Contribution matters, not statistics

INTERNATIONAL cricket is a giant elastic which stretches all the time in all directions. And while the rest of the world talks about a slowdown /recession /declining demand /sluggish growth /falling sales /less revenue /reduced economic activity, cricket suffers no such problems. Instead it marches on relentlessly like some army which keeps conquering fresh territories.

This happens in several ways, and as more matches are held several interesting twists also occur. The old concept of a cricket season is quickly vanishing because countries schedule matches in months when players were relaxing, recovering and thinking of things other than cricket.

The Indian team will play in the West Indies through April to June this year, normally matches in the Caribbean wind up much earlier. Same with Zimbabwe who are playing in their winter, which earlier was totally non cricket. Sri Lanka also holds matches in summer, when there is rain and humidity. India organised a triangular in peak summer (mercifully under lights) but the matches left both players and spectators hot under the collar. Cricket wasn't furthered, players came close to physical breakdown but, the sale of colas registered a sharp increase.

Australia is coping with the growing demand for cricket. They have a strong domestic structure, and are not willing to abandon it to meet more international commitments. To protect their domestic constituencies they tour more often and are thinking of novel means to find more time for more cricket. Hence Australia shifted one day matches to May, in an indoor stadium under lights.

The point is, cricket will grow and it will become an all-weather, year-round sport just as tennis and golf. But as this happens many things need sorting out, and many adjustments have to be made. Obviously players must bear the brunt, they need to remain fit and keep their motivation up to compete everyday. In this process, injuries are inevitable, top players will miss games as they meet the challenges of non stop cricket.

But we, normal cricket addicts, should also look at contemporary reality and condition ourselves to the excess. More cricket means more statistics, every day some new milestone is being reached, players are making more runs, taking wickets, breaking every known record and in this flood of stats one is swayed by the immediate achievement. Last season Yuveraj Singh was projected as Kapil Dev's heir. Now, Sehwag is already a master-blaster, a tag which only Viv Richards deserved.

Then the other problem with statistics is we get deeply impressed by their sheer weight. Walsh's 519 is a massive achievement but does it make him the world's greatest bowler? Is Border a great leader because he captained close to 100 Tests? Even more difficult : where will Sachin /Lara /Steve Waugh /Shane Warne and, above all, Murali, end up ? All will rewrite records but how are we to judge them? More important : how will people judge them 20 years hence?

The answer lies in measuring contribution and assessing impact on the game. Sachin's contribution to Indian cricket can't be reduced to cold figures. Or an average. Or a number with many zeroes. When he is done, probably in 2010, Sachin will be remembered for relentless pursuit of excellence, like Lata Mangeshkar. As a brutal player Sachin stands alone - he is a serial winner, a no-weakness batsman whose defensive shot (backfoot push through cover off quick bowlers) is actually aggressive.

Compared to him, assessing Gavaskar's contribution is easy. SMG proved Indians could handle pace without running to square leg. SMG got fearlessly into line to fast bowlers and presented a bat straighter than anyone else. Once in, he was undisturbed, short balls were ignored, slip fielders went to sleep knowing nothing would come their way. Apart from the minor achievement of 34 Test centuries, SMG will be remembered for altering the profile of the Indian cricketer because he was articulate /intelligent /commercially savvy. Nobody dared mess around with him.

Kapil Dev set several records but his enduring impact was to make sportsmen popular role models. He was India's first media-supported superstar, the common man's hero - every child wanted to bowl fast and belt the ball like him. Kapil played Tests like one-dayers (Eddie Hemmings will confirm this), exploded the myth that Indians could not bowl fast. He popularised cricket, took it to small towns and the large drawing rooms of the elite. With his limitless enthusiasm, obvious enjoyment and electric excitement, Kapil Dev converted vast numbers to cricket, made it India's number one religion.

Tiger Pataudi, youngest ever captain in Test history, extricated Indian cricket from medieval times by changing the mindset of players. Those days, players played for themselves, disregarded team interest, deliberately dropped catches if they disliked the bowler. Tiger spoke a modern language, converted 11 players into one team, talked about the country India just as Sooraj Barjatya stood up for the great Indian joint family.

As a visionary leader (more than a captain) Tiger emphasised fielding, placed the best man at first slip instead of giving the position according to seniority.

Tiger brought in spin, Solkar/Kunderan opened the bowling, but the ball was tossed to Bishan before the first drinks break. A fearless batsman, Tiger sent medium pacers over midoff and midon in an era when anything in the air was a graver sin than wearing Levis in Taliban's Afghanistan.

In their own way, Vishy /Vengsarkar /Azharuddin provided style and substance to the Indian middle order. All made big scores and batted splendidly though Azhar made impact in a more profound manner. He redefined fielding (by wonderful athleticism and smart catching) and in the end, if one needs reminding, gave cricket a totally new direction.

Bishan mesmerised batsmen with subtle variations created with the precision of A.R. Rehman hitting the right notes. Pras spun webs of deceit in flight. Chandra, despite a placid exterior, was intensely aggressive.

Cricket is about class, character and permanency. Ignore the stray spark of brilliance and the odd match-winning performance. Statistics hold our interest for a while but are junked quickly. Ultimately, cricketers are remembered for their contribution to the game. Not for centuries. Or Test averages. Or strike rates.