That’s just not cricket, or is it?

2011-05-07 00:00

CRICKET has experienced four revolutions. The first two changes were from underhand bowling to round-arm and then overarm.

Admittedly Mr Malinga seems to be some sort of counter-revolutionary. Nor did Greg Chappell take the rejection of underarm bowling all that well. Still, overarm prevailed and opened up the game to a hundred possibilities.

My old headmaster favoured lob bowling designed to land on the bails, only to be dismissed as a lunatic (naturally that did not prevent him continuing as headmaster or cricket captain).

These bowling changes altered the game almost beyond recognition and even provoked the rolling of pitches. Nor has the evolution of bowling stopped. Reasoning that it was the sort of thing expected from Americans, the game had looked askance at throwing. Cricket tolerated only the straight arm, or so it thought until a bunch of nefarious scientists revealed that every bowler straightened his arm to some degree. It was like discovering that every journalist fiddled his expenses — an utter, devastating and complete shock.

Cricket’s third revolution came in the 1970s when the game finally accepted that it was stuck in the 1950s groove. Cricket had regarded itself as a private activity pursued by specialists and attended by devotees, none of whom expected anything actually to happen. In that regard it resembled the church.

It took the emergence of that most feared of beasts, a miffed Australian, to persuade the game to stop taking itself so seriously — a myth of nobility had been created in the pulpits of England as a way of persuading the congregation to reduce their drinking and gambling and instead take up a manly game (a strategy that has not been a complete success).

Kerry Packer did not care to be patronised by the toffs at Cricket Australia and flexed his financial muscles.

Determined to fill grounds and sell advertising, he made cricket more accessible and entertaining, a combination that had not occurred to the existing rulers. Along the way the top players began to earn higher wages, another thought that had not occurred.

Cricket’s fourth revolution came from England. Twenty-over cricket has changed the balance of power between authority and player. It has given the leading lights a bargaining power undreamt of in their formative years. Veterans languishing in the arms of struggle reflected with mixed emotions upon the arrival of World Series and its attendant rewards. Now the players’ position is incomparably stronger.

For the first time in history they can pick and choose. Already it is happening. The recent ructions of West Indies and Sri Lanka can be understood only with reference to IPL riches. Boards can no longer command players to be at their beck and call for fear of curtailing their careers. Officials are obliged to arrange tours to fit in with the IPL schedule. Although the authorities have taken charge of IPL, they are also at its mercy. Ask Chris Gayle. Players are exploiting their marketability and sending a message to the game’s rulers. Hereafter they will play the game more on their own terms. Long tours and heavily packed programmes are things of the past. A board arranging a tour that clashes with IPL might find itself fielding second-stringers.

Already IPL is shown on TV in most cricket-playing countries. It is played overnight in Australia, does not accept Pakistani players for security reasons and clashes with the English domestic season. In every other respect it has the stage and the players to itself.

Like so many things of itself, IPL is neither good nor ill. Although not to every taste it has its advantages.

Sachin Tendulkar is watched by tens of thousands of locals able to find the few rupees required for that privilege. Even these scrambles cannot completely conceal his greatness. Spin has flourished and the fielding is becoming brilliant. More youngsters will believe they can make a living from the game and the talent pool will grow.

Moreover it is premature to assume that Test cricket will suffer. Players and spectators may not be so short-sighted. The feats of the great men on the great stages are the stuff of legends. Ultimately sport celebrates its champions and relishes its occasions, the grand slams, the World Cup final, the thrilling Test series. These things survive when all else is forgotten.

But IPL is not going to solve the game’s biggest headache, namely its integrity. At times it comes perilously close to resembling a racket. At least 10 captains and umpteen officials have had their snouts in the trough. Recent claims made by a Sri Lankan captain of match fixing taking place since 1992 are merely the latest revelation. At such times only fools put their head in the sand.

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