Decade Review 2009

Bigger, faster, greedier

From a genteel pursuit, cricket became big business in the 2000s, and lost a lot of itself in the bargain

Sambit Bal

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Ricky Ponting swivels and pulls, England v Australia, 4th Test, Headingley, 1st day, August 7, 2009
Bats have gotten heavier, pitches have become flatter and batting averages have swollen © Getty Images
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It is wholly appropriate that this is being published the week after over 800 runs were scored in a day. It would have felt even more right had India gone past 443, the highest score in a 50-over game, and Sri Lanka had gone on to better it. It's been that sort of a decade. There has been a glut of everything: there have been more matches, more runs per match, more runs per over, more dollars per match, more ads per over, and more noise on our television screens.

But yet, this will not be remembered as the Decade of Excess. Yes, there has been lots of money, and a lot of runs. But far more significantly, it has been the Decade of Change.

Not just any change. But once-in-a-generation Change. Path-altering, future-shaping and game-changing Change. Change so radical and so outrageous that it couldn't have been foreseen, much less planned. Much of it has caught most people unaware, and it has left the world of cricket feeling a mixture of confusion, excitement and apprehension.

In 2007, three of India's biggest cricketers, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly, made themselves unavailable for selection for the inaugural World Twenty20 on the grounds that the shortest version of the game belonged to the young and adventurous. But about six months after the young and adventurous had won India the trophy, these three were leading their local franchises as icon players in the first edition of the IPL. In those six months cricket had changed more than it had in the previous 30 years.

Though everyone can see and feel the changes, very few, if any, can precisely spell out what they mean. Is Twenty20 cricket's passport to the future or is it set to obliterate the past? Will the franchise system make for a more equitable distribution of wealth, or will it ultimately devalue the bilateral cricket that has been game's pinnacle? Will those seduced by the instant appeal of Twenty20 grow to appreciate the longer versions of the game, or will they be drawn away from the more languorous but time-consuming pleasures of Test cricket? Will the spirit of the free market liberate the game from the clutches of self-serving administrators, or will it lead to calamitous chaos?

But we are getting ahead of the story now. Let's focus on what we can comprehend. Here are a few things that happened to the game in the last 10 years.

Cricket shed whatever traces it bore of a genteel amateur sport and became a ruthless business. It even defied the global recession and grew. As a consequence, the sport was taken over by television. The simplest way to generate more money was to play more. And in order to deliver full value, the matches needed to last the distance.

And so pitches grew flatter and flatter. Perth lost pace, Sydney stopped turning square, India stopped producing mud cakes, life went out of West Indian pitches, and batting averages swelled.

Among batsmen to have scored more than 5000 Test runs in the 1990s, only three averaged over 50. Two of them, Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara, were geniuses, and the third, Steve Waugh, had to earn every run.

This decade, that number swelled to 13. Among them are Ricky Ponting, Rahul Dravid and Inzamam-ul-Haq, great batsmen in their own right, but all three averaged below 50 in the 90s.

The number of Tests increased from 347 in the 90s to 464 in this decade, and ODIs from 933 to 1402. Add the IPL, the Champions League and the World Twenty20 and the quantity is simply unsustainable. Forget what it might do to the players, the bigger threat to the game is what it might do to spectators

In the 90s, top-order batsmen came up against Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Glenn McGrath, Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh. McGrath and Pollock were still around in the 2000s, but the leading wicket-takers among the fast men were Makhaya Ntini and Brett Lee, and both averaged on the wrong side of 25.

Inevitably, India became the most powerful cricket nation. It had always had the passion and the audience; over the last two decades it found administrators who had the drive and imagination to exploit those resources. Among them was Lalit Modi, who would stop at nothing. Also, India finally found a group of players who could stand up as a team against the very best.

The 90s were all about geopolitics. The subcontinent earned the right to host the 1996 World Cup by pulling its weight together. The term "Asian bloc" was still in use in the first half of this decade, but then the Indian money got so big that votes ceased to matter. Australia and South Africa became India's new best friends. England, a diminishing power in the earlier decade, found itself further marginalised; it again came up with a new game, Twenty20, and was quickly overtaken at it.

But while the boards were cosying up, Sydneygate showed up cricket's ugliest face and left a fracture that would just not mend. At Cricinfo we feel it most acutely in the comments posted on articles, where almost every other day discussions somehow degenerate to bickering, name-calling and worse. Between Indians and Australians, Sydney always finds a mention.

