A few days back IPL Commissioner Lalit Modi sat sweating and stammering in front of Karan Thapar and was literally taken apart on the issue of the effect IPL in particular and T-20 in general was having on cricket.
In the end it just appeared ugly as the man who has been keen to take the credit for 'reviving' the game of cricket seemed to have very few answers, and going by the people Karan quoted, even fewer supporters among cricket experts. The verdict seemed clear - given T-20, and because of the IPL Cricket had set off on the Highway to destruction.
But is it all that simple? For a game that originated at the latest in the 16th century (the earliest reference found is in a 1598 legal document which talks about a 'creckett' match being played at Surrey in 1550), went 'international' in 1844 and 'official' in 1877 this seems to be rather abrupt.
We have actually been talking of the waning interest in the game, and generally it has been supposed that the length of the cricket game (5 days or 7 hours, depending on the format) is what the current generation finds prohibitive. A second possible 'culprit' has been identified as the occasionally sedate nature of the game. Hence, of course, the origin of ODIs, first the 60 over format, and then the 50 over one. Of course, now it is being alleged that the middle overs of an ODI are played too strategically and hence 'sedately', by the teams, due to which the interest in ODIs is also waning.
So, T-20 has been declared the new 'savior' of Cricket. T-20, its proponents including the suave Mr.Modi say, is the only way the funds required for developing the game can be acquired. Their critics, on the other hand, believe that the game of cricket is being sacrificed at the altar of money. Now, who is right? In fact is anyone right at all, or have we all been barking up wrong trees throughout? The first question is has the interest in cricket really waned? I do not think so. The Tendulkars and Pontings and Dhonis still elicit huge passion from fans. But what cannot be denied is that cricket viewership has gone down. That may actually be the first step towards waning of interest. But I do not believe just lack of time can be blamed for this situation. Let us first look at the increasingly lower attendance at Cricket Grounds. As an ardent cricket fan, I have watched many matches at the EdenGardens and a couple at the Feroze Shah Kotla. But if someone asks me if I will attend the 4th ODI between India and Sri Lanka this December I will have to say 'not likely.' Lack of time? Not really. I do not know my schedule 3 days from now, how can I be sure whether I will have time on December 20 or not? The truth is I am too lazy. Too lazy to get out of my home on a Sunday, make that trip down to Eden Gardens, especially when I can watch that match on Television, with expert analysis, and replays while reclining comfortably on my bed. That, to put it simply, is my reason. Moreover, it is just Sri Lanka, boss, no disrespect intended, but come on, that's not the same as India-Australia, or India-Pakistan, is it?
Basically, TV viewership and match attendance compete with each other, and that's a fact. Sad, because nothing on TV can really give you a feel of what it is like to watch Cricket in a jam-packed EdenGardens, with almost a lakh of vociferous fans shouting their lungs out. It does not tell you about peering through a small binocular, trying to get yourself closer to the action. It does not tell you about a 70 year old man dancing on top of a cemented seat at EdenGardens when Harbhajan takes a hattrick against the Australians. But here I am. And TV has made me lazy. But are we not hearing that TV viewership of cricket is also on the decline? Is that not the reason T-20 was introduced and numerous changes were made in the 50 over format? Is that not being cited as a proof of Test Cricket's impending death?
My question is simple: Is this all true, or are we just mistaking shadows to be ghosts? I would really like to know how the TRPs of the recent India-Australia series compare to the Champions League T-20. I would like to know what the TRPs were for the series down-under between the same opponents. Trust me; the results may shock Mr.Lalit Modi and his entourage. In fact, all venues of the recent series saw packed stadiums as well. So what exactly does this prove? Simply this: time may be a factor, but not a big one. When I was a student and my parents were working they were not given days-off for watching a cricket match. Students have always been the majority in the crowd in a stadium. Difference is now they feel they get more entertainment in a discotheque than in a cricket stadium. And when the prospect of a great cricket contest comes up these same people pack the stadiums. From this angle the recent changes may actually be fatal for the game. The general feeling in the Cricket Establishment is that if the runs scored go up, so will viewership. But that's not necessarily a great contest. In fact, the game is becoming increasingly lopsided in favor of the batsmen. Look at the statistics, and you will find that an India-Australia, or an India-Pakistan game, on an average produces less runs than most other contests. Yet these contests are extremely popular. Why? The sheer quality of play, the unmitigated intensity of these contests pulls in the audience.
