Thursday, September 8, 2016

That old crossroads feeling, garnished by personality differences

Time was when the International Cricket Council and the Board of Control for Cricket in India spoke in one voice. Chiefly because only the BCCI had a voice. The ICC was merely an echo.
Now, interestingly, the organisation led by Shashank Manohar (ICC) and the one led by Anurag Thakur (BCCI), former friends who brought the Srinivasan era in administration to an end, seem to be speaking in different voices.
Perhaps Thakur has not forgiven Manohar for quitting the national body and move over to the international one at a time when the BCCI was dealing with the Lodha Commission and its fallout.
Perhaps it is not merely about ego clashes but fundamental philosophical differences. Perhaps it has to do with the temperament of the two men, one whose interests are intensely India-centric, and the other who now has to think for 105 countries, the entire cricket family.
Whatever the reason, the on-going ICC chief executives meeting in Dubai seems charged. It was expected to change the face of cricket, with the introduction of the two-tier system. Thakur has thrown his lot behind Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, West Indies and Pakistan all of whom object to the two-tier system on grounds of lesser teams being rendered irrelevant, and perhaps even encouraged to disappear from the Test fraternity.
An old problem
This may be a coincidence, but it is an old ICC problem — Whites versus the rest — dressed up in new colours. England, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand are for the two-tier system. FICA, the players’ body, has said that 72 per cent of players they polled were for the two-tier system. It would be interesting to see the break-up of the voters. It sounds dubious because there are more players in the nay-saying countries than there are in the yea-saying ones; the explanation may lie in unexpected altruism, though.
The argument in favour of two divisions involves context, and how individual matches and series have lost it. This sounds like television talking, and although thanks to its millions, television will have a say, that approach is motivated by profit while the ICC has necessarily to focus on what’s good for the game.
The proposal for boards which generate greater television revenue to share that revenue with the poorer ones is sound in principle.
The fear that a Bangladesh versus Zimbabwe series might lack television support can be overcome by working out a system where for every marquee series - The Ashes, or India v. Pakistan - television must also be obliged to cover the “lesser” series. You can’t have the icing without the cake.
Test cricket is at a crossroads. Even if this is the cry in every generation, we cannot afford to ignore it for this time it may be for real.
Already public interest in Zimbabwe and the West Indies is dangerously low. In New Zealand it is not the most popular sport, rugby is. You can’t have endless series among four or five teams. The law of diminishing returns will apply.
And anyway, the lesser beating the greater provides a major thrill in every sport. Sri Lanka, who may be relegated to the second division, thrashed Australia, the then No. 1 team, 3-0 recently. With inter-divisional rivalry ruled out, that would not happen.
Exodus and wage issues
If players in the second division (it is conceivable that some of the giants might find themselves there over a period) migrate to being full-time T20 players, the rot will be complete. Thakur himself had suggested a solution for this problem: reduce the wage gap between Test cricket and T20. FICA might have to say something about salary caps, though.
The fact, remains, however, that there aren’t too many grand ideas right now on saving Test cricket, and there might be an argument for at least trying out the few that are available.
The four-day Test match would be an attempt to bring the longest format closer to the shorter ones. But Test cricket’s salvation lies in remaining as distinct from the shorter formats as possible, an island of irrationality and illogicality in a sea of obviousness and charted courses.
When in doubt, postpone, is a well honed tactic at all such meetings, and not just of the ICC. Chances are, no immediate decisions will be taken, and the problem carried over to October. Meanwhile, attempts will be made to get the nay-sayers on board.
The BCCI, meanwhile, has problems at home as the deadlines for putting into effect the Lodha Commission’s rulings will exercise them even as a crowded home season gets underway.
There is something about cricket — perhaps because it often stands for something beyond itself — that invites a kind of generational hopelessness. Walter Hammond thought that cricket was doomed to self-destruct because there was too much of it.
That was over 60 years ago. The essayist E.V. Lucas thought that commercialisation and a “hard utilitarianism” would destroy the game. He wrote that in 1907.
Pessimists of the past thus give rise to the optimists of the present.

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