The decline of the ODI and other stories
One of my fondest memories of 2007 is of an evening spent in the company of some heroes of my youth in the executive lounge of a hotel in Cape Town during the World Twenty20. I was to take Ian Chappell out for a drink but ended up being invited to his hotel instead. I was with a young colleague, and when we got there Ian was with Tony Greig and Graham Gooch, and soon Ramiz Raja joined us. At the next table, wearing a red t-shirt bearing his own name, was Allen Stanford, the Texas billionaire who has pumped millions into the Stanford 20/20. The evening took a delightfully raucous turn when the men he had brought to Cape Town started arriving.
First to come was Desmond Haynes, and they kept coming. Joel Garner, Michael Holding, Lance Gibbs, Wes Hall ... Some brought Caribbean rum; all brought tales and memories of the most glorious eras of West Indian cricket. I felt like an intruder, but there was no way I was going to leave.
At the height of West Indies' dominance, it was natural to root for their opponents, but now that we know what cricket has lost in their decline, how we yearn to see the joyful swagger restored to West Indian cricket. They were not merely the No. 1 team in the world, the flavour they brought to cricket was and is unique.
That's why their unexpected win in the Boxing Day Test lit up what was otherwise a lacklustre year for Test cricket. Several false dawns make us wary about hailing this as a revival - there was the all-too-familiar collapse in the second innings - but this was a victory built on teamwork, and that in itself is a beginning. Man for man West Indies aren't as bad a side as their results make them out be. In Chris Gayle, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, and till last year Brian Lara, they have had some fine batsmen. In Dwayne Bravo they have a genuine allrounder, and when Jerome Taylor and Fidel Edwards get their act together, two sharp new-ball bowlers. But time after time they have failed to put it all together. Now that they have first-hand experience of what is possible, perhaps they will be hungrier.
Otherwise, 2007 was a tepid year for Test cricket, which at one level was because two World Cups meant that only 31 Tests were played last year as compared to 46 in 2006.
|There were a mind-numbing 191 ODIs, only a few memorable, plenty forgettable. One series blurred into another as teams dragged their weary bodies across continents and from city to city to swell the coffers of their boards|
Australia began the year by trouncing England and ended it by trouncing India and swept away Sri Lanka in between, but they played all of four Tests and were never tested outside home. But like last year, no challenger emerged.
England trampled West Indies but were beaten by India at home and were humiliated by Sri Lanka away. England v India was the best Test series of the year, because the teams were evenly matched, but more so because the conditions helped fast bowlers. South Africa were challenged at home by two teams from the subcontinent who failed, however, to finish the job, and won in Pakistan. But barring Jacques Kallis, their batting proved to be brittle and technically suspect. Sri Lanka belied expectations about their growth as Test side by capitulating to Australia. And India, who had a decent year in Test cricket, blotted their sheet with a dispiriting performance in their last Test of the year.
The ICC rankings at the end of 2007 told the story: Australia were ahead by miles (143 points), and only decimal points separated the next three teams - South Africa, Sri Lanka and India - who all had 109 points.
However, for one-day cricket it was a far more worrying year. There were a mind-numbing 191 ODIs, only a few memorable, plenty forgettable. One series blurred into another as teams dragged their weary bodies across continents and from city to city to swell the coffers of their boards.
The year began, as it always does, with the triangular CB Series in Australia, which went on for so long that even the Australians ran out of steam and handed the trophy over to England, who had begun the series hopelessly. And towards the end of the year India played 12 consecutive one-dayers against Australia and Pakistan at home, stretching their calendar so much that it left them just enough time to squeeze in three days of match practice leading in to their toughest challenge, a Test series against Australia.
But everything else paled before the misery of the World Cup. That it was bloated and overlong was only part of the problem; the organisation was a disaster, with over-zealous security arrangements turning it a sterile and solemn affair - and that in a part of the world where they enjoy their cricket the most. A few months later the overwhelming success of the World Twenty20 in South Africa put the failure in West Indies into perspective. Mercifully, the organisers had learned from their mistakes.
