Great initiative, poor execution

In American basketball annals there is this famous anecdote of how one pre-season, towards the end of their career, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were separately asked the same question. "How do you motivate yourself after all these years?"

"I think of Magic," Bird replied. "Wherever he is, I know how hard he's working." "It's Larry," said Magic. "Larry Legend. I'd better be working hard, because I sure know he is."

In the Athens Olympics last year, after the United States were blown away by the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the Magic-Larry brio became the staple admonition with which their respective club coaches confronted the likes of Stephon Marbury, Allan Iverson and LeBron James. Here were individual stars, each a half-a-billion-dollars-a-year centre-piece of his club, but together as an American all-star team, they tended to become a chop-suey of contending styles and motives.

Something similar happened over the past two weeks with the ICC World XI. The superstars of cricket, despite protestations to the contrary, and ignoring the inspiring precedent of 1971-72, collectively chose to hide behind their reputations rather than revel in such glorified company and use it as a spur to raise their game.

It is a known fact that in cricket, as in most other professional sports today, patriotism meshes seamlessly with career, and thus playing for the national team constitutes the competitive summit. The Super Series lacked this fundamental motive and in a way its fate, mirroring that of the reverse commuter during rush hour, was foretold.

There were other natural inhibitors too preventing many of the World XI stars from playing out of their skins - hard forthcoming tours and, therefore, the need not to burnout or risk injuries, the fact they were going to play against their current team-mates soon and the disadvantage of not having an ace up their sleeves, and in some cases the simple lack of enough cricket in the preceding months.

However, what they are capable of, if inspired as an unit, came during that match-flare of aggression from Graeme Smith's side at the Sydney Test when in a manic 24-over spell on the third day, nine Australian wickets were snared for just 47 runs, with Andrew Flintoff, Steve Harmison and Muttiah Muralitharan notching up three apiece.

Given that the purple patches were few and far between, does it make the idea of a team of champions, as opposed to a champion team, redundant? Concomitantly, is the possibility of a supra-national identity, even occasionally supplanting a parochial one in cricket, fundamentally flawed? The operative phrase here is "even occasionally".

It has to be said at the outset that by making some elementary mistakes in planning the itinerary, the ICC has actually made the larger questions appear more fraught than necessary. Only a full-fledged tour could have provided the kind of cricketing spectacle that the Rest of the World versus Australia did in 1971-72. During that tour the ROW spent about 90 days in Australia, playing five Tests instead of just one-off Super Test.

This allowed them to properly get into their stride. Also, the great starts that Australia traditionally get off to in crucial series - proper demolition jobs in the first Test both against India in 2000-01 and against England in the latest Ashes only to lose the plot later, are but two conspicuous examples - draws attention to the kind of homework the ICC did. Only three times in their last 25 series have Australia not won the first Test, and this should have made the case for a three-Test series compelling.

Again, the World team in 1971-72 had the benefit of three warm-up matches which helped them to get reasonably acclimatised to the new conditions. In contrast, we had the spectacle of Smith and some of the specialist Test players get off the plane, do a little net, get ushered around for a lot of PR and then tetchily don the whites.

Is it a surprise then that what transpired in Melbourne and Sydney eventually got to be so one-sided? In a knee-jerk reaction to the World's whitewash and the low turnout at the two stadiums, the ICC has voiced serious skepticism about the possibility of making the Super Series a permanent fixture. This is lamentable since the whole idea, in the first place, was to showcase the best in cricket and have the bird of satellite TV carry the seeds of the game to hitherto stony soil.

To return to the larger question then: is this avowed aim of the game's horizontal spread inconsistent with the kind of vertical enrichment needed to forge a solid team out of players from differing nations? The answer is never simple and two big non-cricketing events that framed the Super Series would bear this out. John Howard last week introduced legislation in Australia that will dismantle industrial relations as we know it - replacing collective bargaining with individual entitlements at the workplace - and Harold Pinter, who has claimed that cricket is the most important thing created on earth, certainly better than sex, though sex is not such a bad thing either, a few days later won the Nobel Prize for literature.

Howard like the ICC is inclined towards a congregational view of things whereas Pinter, not unusual for a man of letters, is more catholic. The Colonial-turned-Telstra Dome, which is part of the Docklands Development, an ambitious project meant to recast Melbourne's cityscape, was initiated by his political adversary but in spirit bears the imprimatur of the Australian prime minister. Meant to be part of the new era of sport-atainment, the Telstra is the epitome of the postmodern anywhere not only by virtue of its retractable roof but also, more dangerously, because shutting out the elements so that play is not affected is premised on the idea that television audiences and sponsors alone count. Howard, who famously called Muralitharan a cheat a few years back following the chucking controversy, would ideally like to have things like player motivation and their preferences for hallowed grounds airbrushed out of the game.

On the other hand Pinter, drawing a lesson from this, would probably ask the ICC to review details of locales rather than drop the original idea itself. As someone who wrote "They are dying to pass a new law / Where blindness is deemed to be sight / They are still playing cricket at night", he might actually make a case for Brian Lara and Inzamam-ul-Haq as possessing a sacramental sense of the game: of how to both, though they are quintessential big-occasion players, particular places and times also matter, unless of course there is an overwhelming personal point to prove. Lara's 375 at Antigua followed a personal slump and rampant criticism but the shorter back-lift of his bat also reflected, as Ian McDonald obliquely hints, the Tristes Tropiques - the Caribbean light, its rain, fecundity and uncontrolled vegetation. His 36-run cameo at Sydney, after the dismal run in Melbourne's closed Telstra Dome, was a salvage job but equally a reflection of how he has a thing for nostalgia.

With Inzamam, if anything, it became clearer that it is not prudent to demand even from superstars an ambition they have no interest in. After all that talk about protests outside the United Nations, the Pakistan captain's belated inclusion in the World XI scarcely seemed to lift his mood. An encore of his first innings minimalism proved that the damage had already been done.

That Kumar Sangakkara and Virender Sehwag, both from the subcontinent, were among the ones who shone best in this series should perhaps be, paradoxically, another prod to the ICC for a thorough rethink of its venues. Move over ultramodern and rarefied domes. Instead, let the ICC in another four years' time take the gamble of playing a World XI against the top Test and ODI team in select dustbowl venues in the subcontinent. It just might resurrect an idea that is being prematurely given up for dead.