Thursday, June 19, 2008

Referrals for advertising

As we all know, pressure can do different things to different people. For some, it brings out the best. The ability to come good when the chips are down is what separates them from the boys. And then there are those that will say so much pressure, they can do without. Performance anxiety can result in fear; not the most ideal state of mind for a cricket umpire to be in. In fact, too much pressure can destroy a perfectly good umpire; not what you want in a time when good umpires are in acute short supply. In such a time of strife arrives the system of ‘demanded referrals’, as one might be tempted to call it.

When the on-field umpires were first allowed to use technology to help them arrive at the right decision it was, like everything new, criticized. Over time, it has proven to be a step in the right direction. But can the cons associated with a system which allows players to blatantly question the verdict of the on-field official be waved away as easily?

Proponents of the method of ‘demanded referrals’ will trot out the oft-heard argument that this will ensure – more frequently than otherwise – the right decision is taken. Be that as it may (or not), in a time when players are already displaying a remarkable lack of decent regard for the on-field umpires, is it desirable to give them additional tools to behave impertinently?

Since the jury is not entirely out on whether dismissal technology is a better judge of decisions other than the basic run out and stumping, we won’t – at least, for the purposes of this article – debate the possibility that referrals will result in a lower percentage of umpiring errors because, ironically, they will only be used to decide cases that are already hard for anyone other than the men on the field to judge. Which begs the question, how much sense does it make to depend on a system that has so far proven to be, at the most, a questionable arbiter?

In the USA, sport is custom-designed for commercial use. In particular, American football, basketball and baseball – with their stop-start rhythms – share a symbiotic relationship with their sponsors. It is a model of development cricket swiftly adopted from the time Jagmohan Dalmiya and IS Bindra took charge of the BCCI in the early 90s.

After the successful telecast of the 1992 world cup held in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, cricket has – with much help from the Indian consumer and the Board – become an incessant ‘brandwagon’ for advertisers. With a profusion of regularly timed breaks, it has proved to be the perfect format for sponsors looking to deliver a constant diet of commercial messages – interspersed with cricket – to hungry audiences across the Indian Subcontinent. If anyone, it’s these vested interests that are likely to benefit most from the breaks in play this new rule is certain to bring.

Violent agitations will erupt between cricket fans around chowks and living rooms across the world over anything remotely contentious in the world of cricket. But there’s one thing they won’t dispute: that there’s an unacceptably high volume of advertising during a cricket match. Sadly, this is something the system of ‘demanded referrals’ is only going to exacerbate.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

If you do drugs, do it the Indian way

There have been many well-known instances of cricketers from around the world getting caught with drugs. Oddly enough, all the players involved were from parts of the cricket world not including India. Which begs the question: What is it about Indian cricketers that immunizes them from the undeniable pull of recreational drugs?

On the face of it, it might seem like Indian cricketers are more responsible than their foreign counterparts? Not. If you consider the way they play, when it comes to shot selection and hare-brained decision-making on the cricket field, Indian cricketers are up there with the best of the worst. Let alone jog, you don’t even have to walk yourself down memory to come up with innumerable instances of Indian cricketers gifting away the match to the opposition on the back of something silly and uncalled for. The most recent case in point being … well … umm … heh, there aren’t that many that come to mind right away, but that doesn’t mean Indian players behave all that grown up on the cricket field. (Just Ask Mukul Kesevan, who has devoted an essay in his very engaging ‘Men in white’ to the kind of ‘boy’ he thinks an Indian cricketer is.)

Books, theories and past records apart, it would take a very brave fan to consistently bet on the chances of an Indian team closing out matches with the kind of assurance and certainty we’ve come to expect from say, the Australians. And yet, these very same, responsible, dependable, rock-solid Australian cricketers have been hauled up for immature, irresponsible and indulgent acts of drug abuse. Not – as one might have expected – irresponsible, immature and indulgent Indian cricketers.

Perhaps the social milieu that Indian cricketers come from makes them well aware of the prudish hostility with which drug ‘toking’ is viewed in ‘upwardly mobile’ country that is today India. Make no mistake, Indian cricketers will proudly abuse prescribed drugs like music, movies, liquor, clothes, credit cards, cars, women and the like. But you can bet your last rupee they won’t be seen with recreational drugs of the taboo kind. At least, not until they are legalized. After that, all bets are off.

More so than in other cricket playing countries, a star Indian cricketer caught with drugs stands to lose too much. Because in India, more than in most other societies around the world, being successful is very important. Being seen doing the right thing is very desired. (In fact, sometimes even more important than doing the right thing.) In 21st century India, making pots of money and leading the good life – which cricketers most certainly do – is a widespread obsession. Understandably so. Indians, and many Indian cricketers, have been poor for too long.

