Quantity at the price of quality

AMONG developments lately to hit world cricket, none is more noticeable than the sheer quantity of matches.

AMRIT MATHUR

West Indian Chris Gayle scored some hundreds in the series against Sri Lanka. But little else of the series remains in memory. — Pic. REUTERS-

AMONG developments lately to hit world cricket, none is more noticeable than the sheer quantity of matches. Everyone is playing every day, the market is flooded, there is no hint of a supply bottleneck. With this glut, the old concept of a cricket season has gone for a toss, specially when Australia is playing cricket in July and the West Indies had Tests with Lanka till yesterday. Economists will tell you supply is linked to demand and international cricket is driven by market compulsions. But is that so?

Who can possibly want an Australia/Bangladesh Test series except some selfish player wanting to dramatically improve his records. The series holds little interest because the teams are hopelessly mismatched, it is like Brazil (World No. 1) playing India (World No. 129 or so) in football. If Bangladesh players were given a choice they'd have vetoed the matches in less time than it takes Brett Lee to bowl one over. The cruel truth is Bangladesh's record speaks for itself, so does that of Australia.

Will Bangladesh benefit by this exposure? Will cricket move forward? The answers to these questions are obvious — Bangladesh would be better off competing in the Plate section of Ranji, in the company of Tripura and Goa.

The West Indies/Lanka series was a commercial no-no. Matches were played to empty stands and the TV telecast found no buyers. Even Rupavahini (Sri Lanka's official network) rejected the proposal citing lack of interest among sponsors.

Too much cricket hurts the game in many ways. The players are first in the line of fire, threatened by fatigue/injuries and burnout. If a Ferrari, costing upwards of Rs. 80 lakhs minus duty, runs each day on potholed highways it will need part replacements and regular overhauls to remain roadworthy.

Similarly, when players are compelled to play without breaks, injuries and breakdowns are impossible to avoid. But that, some will argue, is a professional hazard; players know that cricket supply won't reduce, so the answer lies in enhancing fitness and working hard. Which means more weights to be lifted, extra crunches in the gym and staying away from dessert at dinner. And if all this fails, and the body still collapses under strain, then the only way is to skip games and take selective breaks under a rotation policy.

Actually, excess quantity poses a far more fundamental danger to cricket, besides the obvious implications it has for players. The supply glut lowers the value of cricket, reduces its importance and knocks the shine off. For cricket to maintain appeal, supply has to be carefully rationed so that spectators and viewers don't defect to other disciplines. Keeping the buzz going is an uphill task when the cable operator delivers some low quality live action into the drawing room each evening.

Partly the problem is not just quantity but the poor quality of cricket being delivered. New Zealand/Lanka, West Indies/Lanka threw up pretty ordinary stuff though Lara produced spells of pure magic and Gayle scored some hundreds. But, apart from this, little else remains in memory and, worse, who even cares what happened?

Same is the story of this summer's cricket in England where the triangulars and the England/Pakistan one-dayers were a big bore. England restructured its bowling by inducting fresh legs (Harmison/Anderson/Johnson), but the matches were extremely unexciting. Geoff Marsh blamed bowler-friendly wickets, overlooking the fact that not much can be expected from a Test side that has Taibu at number 5, no Andy Flower and bowlers who don't take wickets and have names which are difficult to pronounce.

South Africa failed to come up with anything remotely spectacular, they too are in the middle of a slump. Suddenly, their cricket lacks spark, with Jonty Rhodes gone and Pollock yet to recover from the World Cup trauma.

South African cricket is deeply professional, committed, focussed and correct but these qualities don't compensate for flair and style. A team needs big players and stars and South Africa only has Kallis and Gibbs. English cricket might be on the road to financial recovery through 20 over games but how these impact conventional cricket is uncertain. Three hour slogs generate instant excitement to attract spectators. Such cricket is self limiting in the sense it comes with an automatic delete. They are good till they last but next morning nobody remembers what happened.

With emphasis squarely on quantity, cricket suffers because quality is seriously eroded. Many years ago SMG complained that Indian selectors were cheapening cricket by picking players of inferior quality and handing out the Indian cap to undeserving persons. Now, similar criticism could be levelled against others, the virus to lower quality has spread globally. Considering the kind of players in Tests, it'd appear all countries (except Australia ) have erected stalls at their respective Flora Fountains/Kala Ghodas to distribute national caps — this as part of some twisted passport dikhao selection pao cricket contest.

In this sea of mediocrity, genuine quality surfaces occasionally but only for brief periods before it is drowned. As the cricket circus keeps rolling endlessly, new headlines grab space and attention and everything (good and bad) is pushed aside quickly. There is no time to pause, reflect or to enjoy the moment.

It is not a surprise therefore that hard core enthusiasts, disappointed by the ordinary fare, look back at the past fondly. These fans remember the awesome feats of SMG, the artistry of Vishwanath and the bubbling enthusiasm of Kapil Dev and wonder where — and whether — the next real great will come from. But while cricket will throw up talent from time to time it could be difficult to find entertaining stars who light up a field with their individual brilliance. This because cricket has changed: earlier, players expressed individual style and flair; now it is a careful, studied, practised, measured performance. Rules stay the same but the game has changed.

Which is not to suggest quality is completely missing in contemporary cricket. While ordinary players produce ordinary cricket, some genuises create moments of magic. Sachin's batting against England and Pakistan in the World Cup was astonishing, in terms of power, authority, domination, arrogance and sheer tadi. Likewise, Nehra's spell against England and Srinath's against Zimbabwe were truly special.

But for every performance of this kind there is a Friend who sends down friendly stuff in a Test or some Mahmud who should not have reached the top grade.