight seasons. Australia is locked now in another gut-on-gut embrace with a country two oceans east of the Caribbean islands, population 1.2 billion, estimated TV sets 112 million. "India's major partner" is how senior Cricket Australia men describe the organisation they work for. They say it a bit proudly. What it means is this: 11 times in nine summers, India have toured Australia or the Australian team has gone there. There live Indian boys of 12 and 13 with no memory of an Australia-less cricket summer at home. The last one was 2005-06.

Lloyd's West Indians kept coming because they played thrilling, menacing cricket and because everybody made money out of it. Australia and India keep playing each other because everybody makes money out of it. If one of the two ingredients - good cricket - is missing, does that wreck the cake? The men who sit on the board of "India's major partner" might say: "To a point." Or: "Pig's arse." If India win or India lose, Indians will keep watching cricket and Indian TV stations will keep buying cricket. That's the presumption. The market decides. An ailing, rebuilding Indian team might make for years of fascinating TV-watching in India. It could, true, get teeth-itching for Australians. With one Test left this summer people have already mentally flicked over to the tennis. Also, there is right now in Australia a palpable shortage of dog-owners naming their dogs Gautam. But even if Australians do stop watching, stop going, stop caring, Australia still gets the Indian TV money. That's a payday five to six times bigger than when England tour and it's incalculable trough-fulls more than they get from hosting any other country.

The Windies' pomp happened in pre-TV bonanza time. But their players were well paid for coming. For Australia, the hype was huge and the crowds were solid or better and advertisers queued up with glee. One constant guaranteed it: the cricket was good.

It can take years to retrospectively read a series of four or more Tests in clear morning light. No one knows yet if this summer's meting out of awesome thrashings is down to Australian awesomeness or India's decline or both. If you bend your mind to the issue, though, most of India's troubles seem traceable to people's preoccupation with slashed-down Twenty20. Their batsmen run between wickets with the stepping-on-syringes gait of men used to dealing only in boundaries - men for whom "runs" might more accurately be rechristened "points". No stonewaller exists to balance Sehwag at the top. No technician of Dravidian pristineness can be found to bat at three, so poor Rahul Dravid is still there, even though he's 39. VVS Laxman looks Twenty20-fit, not cricket-fit, with 20 overs his batting ceiling and that's only on rare days of very vast stamina. To point out that the tailenders hit exclusively to cow corner and that cow, intellectually speaking, is in this instance a particularly apt animal metaphor is to underestimate the craftiness of cows. Despite this, no one protects the tail or tries farming the strike. The one who could, Dhoni, bats in bursts. As a wicketkeeper Dhoni exudes a kind of disengaged competence: this from the country that gave cricket Tamhane, Engineer, Kirmani…

An ailing, rebuilding Indian team might make for years of fascinating TV-watching in India. It could, true, get teeth-itching for Australians. With one Test left this summer people have already mentally flicked over to the tennis

Which is to say that regular Twenty20 meetings between the two nations might be no bad thing. But 13 months from now they'll be playing four more Tests in India, then another four Tests two summers later in Australia, with seven one-dayers and a T20 the season before that, and an additional seven one-dayers and two T20s the season after, and that's not counting one-off clashes in World Cups, Champions Trophies, World Twenty20 carnivals, yet-to-be-named insurance company cups and anything else India's major partner or even India itself plans to sneak into the schedule and hasn't forewarned us about. Meanwhile, Australia is likely to get better on the field while India struggles and spurts along. To keep Australians interested, somehow India must replace Laxman, Dravid and Tendulkar - and replace them not just as cricketers. Those three men are deeply liked.

Cricket needs a strong India, it's said. Cricket Australia is begging for one.

There's a cycle that works. It's called the Ashes. Thirty months after England tour Australia, Australia go there, and 18 months later England come back again. Occasionally they have increased the frequency. That hasn't worked since the 19th century.

Most love fizzles, fades, sometimes never to be rekindled. In the last of those six West Indian summers, 1984-85, Andrew Hilditch blocked Australia to a heroic draw at the MCG and only 11,325 spectators paid money to see it. West Indies weren't invited back so often after that. Malcolm Speed, Cricket Australia's former chief executive, is an admirer of his successor, James Sutherland, and in his book Sticky Wicket, Speed says: "I think his best work will revolve around Australia's partnership with India."

Two cricket teams playing each other ad nauseam is seldom a bright idea and in the last couple of weeks the idea got a whole lot dumber.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket and, most recently Australia: Story of a Cricket Country