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How 2020 made us fall in love with cricket all over again

The pandemic showed us what we stood to lose, but it also gave us greater perspective on the issues that really matter

Sambit Bal
Sambit Bal
A kid in a mask plays cricket outside the Shere Bangla in Mirpur, August 16, 2020

Md Manik/Getty Images

Defeat, any sportsperson who has experienced considerable success will tell you, is a greater teacher than victory. The same for life and adversity. Not in living memory has the human race been challenged like it was in 2020, and while the cost, in terms of loss of life, economic hardship, and just the all-encompassing shadow of fear, has been immense, what have we learnt? Or discovered? About ourselves and our world?
Some things are instantly palpable. Collectively, we have found resilience and the adaptability to navigate through our circumstances. Remote-working made room for more family time and for reacquainting oneself with simple pleasures and finding new ones.
At ESPNcricinfo, we survived the unthinkable - the absence of live sport - by slipping for a while into magazine mode, a thoroughly enjoyable challenge that meant conceiving and producing features, both text and video, that required the rigours of a weekly, at the pace of an instant medium. And gratifyingly, many of those features continue on the site, even after the return of cricket.
Apart from everything else, and I believe I speak on behalf of many of my colleagues - and many of you - the break allowed us to renew our love for the game. Given how it felt when the world began shutting down in March, any cricket, let alone how much of it we have at the moment, feels like a miracle.
But what about the most valuable lesson? Powered by artificial intelligence, super-fast cloud computing and advances in molecular science, the scale of human ambition and imagination has seemed limitless this century, luring us into a sense of unassailability. By making us confront our fragility, the pandemic has served as a useful reminder of our place in the universe and the power of nature.
Cricket needed some soul-searching too. On the face of it, it is prosperous like never before, but beneath the boom there are serious fissures that imperil its future. And the pandemic has hastened one crisis that was always coming. But first, the good stuff.
Cricket in the time of Covid
When life was suspended earlier this year - offices and businesses shut, borders closed, flights cancelled - resumption of live sport seemed the lowest priority. But yet, when sport, first football and then cricket, started up again, much earlier than we had expected, it reaffirmed its place in our lives. Even while the shadow of the pandemic hung grimly and normalcy seemed a distant vision, the sight of young and fit athletes displaying physical skill was reassuring and uplifting. Sport is not a luxury; it is the most joyous extension of life.
For all the criticism they cop, let's give a hand to the administrators for rising to a challenge no one could have imagined, much less planned for. The England Cricket Board led the way. Without precedence to go by or any template to follow, it put together a biosecure apparatus that was as elaborate as it was detailed. Faith came too from the West Indian players, who were the first ones to travel, and then from Ireland*, Pakistan and Australia, who ensured a full English summer.
The BCCI benefited from this experience and pulled off an even more impressive feat. At the best of times, organising the IPL, which is as big as the World Cup in scale, is a gigantic task. To gather players, support staff, broadcast crew, umpires and officials from at least nine different countries, amid varying levels of travel restrictions, and host the tournament away from home in three separate emirates, with different quarantine norms and border restrictions, required fleet-footed planning, coordination with multiple government and private agencies, and exacting efficiency and rigour in execution. There was no room for lapses. After one Covid scare, the tournament went swimmingly.
Meanwhile, there was the CPL in the Caribbean and, quite amazingly, the first edition of the Lanka Premier League, which, despite aborted attempts, a few Covid scares, and a few pullouts, was successfully completed mid-December in Sri Lanka.
As the year wound on, crowds returned to grounds in New Zealand and Australia, and with chants, applause, drums, flags and even some boos, cricket felt restored.
Cricket economy: brace for impact
But trouble is brewing elsewhere. The cricket economy, overheated for long and largely reliant on one country, is due a correction. Cricket subsists on broadcast revenue and the big cricket boards and the ICC have flourished in the last two decades on the back of mega rights deals. This has enriched the entire cricket ecosystem barring one vital constituent - the broadcaster.
The rumblings have begun already. Cricket Australia is in a dispute over the value of the rights with its primary broadcaster; New Zealand Cricket has gone entirely digital; Pakistan has gone with an advertising revenue-sharing deal with the government-owned broadcaster based on highly optimistic projections; and both West Indies and Bangladesh are without broadcast deals at the moment.
But the loudest warning came from the man primarily responsible for putting the cricket economy into hyper drive. Uday Shankar, the out-going chairman of Star and Disney India*, under whose leadership Star invested over US$ 4.5 billion in cricket rights in the current cycle, $3.5 billion of which went to the BCCI alone, said in an interview in the Times of India this October that the current global model of the game was fast becoming unsustainable and for cricket authorities to not take that into account would be short-sightedness.
