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The thrill is gone

Soutik Biswas | 06:44 UK time, Friday, 6 November 2009

A cricket match at a stadium in Mumbai, India

Is cricket losing its soul? Is the game being destroyed by a thoughtlessly punishing calendar, greedy officials, multiple formats and an increasingly mercenary spirit?

Some commentators, players, and coaches are beginning to believe so. A chorus of protest is rising about the state of the game and the chronic fixture congestion that is leading to player burnouts and fan ennui.

Crowds are sometimes thinning even in India, where the game is a religion. "Your wife was right. Cricket is boring," was the unbelievable headline of a recent cover story of an Indian magazine edited by a cricket-mad journalist.

The demand is loud and clear: Play less, play quality.

Consider October for proof of how the game's officialdom is reducing it to a crashing bore. The month began with the semi-finals of the Champions Trophy. Three days after the final in South Africa, there was the Challenger Trophy in India and the lucre- and entertainment-fuelled Twenty20 Champions League.

Now look at how the calendar has treated players from Australia: prior to the ongoing seven-match, one-day series against India, they have played in the super-rich Indian Premier League (IPL), the Wisden Trophy, the World Twenty20, the Ashes, two Natwest Series, the Champions Trophy, and the Champions League.

The upshot: five Australian players have been struck down by injury in India in the past 10 days or so. This is excluding fast bowler Mitchell Johnson, who played three matches despite a nagging ankle injury.

Since last October, India, the game's main engine and provider, have played 27 one-dayers, nine Tests and eight Twenty20 internationals. Indian players have also played the nearly two-month-long IPL, the Champions Trophy and the Champions League. Phew.

India cricket fanRahul Bhattacharya, writer of Pundits From Pakistan, one of the finest cricket books I have read, says the comfort of the game is gone.

"Cricket has reached a stage," he says, "where even the committed fans don't know which teams are playing, when they are playing, who's playing for whom, and, because they are playing all the time, why they are playing at all."

The fine cricket historian Gideon Haigh echoes Bhattacharya's sentiments. "The sheer disorganisation of cricket's calendar is now itself fatiguing, and cannot but bring cynicism and contempt in its train," he writes. Clearly, the thrill is gone.

My friend, Sambit Bal, who edits Cricinfo, makes no bones about it. "Cricket needs reason and context," he says. "The Ashes is big because it has context. But much of the cricket today is meaningless. One series leads into another. The anticipation has gone out of it."

Two leading Indian historians and cricket buffs who have written extensively on the game don't appear to very happy with the state of affairs. Mukul Kesavan says he "thinks of Tests long gone" more than he watches cricket currently played. And Ramachandra Guha, writer of a seminal history of Indian cricket, says he has stopped commenting on the game. He doesn't say why, but I suspect he is simply tired of its excesses.

The excesses are spawning a new generation of players who may be no longer interested in playing for the country and more interested in the easy lucre of a 20-over jamboree. So much so that writer Anand Vasu, in a scathing indictment of the young Indian cricketer, wrote recently:

"There isn't one young person in the Indian team who plays the game solely for the joy of playing the game or because it's an honour to represent India. Being an Indian cricketer is a complex cocktail of commerce, social climbing, relevance and all round-acceptability. Yes, there's the small matter of runs and wickets. But anyone who gets that far is expected to deliver the details anyway."

Vasu writes a virtual epitaph for great cricketers as the game is debased by a overdose of a high-paying, high-thrills, low-quality format like Twenty20. "You will not find a cricketer in this generation who will play 100 Tests. This is simply because it isn't a realistic ambition to start with."

For more clues to the crisis in cricket, I turn to my favourite cricket writer Peter Roebuck. He listens to my fears and doubts about the future of the game, and sets out to clear and explain some of them.

Roebuck feels it's too early to conclude that Twenty20 will kill the game. He also says, surprisingly, that we play too much Test cricket. Too much? Aren't the pundits demanding more Test match games instead of more unending one-day match series?

"Too many Test matches are being played where the contest is thoroughly uneven. Let's not spoil Test cricket by overdoing it, " replies Roebuck. Interesting.

India cricket fans watching a game on TVRoebuck is also worried about the spirit of the game. With players wearing multiple identities playing for the country, and a host of club sides in different formats which pay more than playing for the country, the age of the mercenary transnational cricketer could have arrived. Cricket's nationalistic ardour could be cooling. "The time has come," says Roebuck, "to instil the culture and meaning of the game to young cricketers. Otherwise, the game will be treated as a bank account or a plaything."

Roebuck cites the example of West Indian captain Chris Gayle. Thirty-year-old Gayle, a devastating batsman when in form, has played for six teams already, including the "national" team, and gone on record saying he "would not be so sad" if Test cricket died out.

Last year he played seven IPL matches for the Calcutta team before joining his team in England a mere two days before a Test match at Lords. "Gayle has become a mercenary," Roebuck wrote this week. "It does not seem much of a way to lead a team, let alone a proud cricketing tradition [that the West Indies enjoyed]."

"We are all servants and stewards of the game," says Roebuck. "You have to give to the game as much you take."

In the end, the game is a reflection of the times we live in. Cricket's prophet-philosopher CLR James famously said Bodyline - the intimidating cricket tactic devised by the English team to take on Don Bradman's Australians in 1932 - was the "violence and ferocity" of the age expressing itself in cricket.

"If and when society regenerates itself," James wrote, "cricket will do the same." And, as a prominent sports blog recently wondered: "As long as people keep paying, cricketers will keep playing, so the question is, have you had enough?".

I must confess that personally I am beginning to feel a little jaded.


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