Cricket stands at crossroads, and there seems to be an exodus towards the short, fast lane rather than the longer traditional path. Arunabha Sengupta compares the T20 mayhem with the modern trends of the world, contrasts it with the subtleties of Test cricket and says why, given a choice, he will always opt for the traditional version.
Life and game in the fast lane
I have often voiced my forlorn faith as cricket’s romantic rooter – the sentimental, yet spirit- sustaining belief – that the game involving men in white on the greens reflect the drama that gets played out on the greater stage of life.
Seldom is any other game swayed by the slightest change of the wind, the movement of the clouds, the moisture in the atmosphere and turf. Few other sports combine the earthy ingredients of sweat, shine and spit to manipulate the laws of physics into esoteric outcomes as the reverse swing. Rarely in the arena is one treated to the thrills of diametric differences between the expected and the observed as the twist of the wrist that unleashes a wrong 'un. In no other sport is the inept asked to take on responsibilities that he is not born or trained for, to walk out courageously to fend and prod as a night watchman, and still defy odds and logic to score a hundred the following day. And, as in life, we are given a second chance for consolidation or correction, when the openers trot out to begin the second innings, the fast men gear up with the second new ball.
While all that is true can the attentive reader fail to detect in my words some tentative yearning for the good old days? Is there not more than a hint of what one misses in the modern day game?
Do I not say “men in white” as opposed to entertainers in multi-coloured pyjamas? Do I not hint at night watchmen and stay clear of the antithetical aberration called pinch hitters? Do I not deliberately dwell on the game moving on from the day to the morrow instead of winding up in the course of a few overs? Do I not look longingly back at a time when the teams, by default, batted twice, and even when the old ball changed into new, it remained red instead of the anaemic form used when the game is robbed of soul? Do I not make the cheerleaders shaking hip and more and the cash-flaunting, club owning matinee idols conspicuous by their absence?
So, does the game in its modern manifestation, as the glitz and glitter wrapped Babel tower of corporate ambition, continue to echo the facts and fancies of day to day life?
Does the IPL or Champions League or Twenty20 World Cups kindle in the soul the same sparks of euphoria of seeing an allegory of life being played out in the middle? Or is cricket-indulging in the fleeting moments of false satisfaction through financial and format abuse?
I struggle to detect the finer nuances and delicate shifts of balance over and over again in the mini version of the game.
Life is faster, some argue, and time is squeezed into small boxes of instantaneous. T20 is nothing but a reflection of the jet age, where even the greatest aficionado of grounded beans has to succumb to the ersatz pleasures of instant coffee. Where in these hurtling times is the luxury to pursue a sport that moves slowly over five full days? People fly across continents, send instant messages, close deals and make financial transactions at the click of a button. This is more than reflected in a game where even walking back to the pavilion is time consuming enough for an innovative solution to be dug out.
And the incorrigible idealist that I am, I disagree. People may rush along from cradle to grave, but lives are not getting shorter. It is less likely for instant cricket to reflect life than for a wolf whistle to generate the same sweet melancholy that fills up the soul when one hears a Beethoven Piano Sonata.
However, if one looks beyond just the game and focuses at the orbiting mayhem, one does find the reflection of modern times – a microcosm of modern madness.
Manufactured consent powered by lucre
The gradual conversion of all and sundry of the cricketers and the fringe players, the stars and the side characters, the men close in and in the outfield, into the forty over fold is the story of the current state of human affairs enacted through the hoops corporate circus. As Fredrich Durrenmatt so masterfully demonstrated in his play The Visitor, the lavish lure of lucre engulfs all.
Ex-cricketers, once so vehemently against tarnishing a great game with this short-lived incarnation, now flamboyantly wield the microphone doing pitch reports for the battle of corporate franchises. It mirrors the phenomenon of financially-powered, manufactured consent that is the working way of the world. The commentary box loaded with heavyweights from the past, shedding their vestige of indignation and studiously analysing the merits of agricultural slogs do smack of propaganda – akin to socio-political commentators who claim imperialistic expansions through financial bullying and bombarded devastation actually liberate the underprivileged world, similar to eminent industrialists claiming that a little oil spill never hurt anyone.
When the respected journalists and cricketers try to write out of their skin to create an illusion of benefit that the 20 fracas brings to the mother game, one can see an allegory of similar parallels played out at so many levels of the media-modelled modern world. Elevating corporate ambition to the levels of philanthropy, greed to reform, arrogant mediocrity to greatness.
The constant focus of all media on the events, innovating beyond themselves to pitchfork as many tenuously related programs, articles and features as possible into circulation, plays out the same drama of FM Channels playing the same jarring number over and over again to build it into a hit, books and movies elaborately publicised as best sellers and box office winners before hitting shelf and screen.
In this mad rush for profits, bottom line and mass media brain manipulation, the franchise owners and Bollywood stars gorging on the cricket world closely parallel the unfettered greed of Satyam, Enron, Lehmann Brothers and later the banking institutions that brought the world to the brink of financial collapse.
With the money-churning machinery squeezing it to the limits, how long will it take for the noble game, stripped of solidity and substance, to collapse on itself?
Can anything be more demeaning than players themselves being auctioned, put up for sale, much like the ancient slaves who were made to fight as gladiators, with the coliseum madly baying for bets and blood?
Most of the parallels that one can draw with life no longer deal with the noble foundations of human endeavour and pinnacles of achievement that test cricket embodied, but do so with the murky market-place that the world has been transformed into.
A snapshot of the times
In the larger-than-life figures of the Shah Rukh Khans rooting for their sides from beyond the boundary, one can see the reflection of God and George Clooney selling Nespresso in tandem. The game is now nothing more than a commodity pandered to public with semi-naked cheerleaders parading their assets at each important and not so important landmark. Much like the similar renditions of feminine sex appeal which crop up on billboards and television screens to sell everything from cars, watches, insurance schemes and holiday packages. The esoteric essence of the brand has entirely overtaken the action in the middle. The focus is on weaving the spectacle into the fabric of life, and judging by the crowd response, the movement has been more than successful in hiding the shortcomings of substance and making it up with an overdose of style. In the same way as the Just Do It slogan has relegated the manufacturing process involving malnourished children in the sweat shops of Asia into the background and entered our wardrobes, shoe-racks and quotient of social standing. Just like the yellow arches have eclipsed the largely uncooked meat shoved between stale pieces of bread and transformed it into a kid-friendly fun eatery.
As fans flock to cheer the teams named in baseball style, across as many tournaments as can be crammed into a calendar stretched to limits, Test matches are neglected by administrators and adherents alike. And here too one notices a curious parallel to the ironies of existence. The milkman has to vend his products from door to door, but the liquor den is always full of rabble.
To me, T20 divides the cricket world, into the gourmet and gourmand, connoisseur and consumer.
In this world, there will always be toddy and milk, Harold Robbins and Shakespeare, masala movies and magic on celluloid, a handful of readable magazines amidst two hundred gossip tabloids. Which will sell more is less than a rhetoric question, it enters axiomatic realms. However, it is subtlety and sophistication repelling the masses that go on to make something special.
I would rather continue my romance with the great game than give in to the urges of a wham- bam affair.
(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but purifies the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two into a cleansing cocktail. The author of three novels, he currently resides in the incredibly beautiful, but sadly cricket-ignorant, country of Switzerland. You can know more about him from his author site, his cricket blogs and by following him on Twitter)