For all the criticism they cop, let's give a hand to the administrators for rising to a challenge no one could have imagined, much less planned for
The cricket establishment, he argued, was in denial in thinking it was still all about Test cricket. Fans were primarily interested in T20s and ODIs and it was only marquee Test cricket - India vs Australia and England, Australia vs England - that they cared about. Advertisers and sponsors were always likely to prioritise the interests of fans.
Star's own deal with the BCCI for India's bilateral cricket, drafted with no room for negotiation, is illustrative of Shankar's point. Worth nearly a billion dollars, it is agnostic of format and opposition, with the broadcaster required to pay the same fee for a Test against Afghanistan as for a T20I against Australia.
At the other end, there's growing financial inequity between rich and poor boards, and a consequent and inevitable widening quality gap in the cricket played. New Zealand remain an outlier and perhaps a model of governance for the smaller boards in the way they have managed their resources to remain competitive, but signs are troubling everywhere else. Cricket's elite club expanded when Afghanistan and Ireland were granted Test status in 2017, but those two sides have managed four and three Tests respectively since then.
The big boys of this club, India, England and Australia, meanwhile have played 284 of the 454 Tests held since the beginning of 2010 (62.5%), of which 77 have been what Shankar described as marquee contests. Looked at from different vantage points, this points to either the Big Three cornering the biggest slice of action for themselves, or that too many Tests are commercially unviable in the current model.
It's a strong argument that the market will eventually determine the future of bilateral cricket, but the erosion of the game's traditional battlefields will eventually shrink the global talent pool and the effects will be felt in the shiny T20 leagues that dip into this pool. This scenario might seem distant, but the IPL has just laid out its expansion plans and the demand for quality players will increase 20%. This is a simplistic illustration, but the underlying point is that even leaving aside the concept of equality, cricket isn't a big enough sport to let some of its branches wither away.
South Africa's free fall
If you set aside wealth and boardroom power, South Africa have been, pretty much since their reintegration in 1992, a cricket powerhouse, a worthy challenger to Australia in the first decade of the century, and in possession of a better record away from home than everyone else. They produced an assembly line of international-quality fast bowlers, handy allrounders, gritty all-weather batsmen, and a few all-time greats. Their World Cup miseries aside - and even here, their failures become a talking point because they make it to the knockouts - they were never a side easily beaten. As a box-office draw, they were always gold class. England played five-Test series against them, and there was much hand-wringing when India's last tour to their shores was cut to three Tests from four.
It is distressing therefore to watch the gradual descent of a team so consistently excellent. Part of this is cyclical, of course. When a collection of world-class players, including a couple of once-in-a-lifetime ones, comes together, the departure of those players leaves massive voids. You don't lose Jacques Kallis, Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel over a period of five years - the last four over two - without suffering a dip. But the South African situation has also been aggravated by administrative chaos and the aggressive implementation of the national reservation policy.
A sub-optimal cricket team is a small price to pay given the heinousness of South Africa's past, and affirmative action in sport is part of a much more significant narrative. But even though delicate, the question at least needs to asked: whether the ultimate aim - of getting the cricket team to be more representative of the nation - wouldn't be better served by a far more aggressive approach to developing talent at the lower levels. How many underprivileged children can afford to be in the elite cricket schools, for long the nursery for nurturing talent in South Africa, or to pursue professional cricket as a vocation, given their socio-economic circumstances? Wouldn't creating equal opportunities at the grassroots be far more transformative than imposing stiff targets at the highest level?
South Africa also face the challenge of containing the exodus of aspiring white players to whichever other nation - the US being the latest promised land - will have them. If the national team continues to decline, would cricket not become a less attractive sport for young people?
As the year wound on, crowds returned to grounds in New Zealand and Australia, and with chants, applause, drums, flags and even some boos, cricket felt restored
But who can one address these questions to? Cricket South Africa's CEO was first suspended, then sacked for misconduct. One acting CEO stepped down, the second has been suspended for breaches of the Companies' Act. The COO has been sacked. The entire cricket board resigned after the sports minister threatened to intervene, and an interim board is now in place. Amid all the chaos, a Covid outbreak led to the abandonment of an ongoing tour by England.
The year 2020 couldn't end any sooner for cricket in South Africa, but the fear is that it could get much worse in 2021.
Take a knee, and rise together
Another confounding image came from South Africa on Boxing Day when the national team stood with raised fists to support the Black Lives Matter movement. It was a strange half-gesture.
