The Whispering Death (of Cricket)

This picture and caption is from my Facebook notifications this afternoon.

[This is] Michael Holding. Actually, Brian Close’s chest, after a Michael Holding delivery crashed into it at Old Trafford, 1976. Holding was called ‘[The] Whispering Death’ as the umpires kept looking over their shoulders to see if he was coming – they couldn’t hear him, he was so fast, so liquid. Fast bowling is on the decline, thanks to TV and betting – the mob would rather see (and bet on) a six from a tailender than a fast bowler running through a team. And quickies need 5 days to display the depth of their powers, not 20 overs. RIP.

There are two things about this picture that I must say.

One, Brian Close was in his forties when he faced the terrifying Holding and the rest of the 70’s Windies pace-attack. ‘Forbidding’ doesn’t begin to describe them. Holding his own against them despite a steady battering, is both brave and remarkable, especially for a batsman of Close’s limited capability.

Second, images and videos from that era, till about the end of the last decade, appear to me to be subtextual eulogies to the game of cricket, as it was. Those happy days of skill and glory, I am fairly certain, will never be here again, despite higher delivery speeds in a few contemporary fast bowlers. Never, that is, unless one holds the BCCI down by the scruff of its neck, and forces a structure that demands transparency, descipline, technique and talent back into both international national formats of the game.

In other words, and to repeat myself, happy days will never be here again.

It’s not that I love the hit-and-miss days of inadequate protective gear and killing pitches without reservation. I’ve never been one for the thrill of the killing fields. Neither am I the mealy-mouthed grinch who wants young cricketers to be deprived of obscenely high remunerations (although I do have a few sharp things to say when public funds are redirected to congratulatory gifts for them). But as someone that money is eventually being made off, I would like to get some bang for my buck. You know? Some actual cricket in my matches. If that isn’t too much to ask for. Tests, I may literally no longer have time for, but I certainly miss the pleasure of watching clever field placements, well-thought-out bowling attacks, and shrewdly-amassed innings that even a decent fifty-overs’ match offers.

Twenty20s, on the other hand, are primarily a great deal of flash and jump at the fringes of the actual game. It is also the most obscene spectacle of blatant flesh-trading I’ve ever seen, and I speak as one who has watched post-election MP-trading in India for years.

Had this hobson-jobsoning amounted to something worthwhile for the audience, I’d have kept shut. Hell, more power to players who can make teams run after them with bundles of cash and incentives, by sheer dint of performance (and a great agent). But the prime function of the Twenty20s, sportswise, appears to be squishing talent and skill out of the young pool, by de-incentivising actual performance over mere inclusion or on-field appearance. And that’s to speak nothing of the betting and fixing.

The Popularity Myth

Supporters of the format, however, keep telling me not to be such a stick in the mud, because Twenty20 has done the near-impossible. It has brought popularity back to the game. It has made cricket fashionable again.

Which is a lovely warm plate of dee-licious tripe.

First, as I’ve verbosely underlined above, I’m actively discouraged from considering this form of the game ‘real’ cricket at all, by virtue of its practice of rewarding parody-like playing skills. But one might dismiss this as a subjective opinion. Very well then. Second, despite the IPL being one of the most valuable sporting franchise in the world, I haven’t noticed global interest in the game spike noticeably since it kicked off. Have you? Weren’t Japan, Spain, Uzbekistan, and China pitching teams for a World Championship event last April? No? Ah, I must be thinking of figure skating.

In the ICC World Cup last April, 14 teams qualified. In the 2011 World Figure Skating Championships last April, disrupted by the Tokyo quakes and shifted to Moscow at the last minute, 44 countries competed. And this is a game whose spread is limited by the availability of ice.

I rest my case. Or no, hang on, I don’t.

Esprit de Corps [or, the Cricket-Zombie]

The whole thing about cricket being a gentleman’s game has taken quite a beating since postcol. times, since the conflation of ‘gentleman’ with ‘white man of birth and means’ (or simply ‘white man’ in the settle colonies like Australia and New Zealand) was challenged by teams from the subcontinent and the West Indies. But there was still a certain code to the game, overt racism and Bodylines notwithstanding. The definition of masculinity was somewhat different. There also wasn’t this degree of access to disposable income and the power of celebrity — and yes, I do keep in mind the feminine personal effects thrown at the 70’s and 80’s stars sometimes, possibly by women (and some men) who hadn’t watched a full day’s match in their lives.

