Cricket and The National Question



When Matt Renshaw had to answer an unexpected call of nature during the 2017 Border Gavaskar test at Pune and paid heed to it by retiring hurt, the former Australian skipper Allan Border wasn’t impressed. He remarked “I hope he is lying on the table in there half dead. Otherwise as captain I would not be happy” to Fox Sports. This wasn’t the first time Border had urged for his countrymen to give their all on the cricket field, having fired up Dean Jones during the tied Madras test in 1986 with the ‘Weak Victorian’ comment. The idea was for the individual to stand up and fight for the country and the team.

These utterances seem like they belong to another world in the era of T20 leagues and friendlier relations between cricketers. Sure, International cricket still holds its importance but it has found strong financial challengers in in the form of franchise cricket around the world like IPL, BBL, CPL etc. which inevitably feature the best of talents from around the world.

Cricket continues to be played with similar vigour as it was played in the past, but scheduling of international tournaments and player priorities are worked out owing to their contractual obligations with leagues around the world.

A recent example of the talent drain was seen in the form of Andre Russell, who refused to feature in the New Zealand tour Twenty20 games, yet was seen plying his trade in the Lankan Premier League, which left even the West Indian coach Phil Simmons baffled.

The scenarios today include players retiring from one of the formats (usually Tests), making themselves unavailable for tournaments or players entering into important tours with little preparation in terms of practice games, given that T20 engagements run around the year.

At the same point of time national cricketing boards and team managements across the world have tried to scramble for a solution. The red-ball and white-ball cricket tours are largely played separately these days, shortened tours are the norm and boards seek to manage player fitness by resting them from one format or the other and keeping a larger pool of players to choose from.

The solution is a different one depending on a country’s situation. The commonality remains in the fact that the hard taskmaster approach has given way to a stress towards a more tactical solution. West Indies have recently come to terms with keeping their cricketing talent intact, even if it means that some of their Twenty20 stars are unavailable for certain international assignments. Some others allow their players to feature in specific Twenty20 leagues, given that they are available for International assignments.

While these innovative solutions work for the day and allow for international scheduling calendar to continue largely unhindered, there is no guarantee that the same would continue in the future. T10 and The Hundred are the young entrants, even as T20 leagues continue to blossom. In the earliest days of T20 leagues, only the IPL could attract the best of the talent. But now nearly every test cricketing nation (quite a few non-test nations as well) have jumped into the T20 bandwagon.

The result being that the T20 player, irrespective of nationality, have a decent chance of making money by playing in these leagues. Those who miss out on the bigger leagues, will always find takers in other leagues. Coupled with the fact that the national first class pay is paltry compared to the sums that these leagues offer and the cricketing calendar is heavily skewed in favour of certain ‘bigger’ teams playing against each other, so that many nations don’t have top teams visiting them for years on the go, these leagues are a great financial relief for several players.

We have already seen examples of players choosing formats, retiring from other formats to concentrate on T20 leagues. There is no reason to believe that the same would stop and on the contrary, it is quite possible that such cases would only rise giving more troubles to national cricket boards. But such queries and their solutions need not concern us.

It should remain with the cricketing fans who witnessed the rise and fall of the tri-series (with all their colourful jerseys and joyous memories), who saw the birth of Border Gavaskar, Chappell Hadlee, Warne Muralitharan trophies, who saw friendship cups contested between national sides to improve cricketing relations and whose world revolved around the One day and Test schedule of the year.

A lot has changed: Champions trophy once a novelty, has been done away with, the triangular series are gone, there is little to no chance of having an international test championship of the sort witnessed in late 90s (Asian Test Championship with round-robin format) and T20 cricket is on the rise. And it seems the future has a lot of changes in store for the present-day fans.

A strong possibility is the possible dilution of International cricket to an extent that the cricketing schedule of tomorrow resembles that of modern-day football (leagues with a sprinkling of internationals) with Test cricket, somehow adjusted into the scheme. (Till it continues to find its takers amongst the powers that be in the name of ‘tradition’)

But then one must understand that change is something what one would associate with the word ‘cricket’. An exclusive game featuring only certain nations (with a history of colonial rule) with only limited number of international Tests, the spectator interest lay greatly in the domestic affairs of their countries with long tours by international sides featuring a great number of side-matches.

With the interest waning in 60s, limited overs cricket was introduced which caught the imagination with the initial world cups and after the Kerry Packer years. The Indian economy liberalized in the 90s and the game got a different colour to it. While International tours had always been a part of the cricketing tradition, the One-day internationals were seen as a welcome addition.

Multi-country international tournaments such as World Championship of cricket, Australian tri-series, Sharjah Cups and Champions trophy dotted the 80s and 90s. They were not brought about by cricket lovers imagining them into existence (If the same were true, we would’ve just finished with the 27th Test World cup), rather that cricket boards could profit immensely from them.

Tournaments were booked as Independence Cups, Asia Cups, Australia-Asia Cups which raised the viewers interest with marquee contests between arch-rivals. With the lure of financial riches, all boards jumped into the bandwagon, the tri-series cricket being hosted by nearly all the test playing nations in the late 90s and early 2000s. It seems that the cricket boards learnt their nationalism in the market.

And when the dictates of the market favoured the rise of Twenty20 cricket, we saw the rise of T20 leagues around the world. There are a number of people who have questioned the efficacy of ‘The Hundred’ due to ‘release’ this year, but if it becomes a hit don’t be surprised if a world cup is played in this format before the end of this decade.

The attitudes might have changed but the commitment of the player has remained the same, case in point being the epic rear-guard action by Ashwin and Vihari in the Sydney test. At the end of the day players are human beings, who would prefer better lives which can be secured by the financial incentives of the T20 leagues. It is no different from the past, when a lot of informal tournaments (Siyaram cup featuring near full strength India and Pakistan) attracted a number of top names.

For the international cricket to continue, the answer lies with International cricket council, the viewers watching the game and the cricketing boards who run the game around the world. They have the option to decide if status quo is the best way to go forward or making such changes which allow international cricket to remain a viable product for the consumers. The decision to give all Twenty20 games between ICC members ‘International’ status will help the game spread. The World Test Championship and Cricket World Cup Super League are small steps in the right direction to introduce a league-based system permanently.

It is obvious that the international game will stick along for quite some time, but the direction it heads towards can be modified by changes made to the calendar today. It might take innovation on the part of administrators and some tough calls.

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