Get caught with drugs and you stand to lose all the things that make you a shining symbol of modern India. Pot smoking and company can very swiftly send you back to experience the India that cricket helped you so swiftly transcend. Much like their countrymen, Indian cricketers … no, make that Indian cricket families are too shrewd, sneaky, ambitious, careful, materialistic, forward thinking and priggish to risk so much that’s real for something as ephemeral as a THC high.

Besides, to paraphrase a Hindi saying, ‘what will people say?’ All this to say if you’re going to do something the people will vehemently, irrationally and thoughtlessly oppose, whatever you do, don't get snagged doing it. That’s the way things that ‘can’t be done’ are done in India.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Coming soon! Sachin 20.20

If the IPl has proved one thing (apart from the fact that money is sexier than country), it's that the 20-20 version of the game is not beholden to reputations. In one way or another, every one of the 'icon players' has struggled to deliver the goods.

Rahul Dravid has turned out to be an uninspiring leader and a far from fluid presence at the crease. Laxman too has been a diffident captain, a laggard on the field and served up only one good innings for our viewing pleasure. Sourav might well have upped his fielding a notch or two but he has utterly failed to assert himself as a batsman. Plus, he continues to be a very poor runner between the wickets. (Yes Sourav, the selectors are watching.) His captaincy too has come in for some criticism from within his own team. The jury on Sachin though is not yet out. Which gives me an opportunity to do what I enjoy most: take a punt on the road ahead.

I believe Sachin will be the only 'icon player' not to disappoint his fans. And franchise owners. Certainly, what we have seen from the great man so far is not what makes me say so. Far from it. The reason I think Sachin will do more than what his fellow 'icons' have is he brings to the table a set of skills that all the other icons possess only when considered together. In other words, Sachin is three icons for the price of one. Blasphemy? No, stay with me.

Laxman's unquestionable artistry makes him an invaluable presence in any 20-20 team, but his extremely limited fielding skills make him a conspicuous liability. Sourav's best days as a batsman are clearly behind him. His audacious strokeplay has deserted him, alongwith his youth. His bowling is, more often than not, pure cannon fodder. And, of course, he's only marginally better than Misbah when it comes to running between the wickets. Sadly, Sourav the one-day player is but a pale shadow of his youthful, feisty self. His utility as a Test player though is beyond doubt.

Oddly enough, the two great qualities of grit and determination that epitomise Dravid and make him a great player are exactly what make him unsuitable for the shortest form of the game. I believe a batsman like Dravid still has a role to play in the 50-over game - assuming it still survives. But the shortest version of the game needs players who are dynamic, flexible and often cheeky. Not qualities you would easily attribute to a player like Dravid. But I certainly would to an icon like Sachin.

For one, Sachin still has that massive bat and those almost Jayasuriyaesque forearms that allow him to play the lofted shots with a greater degree of ease than any of the other three 'icon players'. Two, he continues to be an excellent judge of the quick single and as a consequence a solid if not spectacular runner between the wickets. He's certainly fitter and faster than both Laxman, Sourav and perhaps even Dravid. Unlike Dravid, Sachin is also a willing and eager player of unorthodox, inventive shots. He can 'tip-and-run'. He can belt the ball. He can caress it through the gaps. He can paddle. He can sweep. He can reverse sweep. He can scoop it over third man. He can even make a mean pasta with a bat. (Well, okay, maybe he's not that hot on the reverse sweep.)

Most of all, no matter how impure the version, Sachin simply enjoys a game ... any game of cricket. And that's why I don't think Sachin will be like the other under-performing assets of the IPL. (Pardon the business language, but like it or not it is a business.)

After a few failures during the last one day series in Australia, they said it was time for Sachin to retire from the 50-over version of the game. And then he went on to win India the finals of the Benson and Hedges series in Australia. They're now saying he's unsuited for the 20-20 version of the game. Bet?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

"Test cricket will hurt IPL" Modi

Feddup with all the talk about how his baby was going to kill Test cricket, Lalit Modi, Commissioner, Dictator and Cheerleader of the IPL launched an inventive broadside against the traditionalist by declaring that 'their' cricket was the one threatening the future of his baby.

Pretending to be not quite sure how this was so, one of his plants in the press box - one of the many granted access by him to ask him questions that make him look good - chirped, "We agree with you, Sir, Lord and Master ... and we know exactly what you mean, but could you please tell the rest what you mean?"

"Oh, it's quite simple," said Modi. "Test cricket is the real thing and the only thing that truly tests a player's temperament,technique and the other 'T' I can't quite recall right now. The more people are fed the longest version of the game, the less they will appreciate the IPL."