Lately, however, manipulating media and the commodities market to let popularity for the game be centred completely on personas and not their cricketing abilities has, to my mind, given rise to rather a dangerous culture of entitled little boys with their own clean-up crews, eager to piss on hoi-polloi who give them so much and demand so little in return. Largely because they can. Although I’m told it’s a rigorous game in it’s own way, the reason I can’t bring myself to like American football, for instance, is because to someone standing outside the culture, it looks exactly like contemporary T20 cricket will look like in half a decade’s time: a bullies coterie of spoilt little boys, hiding behind masses of padding just to play rough rugby on field, and swanning about like frat boys with a party-pass to the whole world beyond it.

Quite apart from the ridiculous immaturity and insecurity it radiates, the layers of physical and legal protection, coupled with artificially-pumped adrenalin and testosterone levels around this new culture of games, take the sporstman spirit right out of it, and makes it a diminished-responsibility chest-thumping arena for mentally lazy shows of arrogance and shallow aggression.

It isn’t a pretty picture. And it’s got claws.

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23 comments

  1. “[T]he prime function. . . appears to be squishing talent and skill out of the young pool, by de-incentivising actual performance over mere inclusion or on-field appearance.”

    Tumi bolcho bharotiyo cricket somondhe, ba bharotiyo porichoy somondhe? 🙂

  2. “Inadequate protective gear” is always an excuse of bad workmen. Sunil Gavaskar and Viv Richards – two very different batsmen – never wore helmets but never once got hit. I think Brian Close was like an inert bulls-eye in front of Holding.

  3. American football is a simple sport. One player runs with a ball, the others pounce upon him, there is a heap of humanity, and then there is a commercial break. Once they return, all this is repeated till the next commercial break. Along the sidelines, slutty girls with handleless jhuljharus keep on dancing.

  4. They got no sumo, no akhara style wrestling. What else could they do in the land of the free and the home of the brave when they feel the urge to intensely touch multiple males in a public place?

  5. As always, I love your writing. I completely disagree with everything else though. Also, flesh trade refers to the auction, right?

  6. Understanding and discussing cricket is now an involved corporate excercise that has more to do with the marketing peripherals than the sport itself. And like most corporate exercises, utterly tedious.

  7. I was going to give a long comment but then the “corporate exercise” copied-from-Chomsky snippet-of-rhetoric above put me off…in the whole Rediff comment-board way.

  8. Very well written. Those were the days of cricket played on uncovered tracks, fiery and bouncy and the batsmen did not have the benefit of any protective gear, except pads and gloves, and with no helmets. To face Hall, Griffith and Gilchrist was really terrifying and death defying indeed. Brian Close a gutsy and stoic batsman in the Yorkshire mould faced many an occasion when he took blows on his body, making him black and blue, but never flinching, and helping England save the day. This was one such match when in 1963 Close got hit repeatedly at the hands of Windies pace battery. In 1976, the same story was repeated when Roberts, Holding, Garner and Croft battered England and make them bite them bite the dust. This time, Boycott and Mike Brearley taking the hit on themselves. That cricket has become a completely batsman’s game, with shorter boundaries, flatter tracks, hardly any bowler with such express pace, makes it a completely unequal competition between bat and ball, obviously to please commercial interest, ostensibly to make the game more interesting.

  9. I have watched very few T20 games. There are certain advantages of being old and living outside India. I would rather watch the highlights of 70s test cricket, 80s Benson & Hedges ODIs, especially the West Indies/England/Australia triangulars which produced some riveting matches, 2003-04 India-Australia series or 2005 Ashes one more time than watch T20 live streams.

    But this preference is largely a matter of personal taste.I do not think successful T20 players are devoid of cricketing skills and talents. The format values certain batting skills — improvisation and cross-batted slogs — over others — leaving swinging balls outside the offstump, ducking against awkward boucers and compact bat-and-pad-close-together defense — because the premium of a wicket is 5-10 times lower compared to a test match. Similarly, for bowlers, containment often becomes more important than striking abilities. I am not surprised that skills demanded by T20 are a lot more popular because it is a lot more fun to watch a slog over mid-wicket than surviving against a vicious out-swinger. The former invokes instinctive reactions. The latter is an acquired taste. I am convinced test cricket will die a slow but inevitable death.

