The importance of preserving cricket's uniqueness

2010-04-03 00:00

CRICKET is unique among major games because it is sustained almost entirely by international matches. Provinces and clubs have big parts to play in rugby and soccer, but cricket enjoys no such domestic support.

Over the last 50 years, interest in local matches has dwindled. A smattering of spectators turns up to watch provincial matches and a few attend club fixtures. English counties attract pensioners and diehards, and children come along in the holidays so the matches are played in a convivial atmosphere. Elsewhere the stands are empty and the words of the players echo around a concrete mausoleum.

The cricketing equivalents of The Bulls and the Buccaneers are not remotely self- sufficient, merely part of the production line. In business they’d be put under research and development, and it’d be an expensive item. Stars like Ricky Ponting and Sachin Tendulkar play hundreds of matches for their countries and a handful for their provinces. Mitchell Johnson and Shane Watson moved last winter and neither has played a single mach for his new state.

Interest in domestic cricket has been dwindling for decades. People can watch top-class sport on television. Besides the usual (girls and beer), youngsters have lots of alternatives, including Ipods, Facebook and vacuous texting. Some of them even study now and then. Life is too short to watch obscure locals. In cricket, the local hero no longer exists.

Accordingly, cricket had become almost entirely dependent on internationals. Then IPL came along, and the Champion’s League. Suddenly city teams were turned into franchises and crowds flocked to 20-over matches played at night and with a lot at stake and great players on both sides. The excitement has been palpable. The significance remains unclear.

Now cricket has a choice. It can continue along its original path, relying on international matches, trying to keep the top 10 nations intact and seeking to spread the word so that cricket becomes a genuine world game and not a post-colonial curios­ity. It can use 20-over cricket to try to create interest in fresh markets like China. Already cricket is growing apace in Afghanistan, Nepal and elsewhere.

In this scenario, IPL remains in its present position as a sideshow and an opportunity for players to make a wad in a few weeks, an immense attraction for anyone and especially for players from the poorer dispensations.

But this strategy depends on cricket holding its ground in the top 10 or so nations, even making advances. No one looking at the position in Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Pakistan, West Indies and New Zealand can be confident about them remaining strong enough to compete with the powerful Test nations. Pakistan has numerous problems on and off the field, political and sporting, New Zealand is hard pressed financially, while Dwayne Bravo recently announced that, of his three teams, he placed “Trinidad and Tobago first, Mumbai Indians second, West Indies third.” At that moment Sir Frank Worrell turned in his grave

It does not bode well. Even Sri Lanka is broke. Nor can it blithely be assumed that South Africa will still be strong in 10 years. Rapid changes are occurring in this country and the outcome cannot be known.

Now an alternative has emerged. The repercussions of IPL are unclear, but it does present the game with another future.

Adherents argue that Test cricket ought to be played by only the best four or five teams because it is flogging a dead horse everywhere else. They believe that Test and even 50-over matches ought to be few and far between and that IPL equivalents ought to spring up in every country and become competitions capable of challenging the English Premier League.

According to this view, AB De Villiers, say, would play one or two three-Test series a year, against England or India or Australia, a few ODIs against the same opponents, and otherwise represent a 20-over franchise playing in a worldwide league lasting most of the year. In that case, De Villiers’s bank balance would be full, but his heart and head might be another matter. If it unfolds this way, the only thing to do, it is humbly suggested, would be to order a crate of wine and let nature take its course.

Amid all this talk, it tends to be forgotten that all soccer and rugby teams play the same game, with the same rules, 80 minutes a match and so forth. Only the standard varies. Test and T20 cricket are far apart. Bats and ball are used, overs last six balls and so on, but it’s all a mad thrash.

The warning has been given. The word “franchise” is the giveaway. It is not a vision of heaven. Quite the opposite. Cricket cannot afford to lose it essence or its evolution.

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