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Not such a grassy wicket

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Not such a grassy wicket

David C. Furrows

All sports evolve with time. That evolution may be due to advances in technology or fitness, or very occasionally due to changes in strategy and tactics. Skill levels rarely improve, except when amateur sports become professional.

And the most outstanding sportsmen of any generation would have been greats in any other period in history.

Except, perhaps, modern cricket.

Men’s tennis nowadays is defined by power, due to the replacement of wooden racquets with graphite ones with synthetic strings. This change, of course, arose as players sought an advantage over one another in the form of faster serves.

Advances in records in athletics have different causes. The Olympics have only relatively recently become professional, and we have seen advances in diet and training drills. More darkly, we have seen advances in furtive doping.

Football has changed to become a sport in which players run twice as far in any given match and formations and tactics have changed accordingly. But Messi and Ronaldo would have been outstanding at any point in history.

However, the common factor in each case is that the greatest players in any given generation have the best skills, and would have thrived in any other generation.

One would argue, however, that that is no longer true of cricket. Many of the players who are thriving today would have been incapable of success in days gone by. The game is changing in such a way that very flawed players are becoming superstars.

The changes in cricket have very little to do with advances in skill or strategy or even fitness. On the contrary, the changes in cricket are a precise reflection of the financial hegemony of India. India has exerted total control over international cricket, with the grinning acquiescence of the rest of the world’s cricket boards, and the game is being resculpted to suit Indian tastes.

This is occurring because of constitutional changes in how cricket is run, changes which must seem boring and irrelevant to most cricket lovers. Almost all other international sports are multilateral affairs, in which the controlling federation collects the TV revenue from all participating countries and distributes it according to sporting merit of the competing teams.

English football audiences generate TV revenue several hundred times greater than Uruguayan TV revenue. But because Uruguay finished above England at the last two World Cups, and won their continental championship, their revenue from FIFA in that four year cycle has been greater than England’s. That is how most international sports work, from football to rugby and far beyond.

But the Board of Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) has insisted that all international cricket series be deemed to be bilateral affairs to be negotiated between the two teams’ cricket boards. Obviously Indian TV rights are far more lucrative than any others. So the other 9 Full Member Boards now find themselves in a desperate chase to secure tours by India which pay their bills.

This means two things: Firstly, the revenue of every other Board is far lower than it otherwise would be, because the TV rights paid by Indian TV for ICC World Cups, Champions’ Trophies and World T20s is in large part simply recycled via the ICC from the private Indian TV stations to the BCCI. Secondly, those Boards are therefore desperate at all times to attract India to tour their country for bilateral series.

We therefore find that everything is done to try to ingratiate those host Boards with the touring Indians. This is in no way dictated by the BCCI: it is simply that the other Boards are desperate to attract India to tour again as soon as possible. This is what happens when the law of market forces prevails in sport, and when sporting merit ceases to be a major factor.

India made Test tours to South Africa, England and Australia within twelve months from December 2013. The distinguishing features of all three series were identical: The pitches had virtually no grass on them, were slower than normal and had less bounce than usual. Consequently, India performed much less badly on the pitch than it traditionally does in those countries.

In normal circumstances, each of the three hosts would have sought to produce pitches amenable to quick bowling and to expose India’s batsmen’s traditional vulnerability to pace, lift and movement off the seam, all three being made conspicuous by their absence.

The three series were characterised by very high scores and minimal help for the bowlers. By the end of the tour of Australia, Ryan Harris and Mitchell Johnson had been reduced to exhaustion. However, the welcome mat for India could not have been more generously laid out. And sure enough, India will be returning to Australia in 12 months for another series, albeit of one-day internationals. For Cricket Australia it is mission accomplished, even though the 4-0 victory margin of 3 years earlier was reduced to 2-0 this time around.

Test cricket, therefore, is being reborn as a batsman’s game, in which players who struggle on or outside their off-stumps can survive and even thrive. The pitches conceal their weaknesses, while enormous and fragile ultra-dry bats allow them to score quickly and Kookaburra balls in many countries offer nothing to the bowlers between overs 20 and 80. It is a game which has not been dictated by India, but which is tailored to appeal to their players and to their fans.

In One Day International (ODI) cricket the change is occurring even faster. Pitches are now flat, deviation off the seam is now an unknown phenomenon and mediocre batsmen are amassing huge scores. Sachin Tendulkar’s highest ever ODI scores were 200 not out and 186 not out. Rohit Sharma is not even a shadow of the batsman that the great Tendulkar was, and he has smashed innings of 264 and 209 inside the last year and a half!

ODI cricket, like Test cricket, is being redesigned to suit Indian tastes and to ensure that India remains competitive at all times. A lack of penetrative bowlers is no longer an obstacle to success, because the role of the bowlers is to contain and allow the scoreboard pressure created by the batsmen to prevail. Batsmen who are technically suspect to the moving ball outside off-stump – which is the most challenging area of batting at the highest level – are no longer exposed, indeed such deficits are irrelevant in modern international cricket.

In One-day International cricket, to be fair, these changes were underway before India arrived at its current economic dominance of world cricket. Michael Bevan was technically inadequate at Test level but thrived in ODIs because of grassless wickets, defensive fields and white Kookaburras which did not deviate.

But cricket’s evolution into a sport played on flat, grassless wickets has overturned that age-old tenet of all elite sport: that the best players would thrive in any generation. There is no reason whatsoever to think that Kieron Pollard or Sunil Narine or Rohit Sharma or Aaron Finch or James Faulkner would even survive on grassier pitches with attacking fields, let alone be outstanding international cricketers. Faulkner, for example, is seen as a superb ODI finisher – when the ball is soft, the field is scattered and the outfield is undermanned – but has a Test batting average of 22.50 and a First Class batting average of 31.91.

And bowlers like Ryan Harris and Vernon Philander, who would have been outstanding Test and One-Day cricketers in any earlier generation, are marginal figures in modern ODIs. Harris was not even selected for this World Cup by Australia while Philander obtains minimal assistance from the flat, grassless tracks on offer.

The move to grassless pitches represents a huge change in how cricket is played. It is no longer the same game that it was for the previous 130 years. This game’s future seems secure in India and Sri Lanka, as it plays to their traditional strengths and obscures their traditional weaknesses.

But where does it leave a country like Pakistan, whose strength has traditionally been pace bowling, which is all but obsolete on these pitches? Or England, whose strength was seam bowling? Or Australia and South Africa, who battered tourists into submission with their fiery pace attacks?

It will be fascinating to see whether this new sport on grassless wickets can retain its traditional following. Or indeed whether modern cricket wants or needs that following at all.

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