    I have absolutely nothing against cricketers, or anyone for that matter, making more money as long as it’s market driven and not government-subsidized.

    American Football – another sport, another day. 🙂

  10. Dipanjan, I think you may have misinterpreted the causal direction I indicate. I do not mean to imply that a lack of skill is a T20 requisite. What I think is that the format discourages skill of the level even one dayers demand, and more importantly, that it doesn’t engender any new evolutionary skill-sets in substitution. Cross-bat slogs, as you descriptively call them, are very much a part of the 50 overs’ repertoire, perhaps even part of the odd nail-biting test. My contention is that T20 reduces cricket to its lowest common denominator – and I use the word ‘common’ pointedly – and in so doing, kills off its finer skills by enforcing superfluity.

  11. Also, I don’t think ‘the market’ is a mechanism free of human intervention, as certain quarters like to imagine. So, if the market today rewards cricketers on an unprecedented scale, while at the same time reducing the game to easily fixable variables (batsmen’s performances, I think, are easier to fake than a bowler’s spell, in the way the game is now played), then all self-aware consumers of the game would do well to ask who benefits — and how — by these firmly reinforced changes. The game of cricket, I think we’ve established, doesn’t.

    So what – and whose interests – are we fans really supporting here?

  12. I remember another picture which appeared in ‘Sportstar’, which along with ‘Sportsworld’, were our tickets to ‘coloured’ pics of the recent cricketing/ sporting activities, in the early 80’s.The picture was of Graham Gooch at a carib beach after a test match, with two huge bruises on his bare torso; yes, the handiwork of the Windies fast bowlers. The protective gear which we use nowadays make us feel absolutely invincible; and I talk out of my experience. What is a barely perceptible (physically) ‘thud on a leg-guard now, used to be very a sickening ‘thump’ now even 2 decades back (followed by a spreading feeling of numbness gradually flowing into pretty excruciating pain by the time the match got over). And getting hit on the fingers was worse. But. this has bred ‘talent’ of the fearless kind, which does not have to be cooped up with thoughts of physical intimidation. Hence the play looks so much more pleasing now, sans the hopping around or crouched & defensive postures of batsmen of yore. By the way, I enjoy Tests much more than ODI’s. And, I didn’t know the World 20:20 had started; I though (till my driver informed me yesterday), that India was still playing practice games before the WC commences.

  13. AS you rightly said that T-20 or whatever the shortest format means has reduced cricket to its lowest common denominator, to a kind of basebalisation of cricket. In its latest avatar to attract more eyeballs and generate interest in every delivery bowled, it has become more of a demonstration of raw, youthful energy, brute strength than any test of skills. It would be unfortunate if the 5 day test cricket were to die a slow death, unable to adjust to to hurly burly world of frenzied game which goes by the name of cricket. Soccer, despite a decline in standards and unable to produce a Maradona or a Zidane, still retains its basic core, its fundamentals, despite T-20s equivalents of American or Australian rules football or even rugby trying to make to make the pristine art of football more physical, more rough and more frenzied; soccer has proved that it is more than just kicking the ball around; at its best, it is poetry in motion.

  14. Rupenbabu, I haven’t followed football in about six years now, and I know nothing about rugby, but the changes in the culture of popular sports, as a whole, worries me rather (the reasons are recounted in the last paras of my post). I am given to understand, however, that basball has some quite complicated twists on the basics on which cricket was built. The frequent changing of strike perhaps helps keep the game alive, but I am not all that sure it is uncomplicated. Perhaps Dipanjan can enlighten us?

  15. This is a very interesting discussion. Before I delve into the details I would like to ask a very fundamental question – how important is the life of a spotsperson to the fans of a sport? What is the relation between the sportsperson and the spectators/society? Are the sportspersons only to provide entertainment till their energy and talent runs out and then the spectators forget about them? Does anyone know what happened to Sahoo Mewalal?

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