Taking a knee has become the most powerful symbol of solidarity with the movement that ignited across the world after George Floyd, an African-American man, was choked to death by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Cricket did itself credit when the England team joined the West Indies players in taking a knee when play resumed after the pandemic in Southampton.
The Test also featured a rousing interview on Sky Sports with Michael Holding, the former West Indies great, which became cricket's call to arms on racism. Holding later criticised the England and Australia teams for not continuing the practice further in the summer.
There's an argument that the world needs to move beyond symbolism to tangible action against racism. It's a hollow one. Taking a knee doesn't prevent tangible action. In fact, by raising awareness repeatedly, it can help promote action. And as a symbolic gesture from sportspersons, it is profound and stirring. It's the recognition of a problem; it's a simple message of empathy with the persecuted, and a high-profile statement that the world stands united against the abomination of racism. It's a movement that needs to expand. In India, it should transmute into Dalit Lives Matter, for casteism here is just as malevolent as racism elsewhere.
As for racism, South Africa has the most to apologise for. The reluctance of its elite cricketers to go the full distance - a simple matter of bending a knee - sends the wrong message.
The only viable option is to approve and share a list that specifies the nominated concussion substitute for each player ahead of a match. That will not solve the problem but it will avoid post-substitution disgruntlement
Anatomy of collapses
When a team gets bowled out for 36, it is, inevitably, a combination of the following things: outstanding bowling on a helpful pitch, a few mistakes from the batsmen, but, most crucially, every element falling precisely in place in favour of the bowlers in an uncommon manner. Every potentially wicket-taking ball must find its mark - the edge, the pad or the stumps - every edge must carry and every catch must be taken. Batting can be a cruel game of fractions, and when caught in a perfect storm like India were in that fateful session in Adelaide, the room for error, the lifeblood of batting, is minimised to almost zero as bowlers find their zone.
Another day, for no fault of the bowlers, it's another story. On the first evening of the Melbourne Test, Mitchell Starc could have had three wickets in the first over instead of one, and Pat Cummins could have had six wickets in his two spells across two days instead of two. Shubman Gill was beaten three times in one Cummins' over and dropped in the slips soon after. He would be dropped once more the next morning and score boundaries off genuine edges; Cheteshwar Pujara had edges off his bat drop short twice before being dismissed due to a third, and Ajinkya Rahane, the century-maker, had two clear reprieves.
But it's also a fact that teams collapse more often these days. For one, it has been a bowler-friendly era, with home teams preparing wickets to suit their bowlers, and in the process, helping all bowlers. Also, in an age that places a premium on fast run-scoring, defensive techniques have been eroded to a point where batsmen aren't equipped to play out tough sessions with sideways movement. That's true of all teams, including England, whose home grounds thrive on seam and swing.
There are two ways to look at it. We can lament the lowering of the overall quality of Test cricket. Poor batsmanship means bowlers are made to look better, and the primary contest in cricket is devalued. Or we choose to embrace the way of the times and celebrate what we have: Test cricket on wheels, runs at a fast clip, sometimes wickets at a faster clip, and more results than ever before.
Another manifestation of deteriorating defensive technique is the growing number of instances of batsmen getting hit on the head after taking their eyes off the ball. This has made concussions substitution one of the most important regulation changes introduced into the game. It's a matter of debate why it can't be extended to include all serious external injuries - a broken arm, for example - but head injuries are grievous, sometimes deceptively so, compared to others, and the substitution takes the pressure off teams and individual players to deploy a concussed player when a match is poised delicately.
But it does create piquant situations like the one in India's first T20I against Australia last month, when Yuzvendra Chahal came off the bench to replace Ravindra Jadeja, who took a blow to his head during his pugnacious and eventually match-defining innings of 44 off 23 balls. Chahal, a specialist and match-winning T20 bowler, duly bowled India to victory, causing considerable frustration to the Australian team.
India clearly got the best of the deal in that match. They got full value from the bat of Jadeja, picked as an allrounder, but since he was also due to bowl four overs of spin, Chahal, even though he is a legspinner and Jadeja a left-arm spinner, was the only possible substitution available.
But there is no way to avoid such scenarios in the future. It will be impossible for teams to carry like-for-like substitutes for every player, or even every group of players. And what if a substitute also gets injured? The only viable option is to approve and share a list that specifies the nominated substitute for each player ahead of the match. That will not solve the problem but it will avoid post-substitution disgruntlement.
