Ooh Aah India!

It is absolutely marvellous to be in a country where each and every one of the one thousand million people is mad about cricket. Everywhere you go, boys are whacking old dog-chewed cricket balls in streets and parks. Women understand Test matches. Heaven.

I recently followed the Indian team around England. A huge series. England hadn’t lost a Test series at home for some years and it was probably the last time the little master that is Sachin Tendulkar was to play on Island Mud. Whilst cricket is the most English of inventions, hardly anyone there gives two hoots about the best game in the world. Even the conservative Telegraph newspaper forces you to wade through 15 pages of damn football before you are treated to half a page about whether Flintoff is injured and a handful of county scorecards. Thankfully, it is the exact opposite in the splendid subcontinent.

Cricket is by and large an elitist sport in England, something which is not encouraged by the ECB’s signing sole broadcast rights with Sky. So that’s it, you can’t watch cricket if you don’t have satellite broadcast. Most pubs don’t have Sky because it costs them around 20 000 pounds a year and most of the ones that do would rather show a re-run of Chelsea vs. Wigan Athletic. My grandpa was bored in hospital and would have so enjoyed watching a Test series on his bedside tv, but Skysports was not one of the 30 odd channels he paid four pounds a day to access. This is probably because the channel is too expensive for even the NHS. Hats off to BBC Radio for keeping up its excellent cricket coverage – it must do so much for the quality of life of so many.

The upshot of all this is that youngsters no longer play tip and run in the car park. Only in the Asian dominated cities of Leicester and Birmingham did I see tennis balls half strapped in reverse swing-inducing masking tape being whacked through angry neighbours’ windows for six and out!

Cricket is so alive in India that it takes up at least a third of the pages of any newspaper or current affairs magazine, and four of the channels in my budget Bangalore hotel showed countless replays of memorable games and interviews with heroes of the game. I can report that Brett Lee’s Bollywood music video is big in Bombay.

The fans here enjoyed the Twenty20 Championships but I have mixed feelings about the fact that it is the future of cricket. The capacity crowd at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium on Saturday seemed bored by Australia’s impressive 300 plus 50-over score. But as soon as Tendulkar and Ghambir came out to bat, the place literally erupted. I have never seen a Mexican wave like that. Spectators want to see their team make runs, and the boundary-filled baseball format provides them with that.

The economic potential of lots of T20 cricket is endless. Consider how many games were played over the two week tournament in South Africa. The annual earnings in the spin-off industries of television rights, advertising, hospitality, merchandising, gambling, food and bar retailers etc. could increase many times over. The three hour game is physically easy on the players, which should result in longer careers and fewer injuries. Most importantly, spectators are mad about it and girls wear bikinis to games without complaining to their boyfriends that they are bored.

This is all very well but it’s just not cricket. One over can change the game entirely and it is such a leveller that the gallant young Zimbabweans beat Australia. A Zimbabwean mate of mine said that it was because they were just hungrier than the Aussies but that’s not true. It was because it was just a silly game of baseball.

Test cricket, which is the real deal, is sadly losing its appeal in the 21st Century where instant gratification is the order of the day. That syntillating Ashes series in England proved however that modern consumers can have a healthy appetite for a series war of five day battles. But this can’t happen again now that the game can only be watched in the homes of Sky subscribers and a handful of pubs. WG Grace and Donald Bradman must be rolling in their graves.

I do not know of anything better in the world than a gripping Test match, complete with unpredictable twists and turns. This ultimate test of skill, character, concentration and patience must surely be the pinnacle of sport. There is always something to play for in a Test match, indeed salvaging a respectable draw can be as rewarding as a good win if a series depends on the result. A one-sided ODI or Twenty20 is dull because the game can be won or lost in the first twenty minutes of play.

I am devastated by the prospect of potential extinction of real cricket. This surely won’t happen in our lifetimes, but things are changing very quickly in the world of cricket. A remarkably friendly Rajasthani journalist yesterday said to me, “Wherever is going the cricket you goes”, and I am afraid that the same will be true for professional cricket players and lucrative Twenty20 contracts. The ICC must go with the flow or be left behind – that is how economics works.

