From a premature nostalgist, let this column commence with a moan. The comfort of cricket has gone. This is a simple and profound loss I’ve been feeling lately. Here is October’s disorientation. The month began with the Champions Trophy (the fifty50, featuring countries). To be fair it contained some old-school elements such as moderate totals, Australia’s unbeaten run, and Pakistan’s senators accusing their team of match fixing, but on the whole it was a flat affair. It was terminable, unlike some of ICC’s other creations, and thus lauded.
No more than three days after the final in Johannesburg, two significant tournaments opened in India, one to utter obliviousness and the other to middling bafflement.
I used to look forward to the Challenger Trophy. The name Challenger, while hardly original, was accurate. A quick tournament, four matches in four days between India’s best and the rest. The sides were hierarchical and given appropriately hierarchical names—India Seniors, India A, India B. Reputations were made and broken here, a talent gauged often in a face-off against Sachin Tendulkar. At 17, Piyush Chawla bowled the great man with a googly he didn’t pick. Sreesanth being Sreesanth once kept getting in Tendulkar’s face. Tendulkar forehanded him over his head for six and hissed: “Don’t ever come so close to me again.”
There have been a lot of empty cricket grounds in the world recently, but none as bare as Nagpur’s for this year’s Challenger—partly because, it must be conceded, Nagpur’s new stadium is not in Nagpur but at a remote location in interior Vidarbha. The raison d’etre of the competition itself has been done away with: Players are now mixed and matched into three teams and named after colours. Nobody knows who the challengers are and who the challenged. And the best players need not play. Tendulkar wisely opted out. Sehwag, Gambhir, Ishant, Karthik, Mishra, Dravid, Rohit, Virat, Praveen Kumar, R.P. Singh—they were playing the other tournament, also conceived by the Indian board.
This was the wildly lucrative Champions League (the Twenty20, featuring clubs, provincial sides, franchises and the sovereign nation of Trinidad and Tobago). Having done the homework for last year’s edition, eventually cancelled after 26/11, I thought I was an expert. No such thing. The teams had increased from eight to 12. The format had morphed from something straightforward to something with more pools than Florida. The number of matches had shot up from 15 to 23, an extraordinary growth rate between years 1 and 2 when you consider there had not been a year 1.
And here too it appeared anybody could play for anybody. Take, to cite just one instance, Dimitri Mascarenhas, a journeyman English cricketer who does the Indian Premier League (IPL) as a Rajasthan Royal. For the Champions League, he arrived with the New Zealand state side, Otago. And his “team” really is the county of Hampshire, for which he might well have turned out had they qualified.
In short, cricket has reached a stage where even committed watchers don’t know which teams are playing, when they are playing, who’s playing for whom, and, because they’re playing all the time, why they are playing at all.
Numero uno: Australia’s unbeaten run at the Champions Trophy wasn’t a surprise. Mike Hutchings / Reuters
Just when we got used to Victoria and New South Wales occupying our prime cricket season, they dissemble and come together in part as Australia for seven old-fashioned one-day internationals against India. Not a single match, be assured, will feature full-strength sides. That kind of thing doesn’t happen in international cricket any more.
For the first time in living memory, I don’t know where and when India play their next Test series. Looking up Cricinfo.com, it appears I’m not alone. From an average of 12 Tests a year over the last eight years, India was down to three in 2009. There is nothing still confirmed for 2010, which is normal practice with the Indian board, but particularly worrisome in the new age. In March comes IPL 3, thereafter the World Twenty20. Perhaps it is a cunning strategy to prepare audiences for IPL 4, where 94 games are to be stuffed senseless into six weeks. Nausea.
How effortless it used to be. India never had a tradition-bound cricket calendar, no first Test of the summer at Lord’s or Boxing Day special at the MCG. We could go 17 years without playing a Test against Pakistan, and, for no good reason, six or seven years between a tour to Australia and England. In the high noon of Jagmohan Dalmiya’s reign in the 1990s, the hundred-over game was milked almost as mercilessly as Twenty20 now.
But it was easy to stay in love. Complications were few. Fidelity was guaranteed. There were a group of Indians, an amusing, unselfconscious bunch who we got to know well, even the pappus. We were Indian and thus loved cricket and these chaps played cricket for India.
Alongside the madness of nationalism, the rioting stadiums and stoned houses, came also a comfort of intimacy. Test tours, long careers, they lent themselves to that kind of involvement. When a bowler bowls 30 overs a day rather than four, when a batsman bats hours rather than minutes, we understand more of them, and so of ourselves.
Maybe there is a way to reconcile the demands of the terribly different worlds of Test tours and Twenty20 orgies in the same calendar, but I have little faith it will be located. For now, the cheerleaders cheer but there are followers out there whose universe is being slowly dismantled, and the future sounds something like noise.
Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of the cricket tour book, Pundits from Pakistan. He will be writing a monthly cricket column for Lounge. Write to him at email@example.com