It is ironical that the BCCI under Ganguly's presidency has spent considerable time at the court to overturn the very reforms that facilitated his ascension
Decision over the decision-maker
The Decision Review System was meant, apart from trying to get as many decisions correct as possible, to take some heat away from the umpires, by co-opting players into the decision-making process. Despite the occasional baffling outcome with the technology, even the staunchest traditionalists will not have a convincing argument for reverting to the old ways.
But a massive bugbear remains - the umpire's call, which grants the benefit of doubt to the original decision for lbw. Umpire's call was introduced for one primary reason: to account for a margin of inevitable uncertainty in the ball-tracking technology. However, the margin-of-uncertainty argument would be far more palatable if the benefit of doubt wasn't granted to the umpire's decision. The sport needs consistency and not confusion. One batsman can't be out and another be not out, as is the case presently, when the ball is shown to be hitting the stumps in both instances.
Joe Burns, battling to save his career, was dismissed in the Adelaide Test when the ball was shown to be grazing the leg stump. In the next Test, Marnus Labuschagne survived a review even though a larger part of the ball than in Burns' case was projected to be hitting. The difference was that Burns was given out on the field and Labuschagne not out. A series of umpire's calls that go against a team can prove decisive to the result of a game.
There is a simple fix. Keep a standard margin of uncertainty in favour of the batsman. Perhaps reduce it to the batsman being out if more than 25% of the ball is projected to hit the stumps. And remove the umpire's call. The sanctity of the decision is more important than that of the decision-maker.
The skipper becomes a suit
Great expectations carry the risk of great disappointment. It would have been futile to expect Sourav Ganguly, among India's most adored captains, to replicate the success he had with the Indian team in his stint in cricket governance, but when he promised a new era after being nominated as the BCCI president, hopes ran high. Perhaps a bit naïvely.
It's true that Ganguly would not have become president - not so soon, at least - if most of the other leading aspirants had not been debarred in the wake of the Supreme Court-backed reforms mandated by the Lodha committee, but it is also true that Ganguly was co-opted by the old system. In the time-honoured tradition of the BCCI, he didn't fight an election: he was selected. Though as board president he was never going to have around him a stellar team of the sort that made his tenure as Indian captain so successful, it is ironic that the BCCI under his presidency has spent considerable time in court trying to overturn the very reforms that facilitated his rise to the post.
Under the new constitution that elected him, Ganguly's term is over. Yet he, and Jay Shah, the BCCI secretary, carry on, because the Supreme Court has been in no haste to make a ruling on the petition by the board to overturn the cooling-off clause between terms in office mandated by the Lodha committee.
Meanwhile, the professional administration has been dismantled piece by piece. The BCCI has not replaced the CEO and the CFO who left; it is without a head of cricket operations and an administrative head for the National Cricket Academy. And just recently, the board picked a selection committee that has no experience in T20 cricket, though there are two back-to-back T20 World Cups on the horizon.
The concept of zonal selectors, though officially discarded, is alive in practice and Abey Kuruvilla, who played the last of his 35 international matches in 1997, was preferred as the West Zone candidate over Ajit Agarkar, who represented India in 221 matches and played six seasons of the IPL. (This is not to say that more international experience is a defining qualification for being a better selector, but experience of contemporary cricket has to count, particularly in T20, which is almost a different game from Test cricket.)
In simple terms, it's just like in the old era - the honorary office bearers are back in administrative roles, thus defeating one of the central reforms that stipulated a clear demarcation of functions between the elected office bearers and the executive.
Part of the problem is that the Lodha committee failed to address one of the root issues at hand. The reforms were limited to the top tier, and that was never going to be enough as long as the underlying electoral process remained the same. It only meant that many from the old guard who were debarred merely transferred their positions to their nominees. Some faces might have changed, but the power remained with the same network of clubs and state associations.
It would have been beyond Ganguly to single-handedly upend the system that anointed him, but had he tried, he would have had the mandate of the Supreme Court and the force of goodwill behind him. Instead he has been in the news for his endorsement deals - among others for businesses that compete with the BCCI's official sponsors - and for his links with a company that owns an IPL franchise.
Our sporting heroes are not obliged to always live up to our image of them, but we are still entitled our disappointment.
Persons of the Year
I have two, and neither held a bat or a ball this year. Steve Elworthy, the ECB's event director, for leading cricket's response to the pandemic and putting the show back on the road. And Michael Holding, for being the game's eloquent voice of conscience in the BLM movement.
*ESPNcricinfo and Star are part of the Walt Disney Company
*Dec 31, 2020, 8.35 GMT: In the original version of the piece, Ireland was missing from the list of teams that toured England

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo @sambitbal