The tours are different these days

WHEN the Indian team is touring we all follow its fortunes with great interest and keep track of the individual achievements of players. India, normally, performs dismally abroad and as a result much discussion takes place about our inability to cope with bounce and pace, batting collapses and dipping averages.

All this is boring stuff, the topic has been beaten to death because nothing has changed in the last 70 years. But while this is so, it is seen that tours nowadays are different in so many ways compared to the past. They are shorter, the scheduling is tight, breaks between games are less, it is a frantic scramble involving hotel-ground-travel. There is no time to rest or recover, the endless whirl catches you to an extent it is easy to lose sense of time and date.

A cramped itinerary directly affects cricket. Players have no time to adjust to new conditions, they are like artists forced to perform without rehearsals. Not just this, as cricket is non-stop, there is a huge strain, both physical and emotional. The intense pressure leaves many players totally drained, and the problem becomes more acute if someone is suffering a rough patch.

That tours are now high profile media events is only a mixed blessing. While success can make a cricketer an instant celebrity, its absence adds to the pain and anguish that he experiences. The media is relentless and unforgiving, it hounds players in its quest for news. They are chased at every step, at hotels and at play, and could soon gain access to dressing rooms to get a closer look.

One reason tours have become bigger is so much economic activity surrounds them. Cricket, and all sports for that matter, are a convenient peg on which several things are attached, a Test match is now a huge platform for putting together various activities. The arrival of event managers, for example, means all kinds of marketing initiatives are now a part of big games. The corporate world has fully grasped the immense potential of high quality sports as a suitable backdrop for conducting business. No wonder cricket venues have facilities for conferences and corporate marquees for entertaining clients. Obviously, cricket and commerce are not just married - they are in a tight clinch.

Cricket organisers, keen to catch the business upswing, are straining to reap the benefits of available commercial opportunities. In England, every county has professionals handling marketing and financial functions which are considered as important as pure cricket jobs. Everywhere there is a full time, paid, accountable Chief Executive in place who promotes cricket and runs the club on sound economic considerations.

The kind of money a cricket game can generate is illustrated by The Oval which staged an India/England match. 18,500 tickets for this game went on sale in November 2001, roughly eight months in advance, and all these were snapped up one afternoon! Total gate collection ? Almost half a million pounds.

Obviously, with this kind of money going around, the stakes for players are exceedingly high. The three month English tour translates into more than 30 lakhs (fees for Tests/one-dayers, prize/logo money, bonus everything included) but to earn that a lot of hard work is required. Players fully understand this equation, they are alert to what they stand to make and what they can possibly lose.

That is why it is no surprise the work ethic of Indian cricketers has changed dramatically. Players are concerned about their bodies, as they should be, and devote considerable time keeping themselves at peak fitness. Which means gym workouts, careful monitoring of diet and regular assessments through tests of vital fitness parameters. The way the game is progressing, cricketers have to be athletes first, and the changed priorities of the team are highlighted by what Rahul Dravid says: "On earlier tours the first thing players enquired about was Indian restaurants. Now the first thing they want to know is how good the gym is in the hotel."

But a cricket tour is not merely about major things, what keeps everyone occupied is millions of things which are small but important. For the tour management, it could be a simple matter of deciding departure time for the ground (usually two hours before play starts), choosing appropriate dress code while travelling (usually team T-shirt) or for the evening function (usually smart casuals). There is also the business of giving out daily allowances, distributing match passes for guests, making sure luggage is sent out in advance so it reaches hotel rooms before arrival of the team.

From cricket's standpoint also a host of things demand attention. Request for net bowlers has to be made in advance (seamers or slow bowlers ?), old balls retrieved after practise because they are expensive, bats require fresh grips or have to have rubber toes put to prevent moisture seeping into the blade. Wheels could be needed on coffins, there are boots to be restudded, pads to be reinforced with extra protection. The physio may want fresh supplies of essentials (health drinks, back support, ankle straps, tape, ice packs) and the computer analyst could be stuck for a longer cable connection or spare discs or a projector... the list is very long.

Stripped of all extras, the bottom line regarding any tour is that 20 highly skilled professionals are at work and for them to perform to the best of their abilities considerable amount of backroom work and support is required. That they are also celebrities who need assistance in many different ways makes the task of managing a tour that much more complicated.

When a large group of highly strung, stressed-out players are together for an extended period there are moments of joy and disappointment, there is time to focus completely on the hard business of cricket and to unwind and relax. A cricket tour is about wins and losses, about centuries and ducks. It is a travelling caravan, a mela which pitches its tents in new locations every few days.