Official status: where to draw the line?

S. DINAKAR

THESE are changing times in cricket. Super substitutes and power play are in. Twenty-20 cricket is spreading its wings. And matches not involving two nations are being accorded official status by the International Cricket Council (ICC).

Is this great game, steeped in tradition, being trivialised? Or has cricket been injected with a sizable dose of freshness?

The on-field rivalry between full-member countries has been the driving force of International cricket. There can be no better example than the titanic Ashes series that recently concluded in England.

While the decision to provide official status to matches raising money for the Tsunami victims might have been cricket's way of reaching out and reacting to a massive human tragedy, there was a feeling that this was a purely one-off gesture from the game's governing body.

Now, the Afro-Asian series and the matches between the World XI and Australia have been made official.

ICC chief executive Malcolm Speed says that a majority of the full member countries voted in favour of recognising these games. The money from television rights is huge and the administrators are finding it increasingly difficult to say `no.'

The three-match ODI series in August between an Africa XI and an Asia XI in South Africa ended in a 1-1 stalemate, with the third game abandoned. Though the competition gave a platform to a cricketer like left-arm paceman Zaheer Khan, dropped from the India ODI squad, to prove a point, there were voices of dissent.

Said former Pakistan pace spearhead Waqar Younis, "Playing for the country and playing for a continent, they are totally different scenarios. The players are relaxed and laidback in tournaments like these."

How will performances from such matches be shown in the record books? The question often asked is, `How many runs has he scored for his country or how many wickets has he taken?' Now, with all these matches around, it may take a while longer to ferret out the answer.

Former India captain Dilip Vengsarkar believes recognising these matches as official amounts to making a mockery of the game. "It's absurd," he says. He remembers taking part in the Bicentennial match at Lord's in 1987 and says though some of the finest cricketers in the world were playing in that game, the intensity was not quite there. "I can tell you it is not the same. A player will give his everything for his country or his state. It will be hard for him to motivate himself for matches involving assorted elevens. In any case, Test cricket has been weakened with Bangladesh and Zimbabwe around."

Another past India captain Nari Contractor holds a slightly different view. He agrees that Bangladesh and Zimbabwe are merely punching bags and that performances against them do not count for much. But Contractor feels when two continents face off or when an Australian team takes on the World XI, at least the top players are involved. "Displays in these matches mean much more than meaningless cricket against some other teams which should not find a place among the Test playing nations."

A part of the funds from the Afro-Asian matches will be used for the development of cricket in the two continents. But then, globalisation without strengthening the existing teams in the bottom rung will be an exercise in futility.

In fact, the dilution of Test cricket has had an adverse impact on the overall health of the game. With Bangladesh and Zimbabwe hardly offering any fight on most occasions, and West Indies slipping up, there are plenty of games on television where the audience is not kept engaged. Viewers on the ground and those following the match on the tube crave for gripping tussles between the bat and the ball. They receive the odd captivating series. After that another sequence of drab, one-sided games are offered.

The re-birth of matches featuring World XIs and continents might have been a direct off-shoot of cricket's dwindling depth. In a world ruled by market forces, television viewership is crucial. There is an opinion that if these games are made official, the players will not treat it in a light-hearted fashion. This would result in keener battles.

Speed has said that the players themselves wanted their performances to find a place in the record books. It must be said that when Australia clashed with the Rest of the World down under in 1971-72, some stirring duels — Dennis Lilleee vs Garry Sobers for instance — were witnessed. Those matches were not deemed official.

Those were also different times. This is an era of back-to-back tours and a seemingly endless sequence of ODIs. In such a crowded calendar, is it right to push the cricketers, the pacemen in particular, to figure in matches not involving their country? They could break down ahead of a major campaign. And a batsman's mental preparation could be affected. He could well end up losing his batting rhythm. And playing and practising with cricketers who would normally be his adversaries might also make a key player's surprise weapon predictable or his weakness obvious for those who would be watching him from close quarters.

Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, former India leg-spinner, says a player should keep himself fit in present-day cricket where the money and the stakes are so high. "In fact, I feel these matches are a wonderful idea. I am all for it. It brings something new to the game. It is a matter of immense pride for a cricketer to be selected for his continent or in the World XI. There is nothing wrong in such matches being made official. It adds to the game."

Sivaramakrishnan's contemporary and former India left-arm spinner Maninder Singh holds a different view. "They should not be given official status. You can play them as exhibition games and still draw in the crowd. There is something special about playing for your country. Nothing else can match that feeling. It should stay that way. Cricket has already suffered because of teams like Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. It is more important to improve the quality of the Test-playing nations."

Changes can cut both ways. The administrators have the responsibility of preserving the game's soul. A tough call in the age of mega-bucks.