The irrelevance of the ICC grew. Rather, the board members chose to limit the influence of the executive. Consequently, the ICC failed to act decisively on many crucial issues, including Zimbabwe, chucking, and the crowding of the cricket calendar. It even failed to implement its own Future Tours Programme: the top countries played who they wanted, when they wanted. The failure of the members to work on a common agenda is evident in the dithering over the next Future Tours Programme, on which hinges the future of international cricket.

The Indian Premier League overshadowed everything else. Judging by how meticulously it was executed, you couldn't have guessed that its arrival was hastened by the Indian Cricket League, an unsanctioned enterprise that was squashed with a ruthlessness that bordered on vulgarity.

In hindsight it can be said that the IPL had everything going for it. The Indian economy was sunny and entrepreneurial zeal was at its peak. The BCCI had enough clout to get other important members on board. India had just won the World Twenty20. And most importantly, the audience was ready. But back then it was an audaciously visionary idea, and ambitious to the point of brazenness. It needed a man possessed by it to pull it off, and found one in Modi. The players were sold on it immediately, and the moment the audience gave it resounding approval, it was clear that cricket would never be the same again.

TV audiences lap up the excitement of the IPL final, Bangalore, May 24, 2009
The IPL was the single most significant development in cricket over the decade © Associated Press

So we return to our questions. The last 10 years have been breathless, tumultuous, acrimonious, chaotic, crass, and unintentionally seminal. How the coming years will shape up will depend largely on the beliefs and wisdom of the men who govern the game.

The biggest challenge before them is to find a semblance of coherence in the cricket calendar. The number of Tests increased from 347 in the 90s to 464 in this decade, and ODIs from 933 to 1402. Add the IPL, the Champions League and the World Twenty20 and the quantity is simply unsustainable. Forget what it might do to the players, the bigger threat to the game is what it might do to spectators.

This decade began with an abominable crisis. It will end with a crisis of a different kind, but fuelled by the same vice: greed. Match-fixing shook the foundations of the game and tested the faith of its followers. Cricket overload is robbing the game of all sense of occasion and context and testing the passion of the fans.

Unquestionably cricket acquired unimaginable riches in the noughties. The coming decade will tell us if the game lost its soul in the bargain.

Coming up over the next two weeks in Cricinfo's look back at the decade: Gideon Haigh on the ICC, Peter Roebuck on the age of the bat, Osman Samiuddin on cricket's power shift, Rob Steen on what lies ahead, Andrew Miller on the decline of England, Rahul Bhattacharya on Indian cricket's period of madness, Peter English on the evolving role of the coach, Ashok Malik on how TV has shaped cricket, Siddhartha Vaidyanathan on the lot of the fan in the 2000s, the Player of the Decade, as voted by an all-star jury, and more.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo


Comments: 29 
Posted by param on (December 23, 2009, 1:08 GMT)

With IPL season 4 planning to almost double its games, one must really wonder what effect this is going to have on the cricket calendar and whether this would truly change cricket from an international level cricket competitions to more club based. Surly, this cannot be good for the game. Test matches will suffer. Just now the South African tour of India has been curtailed from 3 tests to 2 due to IPL scheduling.

Posted by Mal on (December 22, 2009, 23:57 GMT)

Brilliant article Sambit. As somone who grew up as a cricket follower through the late 70s & 80s I agree with every thing you've written. I particularly agree (with an ex-fast bowlers bias ) with your inciteful sumary on the reasons behind the glut of batsmen scoring montsterous amounts of runs. One of the great things about Test Cricket that I sorely miss these days is the pulsating one on one contest between a fast bowler at the top of his game & a batsman trying his hardest to weather that initial storm & work hard for every run. I go back to the likes of Lillee vs Richards, MacDermott vs Richardson, Ambrose vs Waugh, Akram vs Lara, Donald vs Atherton etc. I see this less and less and to me, Test Cricket is not a "Test" without it.

Posted by Ravish on (December 22, 2009, 18:55 GMT)

Here is how I have been following the three formats. I check the scores on my mobile for tests once every 30 minutes or so. For ODIs, I check it once every 5 or 10 minutes just to see if something is happening. For T20s, I follow it ball by ball on my mobile because I know something is going happen in the next delivery. I think this explains to some extent the general following pattern of people of the three formats in India. Tests are played to empty stadiums and people just follow the game on internet or on TV passively. For ODIs, people are a bit more active and follow the first few overs, middle overs depending on who is batting or bowling, and the last few overs, especially of the chase. For T20s, there is a lot more active watching going on - be it on mobile, computer, or TV where people know something (hit or out) happens every ball and people are waiting for that unexpected thing (or action as we call it) to happen.

