Out of the box

As cricket gets quicker and faster you need players who are eager, enthusiastic and energetic.

All of a sudden, cricket is jumping out of the box because of creative innovations, a process sparked by the ICC when it took a big leap to jazz up one-day cricket. The re-jig meant introducing power plays and super subs, changes designed to pep up a boring phase of the game when players gently knocked the ball into gaps around instead of smashing it out of the ground.

Both changes, announced with much hype, turned out to be no-balls which did not speed up action or advance the game tactically. Instead, they added confusion, and gifted an unfair strategic advantage to the team winning the toss. No surprise there was a loud chorus from captains, and other experts, that these rules be scrapped forthwith, a demand which shows the ICC is not on the ball, its thinking divorced from ground reality. The super sub rule has since been revoked.

Hopefully this experience will dim the enthusiasm for abolishing leg byes, doing away with the toss, allowing rotating substitutes, permitting one bowler to bowl beyond his normal allowance of 10 overs.

Unlike this failed out of the box thinking, 20-20 cricket is a big hit, it scores ten on ten. Purists may frown and have cardiac arrests but the janta loves it. In a social situation where time is scarce, this form of cricket delivers quick action even though some observers crib, perhaps correctly, that this is more entertainment than sport, a trailer not the entire show. Interestingly, this innovation comes from England, normally so sensitive about protecting tradition, because economics prevailed over sentiment and whatever your opinion, cash makes sense. But India refuses to touch 20-20, scared this will become a cancer in the future, a development that could swamp established cricket.

With laptop-clutching coaches manufacturing ingenious solutions to old issues, out of the box thought has profoundly affected on-field strategy.

Already, because of this epidemic, the conventional batting order has been rejected, tossed away, permanently junked. In the Indian team, for instance, promising middle-order players, rooted to their positions earlier, are now upwardly mobile — Pathan is not a pinch-hitter but opener, Dhoni an option at five, Dravid an all-rounder, keeper one day, number one or four in the batting order the next. In this new arrangement, players are no different from paploos in a card game, the hero is also a character artiste, every batsman is a flexible option capable of filling any slot.

Sometimes the selectors appear trapped in yesterday's thinking. Recently, when Jaffer was added to the Indian squad we were told a trained opener was required, but the team management that thought differently defeated this move — they simply had no use for him. Jaffer went to Pakistan and like a good tourist visited Bagh-i-Jinnah and the Food Street but got no cricket. Same with Gambhir who too did little except fill in the numbers. Jaffer got a chance against England and grabbed it but Gambhir blew the opportunities that came his way.

That leads us to a related point about the tendency to persist with seniors. According to Indian tradition, grey hair and old age indicate wisdom, which is why we respect elders and treat them with deference. Till not long ago this applied to Indian cricket, too. Senior players received special treatment, were assured of their place in the squad for extended periods, selectors looked at their (sporadic) success and conveniently overlooked failures. No wonder a feeling grew, as expressed by SMG the master that it was easy to get into the Indian side but difficult to get dropped. Such thinking was based on a mindset, which put great value on experience.

Experts reasoned that established players provide a certain comfort because they are tried and tested, they know how to handle tough situations, they have gone through the soul-searing scrutiny of top-grade cricket. The same gurus sermonised that with a youngster, however talented, one is never sure. He could pull through and step up to the next level but what if he freezes with fear, collapses when cornered, panics under pressure? So, why take a chance?

But Indian cricket is taking chances, it has defied convention to jump out of the box, and, to the surprise of many, it is succeeding. The change was triggered by the selectors, who, in turn, have been pushed by the team coach. Compared to the rigidity of the past and an inability to experiment, there is now release from conventional thinking and a marked tendency to gamble, even play blind. Suddenly, there is a decisive vote for youth and more trust for talent. Players are judged on ability not age; the performance of the last match is what counts not the scores of the previous season.

In a way, the pro-youth policy is a demand of modern sport. As cricket gets quicker and faster you need players who are eager, enthusiastic and energetic. And it helps that in addition to a fresh mind and fresh legs, youngsters are unburdened by the baggage of the past. Dhoni and Raina have clearly demonstrated they have the attitude of commandos who know no fear.

Once the emerging Chawlas and Shuklas replaced the veterans in the team, UP won the Ranji Trophy. These under-19s came out of the sports hostels in Kanpur and Lucknow, like commuters hopping off a rush hour Metro at Central Secretariat, and were fast-tracked into the Indian dressing room.

Despite the inexperience of new players, one-day results show the Indian team has not done badly. Of course Sachin is missed, as are Kumble and other seniors, but if the team is winning obviously the players are doing plenty that is right.

In cricket, change is inevitable, and desirable. And the beauty is what appears out of the box and weird today becomes normal tomorrow. Ultimately, the box wins. Whatever, or whoever, jumps out, comes back.