How to stop Roger, Michael and the Aussies

THE domination of Roger Federer, Michael Schumacher and the Australian cricket team in 2004 has rendered the sporting calendar of 2005 a trifle boring for the sports lover considering that the year does not have showpiece events such as the World Cup in football and cricket and the Olympics.

THE domination of Roger Federer, Michael Schumacher and the Australian cricket team in 2004 has rendered the sporting calendar of 2005 a trifle boring for the sports lover considering that the year does not have showpiece events such as the World Cup in football and cricket and the Olympics. At the start of the New Year, therefore, crystal ball gazing is recommended for lovers of sport. To actually know that these dominations would end, at least temporarily, in the year ahead would, ironically, make 2005 more unpredictable for tennis, Formula One and cricket fans! Tennis, cricket and Formula One will become more democratic if the likes of Andy Roddick, Marat Safin, India, England, Pakistan, Jenson Button and Juan Pablo Montoya raise their games to match the champions. Similarly, a drop in form by the undisputed leaders of the field will also increase competition.

There is also a third much less discussed option by which the playing field can be levelled — introduction of changes in the sport in terms of its structure, form and rules. Wray Vamplew, a British political scientist of sport, has categorised the responses of governing bodies of sport with respect to dwindling competition under two heads, namely profit maximisation response and utility maximisation response.

A typical profit maximisation response would be one in which the governing body of sport takes into account the commercial potential of the sport, and introduces changes with the intention of increasing competition. The changes initiated by FIA, the governing body of Formula One, in the 2003 as well as 2004 seasons are an example of this. The decision in 1992 of the top clubs of the English Football League to form the English Premier League is also an example of this.

In a utility maximisation response, there is recognition that the existing structure of the sport ensures the best for all its participants irrespective of the lop-sided competitive element. Vamplew has identified cricket administration — which had shown great reluctance in introduction of promotion and relegation system — as largely belonging to this head.

The important thing about these responses is that they are dependant so much on the social constitution of the governing bodies of sport. In the pre-globalisation era, when profit maximisation response was virtually unheard of in cricket, the ICC, which was controlled by the Anglo-Australian lobby, spelt the doom of genuine fast bowling by introducing the bouncer no-ball rule. West Indian social historian of sport, Hilary Beckles, has written about this rule change as one of the many causes in the end of the dominance of the West Indian team. Similarly, the advent of metallic racquet technology in the mid eighties ended the dominance of the age of classical grace, exemplified by Bjorn Borg, and the age of touch artistry, exemplified by John McEnroe.

It would be interesting to see whether 2005 witnesses a racquet manufacturer announcing a model of techno-racquet that can give one-trick ponies with a booming serve a chance when they confront Federer on the court. Will any Formula One manufacturer come up with fewer, but more powerful engines than that of Ferrari to take advantage of the new one-engine-per-weekend rule? Will the ICC, headed by a Pakistani, driven by Indian money and considering a move away from Lord's, introduce an elite level of Test and One-day playing nations which can indirectly be of advantage to the teams from the Sub-continent and England, not known for players with high fitness levels, owing to a reduction in number of games? Will they implement the recommendations of the sub-committee of the Illegal Bowling Actions? If so, can teams such as India and Sri Lanka take advantage of it to bridge the gap with the champions? Would FIFA force UEFA to introduce maximum ceilings on a club's transfer budget for a season, thereby challenging the dominance of Chelsea, Real Madrid and Manchester United for whom winning titles means splashing millions?

These are the questions that will occupy the minds of sports lovers in 2005. Though this year will see many cases of traditional rivalries in sport such as the India-Pakistan series in February, the Ashes in June, the Old Firm clashes in Scottish football and the clashes between Barcelona and Real Madrid in the Spanish league, the concept of traditional rivalries itself is fast changing. In the post-industrial age of sport, the commercial and technical codes have replaced the cultural code in reinventing the notion of rivalries. It is fit to recall the words of former Australian captain, Steve Waugh, just a few days after his retirement in January 2004: "The Border-Gavaskar Trophy will soon become as famous as the Ashes."