The Twenty20 World Championships, the rich Texan’s Caribbean parties and the ICL are only the beginning of it all. I was so glad to hear that Mohammad Yousuf, probably the best Test batsman in the world, has been cleared by Pakistan to play in this series, but it won’t be long until the salaries of Twenty20 specialists are many times more than players of the Yousuf and Kallis mould, whose abilities are inaccurately deemed superfluous to the twenty over slogfest. I wonder whether South Africa would have collapsed to the Indian attack as they did in what was effectively a quarter-final if Kallis the rock had been there to add some glue to our middle order.

South Africa is playing against Pakistan right now. It is the first day of what promises to be a terrific Test series. An attack consisting of Umar Gul, Mohammed Asif and Danish Kaneria is a seriously deadly one, especially in those conditions. Hopefully Paul Harris will impress as we will find it very difficult to win any of these Tests without a spinner. Kallis will make lots of runs – he is out to prove he’s as good as Ponting, Pietersen and Yousuf. What a series it will be. Sadly though, there are only a handful of spectators in the National Stadium in Karachi.

It was a great pity that the first Future Series ODI between India and Australia was a washout and there’s about a 50 percent chance tomorrow’s game will also be a damp squib as the monsoon season is extended by two months as a result of global warming. The outfield is muddy and it has rained here everyday for weeks. It is very humid and the early start won’t allow for the sun to dry any overnight rain.

Everybody in India praises the young captain Manhindra Singh Dhoni. The hotel barman last night told me that the motorcycle-crazed, mullet-sporting warrior eats two kilogrammes of mutton and drinks six litres of full cream milk everyday. He’s a big strong lad and a cool customer. He’ll need to be with the amount of pressure on the youngster. He’s bigger than Beckham here and he has the most difficult job in the country. If India loses this series, which they could do even if they play well as they are up against the most professional team in the world, will they call for his head and try burn down his house?

Indians are extreme about cricket and while they handsomely rewarded the Twenty20 squad with cash bonuses, especially for six-in-a-row Yuvraj, they do not have a history of supporting their national heroes through tough times. I hope that captain Dhoni is allowed to fail at times – the youngsters in that team look up to him so much. And while Ganguly, Tendulkar and Dravid were all good captains, they would not take up the job if offered it again.  

With the exception of Powar, I have never seen the Indian team field as well as they did on Saturday. It was because the team is buoyed by Twenty20 success and was playing to their home crowd. There is so much pressure on these sportsmen that they have no choice but to perform well here. I cannot for the life of me understand why Powar is played ahead of the turbanator, Harbhajan Singh. The only plausible explanation can be that a personal issue exists between the selectors and himself. He had another excellent county season this year and is one of the most economical spinners in ODI’s.

I have a problem with the no-ball free hit rule in limited overs cricket. There is no reason why a bowler and his team should be so harshly punished for the innocent error of overstepping. There is nothing malicious or negative about overstepping. The new rule punishes the bowling team by an average of three or four runs. It is an artificial excitement manufacturing rule and I don’t care for it. The ridiculous thing is I could maybe understand a free hit being awarded if a bowler bowled a nasty and dangerous beamer or negatively bowled a second short ball in a given over, but free hits are only due after overstepping. It is ridiculous. In the Pro40 county league, bowlers are punished two runs and a free hit, which is even more ridiculous. Next we’ll have two gimmies, three mulligans and first ball grace.

An interesting new rule is that during the two five over periods, fielding sides may now have three fielders outside the circle. The added protection will usually be found on the leg side boundary and will reduce 50 over scores by around twenty runs. Does that mean South Africa’s 438 will remain intact? Well, it probably depends on how many overstepping no balls are bowled.

We learned again at the Twenty20 World Championships that the shot sometimes referred to as the Bangladesh Bunt, or the Pakistani Paddle is jolly effective. I remember how it infuriated Makhaya Ntini when Shahid Afidi (wowee he bowled cleverly in the twenty over competition!) twice got down on one leg and paddled accurate good length deliveries for six over the vacant very fine leg boundary.

On the bowling front we saw a clever trick well executed by many bowlers. The virtually guaranteed dot ball comes by way of a very short and wideish slow ball. Batsmen move back expecting the ball to bounce up nice and high and the spongy tennis ball slow bouncer becomes almost unplayable from that position. We’ll see much more of it in the future.

I really hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow. There were about three hundred members of ground staff working hard on the outfield this morning. Their methods are unorthodox but jolly effective. I wonder if they work through the night. If it rains they should give all of the policemen a sponge – there are about three thousand at any international game here.

This article appeared on Cricket365.com on 1 October 2007, during the first of many trips to India.

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