Posted by SUBRAMANIAN on (December 22, 2009, 17:57 GMT)

Well maybe its more Greedier the game has become but is n't it more entertaining? When we just had DD for news and Bollywood for Entertainment we now have 24X7 Channels making sensation out of dust and Our game can compete with any Bollywood blockbuster for glamour or thrill or entertainment thanks to IPL and like. While its Reel for a hero to smash 6 villans its real to see Yuvi or Gibbs smashing 6 sixes.

Posted by rhys on (December 22, 2009, 10:41 GMT)

Agree with deadball and Sambit's comment about the ICC's inability to enforce its FTP, how can the game of Test cricket hope to prosper when the current top team (India) and the team it disposed (SA) at the top only play two tests in a series?!?! This is where the ICC needs to put its foot down and set out a template for a series with a set number of tests, ODIs and T20s e.g. 4 tests, 5 ODIs and 2 T20s in a long series or 3 Tests, 3 ODIs and a T20 in a short series. This would ensure that every country plays the same amount, of the same formats. In the long term this would help teams like Bangladesh, who are lucky to get a 2 test series let alone a 4 test series against any cricketing nation! It would also lend more credibility to the ICC rankings, where India play 2 tests in 2010 while Bangladesh play 7!! Surely this is not a good advert for test cricket...

Posted by Naveen on (December 22, 2009, 7:17 GMT)

@Banglorekid & iplfan.u guys r behind stats tht in India majority watch ODI n T20 &test matches r rejected? If this is da trend its purely bse of poor advertisement 4 test cricket from d administrators in India.crowd attendence specialy in India is proportional 2 hw da game is marketed more thn its quality n history. Where in case of Eng,SA & Aus da crowd attendence is always good 4 test as good as t20.when da touring team is well competing its even better! Same cant b said in India here cricket governing body is adamant &thinks only buisness.Offers flat pitces to get more ads betn overs..chooses venue not by viwership prespective but for political power holders. I support purists cliam for test cricket.If its properly managed & marketed by BCCI, test cricket is here to stay. It has every potential 2 attract da crowd in India. If England had the batsmen of caliber of Sachin,Dravid and Laxman in thier own team they would've made a big boom frm that 4 selling test there!

Posted by sathish on (December 22, 2009, 6:36 GMT)

I am not going to comment again till cricinfo fixes its rubbish commenting system.

Posted by Mohan on (December 22, 2009, 6:06 GMT)

BangaloreKid: All valid questions, but unfortunately, not something that these self-important purists will ever understand. I can't believe how they can ask for more importance being given to Test cricket when various surveys, ratings, ground attendance figures point to the fact that only a minuscule minority care for that format. (Yes, I prefer Test cricket over limited overs cricket too, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't accept facts). Also, why would franchise cricket be necessarily worse than passport-based cricket?

Posted by Ravish on (December 22, 2009, 4:39 GMT)

Here are the questions though. How do we know for sure that the change from country format to club format is not good - atleast for India? India has so many club and fringe players who never get a chance to play and make a good career out of cricket previously because they were just on the borderline. Franchise cricket in India allows more players to earn a living from cricket. As for many people crying about test cricket, if test cricket has so many fans why is test cricket in India played to empty stadiums while one-days are played to packed stadiums? May be you people are truly a small minority and that the majority of the people who actually get their bums to the stadium care about one-day cricket and T20. The ratings and crowd numbers at the stadiums are vastly higher for shorter forms in India and numbers don't lie. The opinions of a few here repeated hundred times paints a vastly different picture to what is happening out there and I like test cricket along with other forms.

Posted by Jayman on (December 22, 2009, 3:24 GMT)

One comment here suggested that the bowlers have gotten faster and that the author had noted 12 bowlers cross the 150km mark. Really? Do you know that the speed measuring technique has changed since Robers, Holding, Garner, Marshall and Thomson era? In those days the ball was measured at the batsman's end. These days the ball's speed is recorded as it leaves the hand. If the present yardstick was used on the mighty WI attack they would have crossed 170+ routinely. The present crop of bowlers cannot hold a candle to the erstwhile WI bowling juggernaut.

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Sambit Bal Editor-in-chief Sambit Bal took to journalism at the age of 19 after realising that he wasn't fit for anything else, and to cricket journalism 14 years later when it dawned on him that it provided the perfect excuse to watch cricket in the office. Among other things he has bowled legspin, occasionally landing the ball in front of the batsman; laid out the comics page of a newspaper; covered crime, urban development and politics; and edited Gentleman, a monthly features magazine. He joined Wisden in 2001 and edited Wisden Asia Cricket and Cricinfo Magazine. He still spends his spare time watching cricket.
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