The game is changing

ACTION FROM A TWENTY20 GAME in Bangalore. India, too, has embraced this format after a careful look at its commercial possibilities.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

20-20 cricket is a BIG HIT, it scores 10 on 10. Purists may frown and have cardiac arrests, but the janta loves it.

With cricket played every other day, and as one match is followed by the next and one screaming headline is replaced by another, not much remains permanently in memory unless it is really spectacular. Every day records tumble, what was glorious yesterday is forgotten, replaced by a fresh and wonderful achievement.

It seems like only yesterday Kapil topped Hadlee but since then the bowling record has been humbled successively by many. Kumble is almost 100 ahead of Paaji, Warne is another 150 in front and will stretch his tally further. But his record, in all probability, won't last too long as Murali threatens to become the first to hit 1000 in Tests.

Batting records too are in danger of extinction. Lara's highest Test runs are within striking distance of some. Sachin's Test centuries record is hotly chased by Ponting and Lara. Surely, these peaks will fall sooner than later, players will reach these milestones, surpass past achievements and set new benchmarks. In a way, such evolution is essential to sport, more so cricket which relies so intrinsically on statistics and records.

Apart from records and stats, cricket is changing in small but significant ways. Take training and fitness. Earlier it was sufficient for players to be able to touch their toes, do a few easy stretches, run a lap of the field and get ready for the game. Now, the fitness scene is vastly different. The coaches (whether the gentle Wright or the more demanding Chappell) search for players who are athletes, guys who count calories while eating and spend time off from cricket in the gym.

No wonder, pre-season preparation consists of climbing rocks, team bonding exercises, yoga sessions and learning some traditional Chinese martial art. All this in the hope of better physical conditioning and sharper (and more focussed) mental faculties.

Take cricket technique itself. Earlier, polishing was done by a quiet word from a senior or a tip passed on by a helpful colleague. Now, this critical aspect of the game is not left to chance. Instead, the coach sits you down and has a chat, armed with extensive video analysis. It is also the norm for players to receive a CD after a game and practise sessions which picks on areas that need to be worked on. Backlift not in place, foot position wrong, problem with wrist during ball release, head not remaining still while waiting for the bowler? No problem. Just look at the pictures.

Take the marketing and the commercial side of the game as well. Earlier, officials were happy counting the cash brought in by selling title rights/negotiating TV and putting advertising boards round the boundary. Now, the sources of revenue have multiplied and many more cricket match related properties are on sale. At grounds, a pronounced corporate presence translates into serious money because companies spend large amounts on hospitality and promotions. The reason behind this expense is the understanding that cricket is not only a grand celebration but also an attractive commercial opportunity for corporate branding and image building.

Over the years there has been a clear shift of focus from the essential to the peripheral. That is why arrangements for Sachin's security, Warne's strike-rate with women, John Wright's comments on selectors and Dhoni's hairstyle grab the attention of people. Partly this reflects the enormous interest we have in celebrities, it also shows the compulsion of the media to generate news and masala to feed their papers and channels.

But not all that is new or different is frivolous. Cricket is benefiting and getting richer with new ideas, fresh thought and innovative experiments during actual play.

This seeking out of the box ideas, was 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, did not work out satisfactorily, they did not speed up action or advance the game tactically and were scrapped. Perhaps this will dim the enthusiasm of other reformers who want to abolish legbyes, do away with the toss, allow rotating substitutes, permit one bowler to bowl beyond his normal allowance of 10 overs. Unlike these failed experiments, 20-20 cricket is a big hit, it scores 10 on 10. 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.

After initial scepticism, and a fear that 20-20 will turn out to be a cancer capable of swamping established cricket, India, too, has embraced this format after a careful look at its commercial possibilities.

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.

In cricket, change is inevitable, and desirable. And the beauty is what appears out of the box and weird today becomes normal tomorrow.