The success of the Twenty20 format itself exposed the increasing staleness of the one-day game. Purely from a cricket point of view, the 50-over game still provides a better test of cricket skills, but for the viewer neither does one-day cricket have the enduring appeal of Test cricket, nor, most times, the thrill-a-minute adrenalin rush of Twenty20. The purists have always been sniffy about ODIs, but now even those drawn towards the baser aspects of the one-day game are growing disenchanted. Still, it remains the breadwinner for cricket - 100 overs create far more advertising opportunities than 40 - and is likely to limp on.
|Cricket, by all accounts, has more money than it needs, and the greed for more is bleeding the game. Perhaps that's the flip side of the professionalisation of the game: executives need to justify their salaries|
India winning the World Twenty20 has ensured that that format will grow more rapidly than earlier envisaged, and the Indian Premier League, cricket's first serious attempt at creating a club structure, could bring about a radical change in the way the game is played and watched. The league seeks to challenge one of the most traditional tenets of cricket, which has, since inception, been organised and supported along territorial loyalties: country v country and state v state. For a premier-league type format to succeed, it would require a change of mindset from the fans, and even though there is no precedent, what might work to the advantage of the league is that it is selling cricket as entertainment, and is likely attract more casual fans.
What can't be overlooked however is that cricket was conceived as a long game and the more it is shrunk the more it perverses natural justice. It is argued that Twenty20 provides a more even playing field, but lesser teams winning because of wrong reasons is not necessarily a good thing.
And of course, it will mean more work for already overworked cricketers. But judging from the numbers that have already signed for the IPL, players have no qualms about a few more days of cricket as long as they are compensated handsomely.
But those who are responsible for the well-being of cricket should worry. Cricket is a long game that requires engagement, and even spectators need their breaks. It was not only the dullness of the cricket on offer that blighted Pakistan's tour of India; there was hardly any sense of anticipation even before the tour started.
Far more pernicious is the toll the overdose of cricket is taking on cricketers, particularly fast bowlers, and consequently on the quality of cricket. England's decline following the 2005 Ashes can be directly attributed to the breakdown of their fast bowlers, and neither Pakistan nor India were able to field their best XIs in the last series - and for India it was just the beginning of a long season. England have now gone about two years without a real break, and though Australia were properly rested last year, they have 16 Tests scheduled in 2008, apart from countless ODIs.
Cricket Australia recently came up with the idea of day-night Tests to boost television audiences, but it can't be that the administrators cannot grasp a fundamental fact: for cricket to stay attractive, matches must be spaced out, and for quality to be maintained, the best players should be on show. Cricket, by all accounts, has more money than it needs, and the greed for more is bleeding the game. Perhaps that's the flip side of the professionalisation of the game: executives need to justify their salaries.
Loss of magic
Some losses are unavoidable, and cricket was left poorer by the retirement of some of its greatest players last year, none of them bigger than Lara and Shane Warne, with whom a bit of the magic went out of the game. However, even if Lara's departure further depleted a West Indian side already at the abyss, even he conceded that the team needed to move on without him. In the larger scheme of things, Warne's was a much bigger loss to cricket. It signalled the winding down of what has undoubtedly been the golden age of spin bowling.
The top three positions in the list of leading wicket-takers in Test cricket are occupied by spinners, and between them Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan and Anil Kumble have more than 2000 wickets - over 500 more than the top three fast bowlers put together. Only Murali is expected to last a few more years, and distressingly, the next generation simply has stagnated. Rather than maturing with age, Harbhajan Singh, Daniel Vettori and Danish Kaneria have slipped as Test bowlers. On the basis of their recent performances it would seem that Harbhajan and Vettori are better bowlers in the shorter forms, and though Kaneria continues to pick up Test wickets, they are too costly to count for his team.
Nor are any exciting prospects in the horizon. Australia have the choice between two 36-year-olds; India's domestic fields are barren; and Sri Lanka don't find Malinga Bandara good enough to pick as a second spinner even in home Tests. The irony is lost on no one that the promise is now supplied by an Englishman and a South African. The phenomenal success of three all-time greats has only served to mask the bitter truth: spin bowling has been an endangered art for years. Savour Murali and Kumble while you can.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo