Good news for connoisseurs

IT is early days yet. Both teams have a long way to go before they can be called the giants of the game, which they once where, at different periods in cricket's history. But the relative successes which the new-look English one-day team under Michael Vaughan and the West Indies under Brian Lara have met with in recent times should put a smile on the face of every connoisseur of the great old game.

IT is early days yet. Both teams have a long way to go before they can be called the giants of the game, which they once where, at different periods in cricket's history. But the relative successes which the new-look English one-day team under Michael Vaughan and the West Indies under Brian Lara have met with in recent times should put a smile on the face of every connoisseur of the great old game.

Over a few years, the mediocre levels plumbed by the once mighty West Indies and the country that gave us the game, England, must have left a lot of genuine fans of the game worried about its future.

That this coincided with the commercial boom witnessed in the sport in the sub-continent, largely in India, may have been some consolation. But, at the end of the day, it was clear that cricket's financial powerhouse, India, would be worse off — rather than better off — for the decline in standards in the Caribbean and England.

In most other international sports, ones that are truly international with 100 or more countries actively playing the sport, the decline in the fortunes of two nations may not be anything that would force you to press the panic button. But cricket is a sport played by a handful of nations and even among them, to count the ones that can put up teams of any real international quality you don't need the fingers of both hands.

It has become obvious now that for all the initial euphoria, Bangladesh is going to take a long time before it can try and contest on equal terms with other Test playing nations. Its entry into the Test fold was made possible by men who had their eyes on votes rather than on the genuine interests of the sport.

The prospect of the game dying a slow and cruel death in Zimbabwe, too, is very real. The rate at which the white farming families, which contribute largely to the national cricket team, are packing up and departing from Robert Mugabe's strife-torn nation, it may not be long before Zimbabwe would fail to raise an XI to try and make a match of it with a Delhi Club side.

Against this background, it becomes obvious that the traditional powers of the game such as England and the West Indies need to reinvent themselves as top-notch sides so that the quality of international cricket is even and attractive enough to lure on-site and TV audiences.

Both in England and in the West Indies, in recent times, there has been a lot of talk about how the young ones are being lured by other sports and are not taking to cricket in great numbers.

Obviously, in the Caribbean, basketball and baseball have grown in a big way and offer a ticket to the promised land — read United States of America — to the talented few.

And in England, the lure of football and other high profile sports has contributed to the declining interest in cricket in schools and colleges.

But over the last year and a little more, things are slowly changing in the West Indies and in England as well. Lara's team may not stand comparison with Clive Lloyd's giants or Viv Richards' masters but there is considerable batting talent in the present team although the bowling needs to improve.

As for Vaughan's men, they seem to play the game with a tremendous sense of commitment while at the same time suggesting that they are all having a jolly good time out there. Marcus Trescothick is no newcomer but his batting form, and the commitment shown by the young bowlers must have had the old hands at the Lord's members' bar toasting the new-found vigorous good health of English cricket.

There is some talk now at the highest levels of management in the sport about the need to introduce an annual Test championship, where every nation would play the other once at home and once away.

While this is a wonderful idea, it must be said that a championship like this will excite the millions of fans around the world if it was played on a two-tier basis with teams such as Zimbabwe and Bangladesh making up the top of the second tier.

Once again, if such an annual home-and-away championship is to become a grand success, then the urgent revival of England and the West Indies as powerful teams would certainly help improve its quality.

What is more, if the all-conquering Australians are to be challenged at both forms of the game, then it would take more than one or two teams — say, South Africa or India — to do that. And when eight teams of acknowledged merit get together in an annual competition, there is only one way the sport can go — up, up and up.