"But people don't watch Test cricket, Sir, Lord and Master," squeaked another one of his minions. Looking pleased as punch with this, Modi said, "And we must make sure it stays that way. The less Test cricket they watch, the less they will know what they are missing. It's like what Coca Cola and Pepsi are looking to do ... replace the goodness of natural water with the manufactured crappiness of sugared chemicals.

If you make water easily available and affordable, nobody will want the toxic crap dished out by cola companies. But intoxication is addictive. My cricket is the cola of the cricket world."

Stunned by the marketing genius of Lalit Modi, we trooped out of the press conference meekly sipping the free bottle of Pepsi we were given instead of the glass of water we asked for. Sure, Test cricket will hurt the IPL. But only if it can stop Pepsi. And we all know how slim the chances of that happening are.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Why the IPL is on a good wicket

"I study English twice a week ... but English isn't the problem. The main thing is to learn to understand the local players like [Mbe] and Carragher. They speak with some peculiar local accent and sometimes I have absolutely no clue what the guys are saying" - Andriy Voronin, Liverpool, Ukraine.

Obviously, Andriy Voronin is, in his own small way, making an effort to become a part of Liverpool. I wonder what the people that believe players from different countries will find it impossibly hard to feel attached to their city-based club have to say about that. Perhaps they’ll say Voronin is only doing it for the money. And maybe he is. But the fact of the matter is, people will go to great lengths to make an extra buck; including feel passionate about a place in another country for a short length of time. After all, more than a few people are known to have affairs on the side and continue to profess undying commitment to their primary partners. That’s just the way people are.

Then the people who don’t agree will retort by saying soccer players have been turning out to play for cities for a very long time and that just because they do it, doesn’t mean one can expect spotlessly white and very patriotic cricketers bred and brought up on a diet of bilateral matches and deeply-ingrained nationalism to do the same. Happily for the proponents of the IPL, it is a proven fact that no matter how vehemently resistant to change people are, if the said change turns out to be for the greater good, they will, eventually, open their hearts to it. Especially, if the common good happens to be exciting, easy and short term.

Immediately, the naysayers will roar back that 20-20 cricket is no good. It’s ugly, it’s superficial, it’s market driven, it’s cheap and everything the great game of cricket is not. It must not be encouraged. It is wrong. It is evil. Which will be a good time for the ayesayers to remind them that that’s exactly what they had said about one-day cricket when it was first introduced. And every cricket lover, expert or inexpert, knows that one-day cricket hasn’t been that corrupting, evil or ugly an influence on test cricket. Quite the contrary, actually. Hopefully that will silence them. Even if only momentarily. Which might be a good time to digress into a somewhat sombre meditation on why city-based clubs have worked and will continue to be viable economic units for sports promoters.

A city is a smaller, more tangible concept for people in this global day and age to grasp. More than a country, a city is what people experience daily. A little more than a country, a city is what touches people’s lives. The city people live in is an integral part of the country it is located in. People can choose to live in many cities, but it’s a lot harder, if not impossible, for people to choose the country they want to live in. And that’s one of the reasons, given a choice, people will root for their city … even if it happens to be represented by people from different countries.

In fact, the last mentioned bit might actually be another reason the IPL will work swimmingly well. That big names from around the world are being drawn to their country might make more than a few Indians feel quite good about themselves. And their IPL. After enduring so many years of being a touch-me-not for many a cricketer from the richer parts of the world, to suddenly be seen as the el-dorado everybody is rushing in to get a piece of … I mean, how cool is that! If you ask the average Indian, very.

And it’s not just the attachment to one’s city turned el dorado that will make the IPL a roaring success. It’s a package of many wonderful things designed to hook, line and sinker the average cricket fan to the IPL.

The great thing about 20-20 cricket, from the point of view of the average cricket fan, is it takes one big problem, when it comes to attracting eyeballs, in India – unresponsive wickets – more or less out of the equation. This combined with the happy fact that every 20-20 match is exciting for nearly the entire duration of the game and the easily digestible amount of time it takes to return a surefire result make it an irresistible draw for the average cricket fan.

That apart, and perhaps simplistically speaking, the 20-20 version of cricket is a lot like soccer. Furthermore, as an ‘average’ cricket fan I would argue that it is a lot more exciting than the ‘beautiful game’ because it has many more ‘scoring’ moments. (Even though it might be far from beautiful.) That’s why, as an average, low-brow and instantly gratified Indian cricket lover, I believe trying to do for cricket what soccer in Europe, ice hockey in Canada and baseball in USA have done so successfully is a big idea with the potential for great success. It’s also no coincidence that the three mentioned sports, like in the case of cricket, happen to be the most popular sports in their respective regions.

