Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Cricket and India

There seem to be a lot of parallels between Indian cricket, and erm, India.

Till late 80's, both the Indian team and India were largely unheralded/unknown quantities till the late 80's. Then Sam Pitroda-Rajiv Gandhi took some steps in the right direction, broadly the same time at which the Reliance world cup and later SRT happened. Both were the first signs of promise.

Then early 90's, Indian reforms took shape, the ground-work was laid for some breakthrough industries/enterprises that were to come along later. For the team, Kumble came along, Ganguly made an appearance, and Dravid-Laxman started doing their thing in the local circuits. In many ways, the real fruits of the reforms took effect only in the second half of the 90's

Second half of 90's is when we really started hearing about Infosys Wipro, started believing that India could finally compete globally and create high quality institutions. About the time, Ganguly-Dravid appeared. TCS, the old warhorse also joined the mix, ditto SRT (finally now it looked like he might not be the only good guy around). Cognizant/Laxman were the slightly late entrants. 2000-01, India felt the dotcom bust, cricket went through the match-fixing scandal. The Azhar-Satyam parallel is the only one where the timeline does not match :)

Around this time, Pokhran happened and Eden Gardens happened. These expanded the horizons of what-could-be beyond imagination.

Early 2000's,
good results all around. Adelaide, Pakistan tour, 2003 WC, etc. Good growth, good infra build up, general feel good factor. Telecom sector came and took the limelight, enter Harbhajan with a bang in his debut series. It looked like we were setting ourselves up for a higher trajectory. India needed newer biggies, the team needed newer names - Sehwag, Yuvraj, Zaheer came up. Auto sector, telecom sector broke through, realty sector also shined.

Just when things were fine, we were woken up rudely. 2007 WC debacle, 2008-meltdown. But the rebound was way better than expected. It also helped that we were seen now as relatively better. Australia declined, Pakistan, Windies disappeared, NZ finally ran out of steam, England were in transition, and it was up to India to not fluff its lines. On the global economy, US went into a big recession, Europe was struggling and there were few safe havens. India, part of the emerging market brigade acquitted itself wonderfully, or so it seemed.

The new-age, confident group made a mark in the biggest stage with a WC win and on the other hand Indian market rallied to nearly touch a new high.

But, the reality is that both triumphs were built on weak (longer-term/longer-format) fundamentals (even the metaphors start matching :) ). Just like how decoupling was always a myth, the new all-round fitter+better team was also just a myth. Both have been running low on newer inputs. The old-warhorses are still pulling the engine along. The rising tide had just lifted all boats, in both settings. Both need renewal now. Especially, with a giant recession looming, and huge retirements around the corner.

Most importantly, I think for all the improvements seen, we are now left with a feeling that some of the basics aren't much improved - governance, administration, education, fitness (corruption, bowling stocks). Funnily enough, those of us who have been following both for a while have this vague inexplicable feeling that the promising-but-not-there-yet version of the late 90's had more going for it than the premature we-have-arrived-bring-it-on version of the early 2010's. But hey, things go in cycles. And this is still better than the 80's. :)

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Test Cricket - The end is nigh

Michael Holding has recently said in an interview that he fears for the future of test cricket. Many have made this pronouncement in the past, and many have made strong defence against this hypothesis. Few are better than Gideon Haigh at discussing this . On this issue, conventional wisdom has alwaye been that the future of test cricket depended on whether test cricket die-hards would cede space to the newer breed of T-20 fans. The question people had in their minds was always - "Will there be enough die-hards left for tests post the T-20 bonanza?"

I held the belief that if the die-hards turned up, test cricket would be safe. And I always believed that the die-hards would turn up. I have too many friends who wake up at 5:30 in the morning to follow the Ashes in Australia, too many who know Brian Lara's test average, and far too many who will happily be able to recall at least 30 of Sachin's test centuries at 5 minutes notice. India alone would be able to keep test cricket alive - I used to believe. Now, I am beginning to have doubts.

It is not the T-20 that made me waver, it is not even the IPL. These always attracted "newer" audiences. There were too many who had seen the 376 partnership in Kolkatta and therefore could not take Warne's claim that Yusuf Pathan had played the greatest innings ever too seriously. These events increased the share of T-20 audience in cricket. What it did not do was to reduce the audience for test cricket. And there-in lies the rub, I used to think.

Now, post the 4-0 drubbing in England, I am getting worried. I am beginning to hear people saying that "It is alright, one off defeat is fine. We are still the ODI champions". I can happily live with that.

I am also hearing an undertone of "Dhoni is still the best in the world. He took India to the WC. He took India to the No1 ranking in the world. He took CSK to 2 crowns and a Champions League triumph". Now, this I feel is dangerous. The moment Dhoni's legacy gets measured in terms of all of these things, the famed primacy to test cricket argument becomes a sham. And without even the pretext of the primacy to text cricket argument, test cricket could be on its last legs.

Fans' emotional involvement alone can keep a game going for a long time. There are a great many (yours truly included) in India who will watch India test series in even New Zealand and West Indies if it will help keep the game going. We guys are crazy enough to accommodate bad timings, poorly scheduled tours, etc etc. But what we cannot bear to think that is that the guys whom we support so madly, so passionately, do not accord the same importance to the form of cricket that we so adore. Indian cricket took its fans' trust for granted once in the match-fixing scandal and got away with it. Test cricket in India cannot have another trust-beating like that. If Dravid or Tendulkar come out and say what Gayle did, test cricket would not survive long in India. And my fear is that, once these legends bow out, then sooner or later, one of these guys is going to say something similar. The "primacy to test cricket" adage has probably done its time.

The two countries that seem to really place importance on test cricket are England and Australia. And I would say my heartfelt thanks to them. I am not a big fan of either team, and have hated (and still hate) the English cricket team with a passion. I dont carry a chip on my shoulder like Gavaskar, but have been accused in the past of irrationally hating the England team. No matter how much I loathe the team, I can assure them come 2024 if the Ashes are still on, I will be watching them. I will not have the same passion for the game if India starts playing less than 5 tests per year, but I will still watch the Ashes. If the Ashes turn out to be the last reminder for what test cricket used to be, I will do my bit to keep that going. Because, in all likelihood it looks like that will be the only test series in the 2020's where both teams care deeply about the result.

I am hoping like crazy that I am wrong. Much as I would wish Dravid, Sachin and Laxman to be remembered as the greatest middle order ever, there is no joy in them getting this accolade if they were also the last relevant middle order around.