By Madan Mohan
As the 2000th Test match approaches, it is time to examine the future of international cricket. No, not because I derive sadistic pleasure in playing killjoy, but because events off the field lead to more and more questions on where international cricket is headed to. Certainly, the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s (BCCI) stance on Sri Lankan Premier League (SLPL) has queered the pitch even more, as if that was even possible.
As usual, BCCI has picked up on a legal loophole to express reservations on allowing the participation of Indian players in the SLPL. The BCCI may well have valid concerns on the matter, but it more or less has ensured that 'rival' leagues do not take off. The BCCI needs international stars to create a semblance of a high class competition in the Indian Premier League (IPL), but it will not see fit to return the favour to other boards. Why? The answer is simple: Should other leagues to take off, they would eat into the IPL profits - if any. It may also generate the first Indian mercenary as players find it more lucrative to play in a cross section of T20 leagues than lie in the wait of an Indian berth. On the other hand, the SLPL is backed by all the other cricket boards. Are battle lines going to be drawn henceforth? Will the swords be out now? Surely, something's got to give and somebody's going to say that enough is enough.
So, what is the future of international cricket? Not entirely unlike the National Basketball Association (NBA), in my opinion. Cricket's popularity has dwindled in all but the sub continent and Australia. I have heard some Australians say it is not necessarily the undisputed No.1 game even in Australia, but I am no position to verify that. Of these, the Sri Lankan and Pakistani boards have financial headaches to grapple with. That leaves the big, fat, decadent goose India as the financial custodian of cricket.
India's real romance with cricket began with the World Cup win in 1983 and not the series win in England under Ajit Wadekar in 1971. This is not to say the game had no following in India before, but it is that monumental achievement of Kapil's Devils that catalysed its explosion in popularity thereafter and the current size of the market for cricket-related products in India.
Ergo, whether we like it or not, Indians have been sold on limited-overs cricket from inception. Whatever scepticism they may have had towards Twenty 20 was washed away when India won the inaugural T20 World Cup. It was to capitalize on precisely this craze for limited-overs cricket that the IPL was launched. The hangover of a much-awaited World Cup win may have dented the fourth edition of the IPL, but there's nothing to show that the IPL is going anywhere. Imagine if there wasn't so much international cricket to watch and just a bunch of cricket leagues to choose from - would you still feel saturated by the amount of cricket on offer? Probably not. It is a model that has worked well in football.
Since the international scene has defined cricket for so long, people are yet to be converted to a league-based structure. But the BCCI, it seems, will leave no stone unturned in ensuring this conversion. It has finally gone the last mile towards alienating other cricket boards with its latest salvo. That, combined with its terrible handling of the UDRS issue, threatens to split the cricket community like never before. The World Cup win this year brought home the importance of international cricket emphatically, but BCCI had already accounted for that – by scheduling IPL4 almost immediately after it and thereby denying fans the opportunity to bask in the glory of a special achievement.
With the huge audience for cricket in India, the BCCI no longer feels dependent on other cricketing nations for its own survival. Tapping the Indian market to the hilt seems more than enough to them. And it may well be an idea whose time has finally come. The once decrepit stadiums have been revamped and the Indian middle class are willing to pay entrance they would have baulked at only ten years ago. The television revolution had already helped boost cricket’s popularity in India in the ‘90s. Added to that new India’s swanky workplaces boast ‘giant screens’ at reception lobbies, so you’ve got at least a few hundred million people hooked to cricket all the time. The economic imperative to put the domestic game, i.e, club above the international game is, for better or worse, compelling.
There may well be some positives to emerge out of it. Perhaps, as private league owners gradually usurp more and more power, some sentimental but redundant attachment to tradition will be abandoned and steps that have long been necessary may be taken. Perhaps, a new generation working with a new model will not feel the need to keep the game so batsman friendly and reintroduce bouncers (more than one an over) just to spice up things and make it less one dimensional. Perhaps, it may become even more like baseball.
What’s for sure is change is in the air. Not now, not tomorrow, not even in the foreseeable future, so don’t wring my neck if international cricket doesn’t cease to exist first thing in the morning. But the game is so much bigger in India than in other cricketing nations that it is difficult to see the BCCI holding hands with the other members for much longer.
So, Chris Gayle, Shaun Tait, Dirk Nannes may well not be mercenaries, but smart dudes who have seen the future of cricket. Perhaps, for the players, the future does not lie in continuing to be slaves of opaque and insensitive boards anymore for the sake of keeping tradition alive. There would not be much love lost between players and administrators if more episodes like the Gayle or Simon Katich ones are played out. And as things unravel, savour those vintage Test knocks like Rahul Dravid’s at Kingston a few days ago. For now, the tradition is very much alive and kicking.
Let’s celebrate it while it lasts!
(Madan Mohan, a 25-year old CA from Mumbai, is passionate about writing, music and cricket. Writing on cricket is like the icing on the cake.)