"We didn’t think of doing this with the game's newest and biggest idea since one-day cricket. Therefore, it must be bad." Most great, new ideas are greeted like this, initially. The Indians were the first to spot the immense potential for big business in 20-20 cricket when their team won the T20 World Cup with a kind of cricket that was innovative, daring and in-your face. It’s not in the least bit surprising that the geriatrics, the orthodox and the envious are repulsed by this young, sassy, titillating version of ‘their’ cricket. That’s just the way people are.

Letter to Lorgat

Dear Mr. Lorgat,
First of all, we’d like to congratulate you on your appointment as the CEO of the ICC. That said, it gives us little pleasure to welcome you to this most difficult of diplomatic assignments. Crown of thorns, poisoned chalice, a mixed blessing … call it what you may, there are more than a few reasons – apart from the stated ones – Mr. Patel politely declined the offer to head this toothless body of wildly conflicting interests.

You have graciously agreed to steer the fortunes of an entity with a clutch of very insistent backseat drivers. Not only will you have to reckon with the powerful ‘Principle Advisor’ Mr. IS Bindra looking over your shoulder, but also ensure you’re not weighed down by the whims, fancies and not-so-subtle diktats of a member body that brings in the most revenues for the ICC: the cash-rich BCCI.

Speaking of difficult member-bodies, you’ll have to find a way to salvage cricket from the machinations of Zimbabwe Cricket. There was a time in the not-so-distant past that Zimbabwe was considered among the stronger cricket playing nations in the world. But from the time Zimbabwe Cricket has been taken over by Robert Mugabe and his henchmen, we’ve seen the standard of the game plummet alarmingly. In a world with only a handful of countries that play quality cricket, the ICC cannot afford to let cricket in Zimbabwe go down the tubes.

West Indies is another country whose cricket will demand your urgent attention. Irrespective of which country one supported, watching the West Indies play used to be one of the more pleasing sights on a cricket ground. As the empty grounds and scarce broadcasting revenues over the past few years show, this is no longer true. We all need to find a way to retrieve and revive the game in the Caribbean. If cricket in the West Indies continues to die the slow, inexorable death it is currently suffering, the ICC will - in more ways than one - be considerably poorer for it.

Perhaps now might be an opportune moment to take a little time out and stock up on the aspirins; the thing is, the list of problems that demand your attention is far from over.

Once upon a time, Pakistan used to put out one of the better, if not the best, teams in world cricket. The administrators and the custodians of the game there are now occupying themselves with matters that have little do with promoting the cause of the game and its players. If this state of affairs is allowed to continue, the ICC will lose the services of a team that used to be one of the biggest draws in world cricket. (Put not-so-subtly, more problems for you, Mr. Lorgat.)

That apart, in the recent past, more than a few teams have expressed an unwillingness to tour Pakistan. As a result, cricket in that country is gradually becoming an unviable option. The ICC cannot let the audience in one of its more lucrative markets be deprived of watching their team play at home. More pressure will have to be brought upon by the ICC on its reluctant members to undertake the trip to Pakistan.

Then there is the problem of racism which of course doesn’t exist, but only keeps rearing its ‘invisible’ head at different points in time to stymie or influence decisions on many an important issue, be it umpiring, match-referees, overseas tours to specific countries, debating the granting (or not) of test-status … and the like. No matter what the ‘official’ line on racism, the ICC is today, more than ever before, divided along racial lines.

And of course no cricketing discussion nowadays is complete without touching upon the ticklish issue of a fair sprinkling of top players from England, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, South Africa, West Indies, Australia and even India being less than willing to submit to the grinding schedules being imposed on them by their respective boards and instead opting for the more lucrative, less ‘official’ and less taxing pleasures of the 20-20 cricket leagues.

Fact is, Mr. Lorgat, the ICC is quickly beginning to resemble another world body which has become dangerously irrelevant: the United Nations. As we are well aware, only a stronger UN can prevent unilateral decisions, selective development and global chaos. Likewise, only a stronger, more balanced ICC can guard against the same from happening to cricket. What the world of cricket needs is a better version of the UN. And we’re counting on you to deliver it to us.

With best wishes,
The Custodians of Cricket

Friday, February 1, 2008

Thank you, Australia

Last night's rout of the Indians by Pup's Aussies just goes to show that a few wins here and there don't make a champion side. The loss will serve as a welcome reminder to all the people who thought India was good enough to topple the Aussies from their perch as the number 1 side in world cricket.

Much like the Indian stock markets that, finally, came crashing down last week, this wake-up call at the MCG is a welcome relief from the unbridled optimism that was engulfing Indian cricket fans around the world. The Australians needed the Perth loss to wake them up. Here's hoping the Indians have learned something from their non-performance at the MCG.

And if they haven't, allow us to enlighten them. You have to win consistently to harbour any hopes of being spoken off in the same league as the Aussies. Until then, you won't be much more than occasional pretenders to the throne. India must celebrate the T20 rout handed out to them at the MCG.