Cut to the first Test between India and Sri Lanka at Ahmedabad. To begin with there was a sizeable crowd, and from the responses in Fan IQ itself TV viewership was also decent. But by lunch on the last day it was all over. Over 1500 runs scored, and there was no taker for that match at all. You see? It is not about runs after all.
All the recent changes in rule have been in favor of the batsmen: one bouncer rule, allowing the runner to take a start, increasing fielding restrictions (or power play) to 20 overs in ODIs, the free-hit rule, and many more. At the same time the pitches have generally become flatter than ever. And that’s a global phenomenon. Perth is no longer lightning fast; SabinaPark no longer has disconcerting bounce; GreenPark is no longer a spinner’s paradise. In the context of a Test Match that means more likelihood of a Draw. And more spectators going home, or switching off their TV sets feeling they did not get their money/time’s worth.
What the ICC needs to ensure now is the quality of the contest. Packaging can wait. So can all the hoopla about the new phenomenon named IPL. First make sure closely matched teams take on each other more often. I will not like to see ruthless Australia slaughtering Bangladesh/Zimbabwe in 2 days. I will like to see India-Australia/ Australia-South Africa/ India-South Africa more often. Traditional rivalries like England-Australia, IndiaPakistan, Australia-New Zealand need to be promoted. These contests see both sides raise their game a few notches and that pulls in the crowd. If you are wondering what I mean, take a look at football rivalries: Manchester United is a much bigger side, but every time they lock horns with city rivals Manchester City there are fireworks. City refuse to be minnows, and more often than not, a wonderful display of skills is in store for supporters of both sides. That applies to any sport. That applies to Cricket as well.
And Mr. Modi fails to understand that I cannot have the passion I have about the Indian Cricket Team for a Kolkata Knight Riders. It is just not the same. Unlike football, which always had a very strong club format, Cricket has always depended on National Identity. That cannot be replaced so fast.
Let’s get the facts right. IPL was very obviously introduced to counter the ICL. And to that extent it has been successful. But if it claims that it has made Manish Pandey a superstar without having done anything in even Domestic Cricket, I have a problem. I do not doubt the talent of the young players who are doing well in IPL. I am just not sure what they will feel about going through the grind of Domestic Cricket to claim a national Team spot, given their already boasting of star status after the IPL. That is not a healthy trend. Also, from the recent statements of Andrew Flintoff and Chris Gayle, it is obvious that they intend to quit Test Cricket to preserve themselves for the IPL, which obviously pays much better. That is ominous.
Still, I do not see Test Cricket in any immediate danger. Especially in India, the current financial powerhouse of Cricket, the game, in its purest form, still has a huge following. Yes, some countries, England and West Indies for example, have seen a sharp decline in the game’s popularity. But remember what I said about national identity? Can it, then, be a coincidence that this decline coincided with the decline of the stature of the National Teams in the Cricketing World? Hardly.
One final advice to ICC in general, and the BCCI in particular: Look at the non-metropolitan centres of cricket. Kanpur, Ahmedabad, Guwahati, Cuttack, etc will always give you full houses, simply because people there are starved of live Cricket action. The BCCI must also answer why it is letting politics deprive a traditionally strong Cricket base like Kolkata?
The ICC, on its part must take strong measures to revive the quality of Cricket in countries like England, West Indies and Zimbabwe. Also, it must stop diluting the quality of contests by making batsmen the sole focal points of the game. Remember, a Test Match can only be won by taking 20 wickets?
Taking everything into account their have been some positive developments. The ICC’s ‘Futures Tour Program’ or FTP is a step in the right direction. It will ensure that every Test playing Nation is compelled to play a certain number of Test Matches every year. It will also ensure that every team plays against all other teams regularly. I hope this is sign of the Governing Body finally waking up to the real problems facing the game. I hope Mr. Modi and his ilk’s unabashed attempts at turning Cricket into a money-minting machine at the cost of the game itself finds its final resting place soon.