Old values in a modern sport

IN the pre TV era, Mushtaq Ali was a huge star - he had aura, attitude, glamour and among his countless fans were Nargis and Bhutto, Zulfiqar Ali.

Mushtaq's charisma stemmed from his flamboyant style. While others considered lifting the ball a grave sin, Mushtaq stepped out to quick bowlers (yes, this is serious) to whack them all over the park. By all accounts he was a wonderful player, steeped deeply in unconventional technical methods. But, despite this, Mushtaq was a staunch supporter of tradition and was more proper than W. G. Grace. He was invariably nattily dressed, always turned out in flannels and silk shirt, a hanky knotted round his neck ; in the evenings he favoured a tie and blazer.

Today, at 87, Mushtaq Ali is upright as a middle stump, firm in his views, a romantic figure who is more than a bit baffled by recent developments in cricket. Why don't cricketers, he asks, look like cricketers? Why do they paint their faces white and wear glasses? If Mushtaq saab had his way proper gear would be compulsory, this would be part of each player's contract. No nylon trousers, no shirts chopped at the elbows, no sun block cream, no sun glasses, no weird caps.

In defence of players, people holding modern views are likely to say that sun block cream is supposed to prevent cancer, sun shades cut the glare and help sight the ball better, colourful caps look better on TV which, in contemporary times, is an important consideration. Therefore, for players, these things are part of equipment as much as shin pads and helmets. Basically : what others consider faltu shosha is an essential requirement.

Come to think of it, what people wear or how they look is a minor issue. Much more important is to understand that any sport, cricket included, keeps evolving, nothing remains static. At first glance one thinks cricket has not changed since Ranji craftily deflected balls from the middle stump to fine leg. The laws are the same except for some experiments with the no ball rule, leg side field restrictions and provisions about short bowling. But these are peripherals - you still have to get 20 wickets and score more runs than the other side to win.

But within this unchanging structure, cricket has seen significant changes. Whatever romantics may say, cricket earlier was a picnic, it was laid back and lazy, not half as competitive as it is now. Bowlers bowled half volleys, then applauded batsmen for smashing them to the boundary. Fielding was largely a joke, senior players were positioned at slip to allow them to catch up on sleep and prepare for batting. In the outfield it was quite common for players to allow balls through the legs, skiers were routinely dropped and any turf marks on the trousers were frowned upon.

This may seem a particularly harsh view but just look at old footage which shows Bradman past 300 (scored in less than one day) but still surrounded by half a dozen fielders in close catching positions. Why they were applauding his shots instead of cutting off boundaries in the deep is a mystery. Bradman, most likely, would have scored the runs he scored anyway, but why make it so ridiculously simple for him?

Essentially, cricket has changed because modern players possess a different mind set -- their attitude and approach reflect the competitive, cut-throat, ruthless values of society. In this context when someone plays and misses the bowler does not curse his luck but stands in the middle of the track and abuses the striker. It is sporting to appreciate good shots but this happens rarely (even Test hundreds are not always acknowledged) and the opposing team is seen as a bitter adversary who has to be vanquished at any cost. Current cricketers have the bodies of athletes and the minds of boxers, they are fitter and faster than ever before, they play tough and communicate with each other in a universal language which needs no translation. Forget language, even a look is sufficient to get the message across.

Cricket has changed but values associated with the game have not adjusted to ground realities. People still talk of golden days in the past when spinners tossed up lollipops and fast bowlers directed bouncers only at the top order. Now fast bowlers bowl slow balls, Shane Warne bowls bouncers, every other off spinner chucks brazenly, leg-spinners don't turn, left arm spinners (Giles, for example) pitch the ball for many hours outside leg denying batsmen a decent scoring opportunity.

Some people think all this negative, unsporting, and contrary to the spirit of the game. Others feel this is smart tactics as long as it helps get the other team out. But whichever way you look at it, the huge mismatch between current reality and past values, and imposition of yesterdays thinking on today's situations, creates a problem. These lead to violent upheavals (as with Mike Denness who created an avoidable crisis) or less harmful objections (of a romantic Mushtaq Ali).

The recent move to enlarge the role of TV and technology has triggered another round of debate about the direction in which the game is heading. Are we not, question the purists, handing the game to a machine, eroding the authority of the umpire and reducing him to a non-entity who merely presses buttons? These might be legitimate questions but the point is, whether one likes it or not, such advances are inevitable, one can't fight change because nothing remains static.

Which is why there is a need to see things in the current context without referring to benchmarks of the past. So many players seem caught up in a time warp, they live in yesterday, shackled and imprisoned by thinking that is outdated and irrelevant. How often have we grimaced as perfectly sensible persons offer totally flawed arguments, grudge current stars making pots of money, decry commercialisation, bemoan the absence of patriotism and express a hope that the fractured spirit of cricket is somehow mended.

Such wailings are a bit sad because nobody can turn the clock back. Players will wear sunblock cream even on sunless days, they will sport shades even in night games, they will scream and yell and pressure umpires in the hope of extracting a bat/pad decision when the ball hits the elbow guard. Judge what happens on a cricket field according to current values - why impose the weight of tradition, and the excess baggage of the past, on players?