Indians were sorely disappointed to see their beloved cricket team thrashed by an underdog at the Oval this past Sunday. For all the hype that viewers were fed of Virat Kohli and his band of players being among the world’s best, viewers had to see the ignominy of veterans unable to handle genuine pace bowling — a weakness that has plagued the Indian cricket team for over 40 years. And this debacle was on a perfect batting pitch, so flat and dry that Pakistan scored with gay abandon. The entire India XI scored less than the top two players of the Pakistan side.
Speaking after the match, Kohli did not seem to be too concerned about the loss. “We will take this on our chin and move on,” he said and showed no remorse at the way the team played. Casting the match as just another sports contest between two teams (when things don’t go our way) seemed so hypocritical. Would Kohli have done this had we won?
The problems of modern cricket cannot be attributed to Kohli’s team, of course, but India bears a huge responsibility for the decline. Driven by the need to reformat the sport for TV viewership and the millions of dollars in broadcast rights, today’s cricket bears little resemblance to the gentleman’s game of even a few decades ago. Because India is the most populous country among cricketing nations, it has the most viewers. More viewers means more advertising revenue, and this translates into raw power at the ICC.
Today, one needs a degree to understand all the rules of the game. The game is heavily tilted to celebrate batsmen at the cost of bowlers. This is shocking to cricket purists who used to worship the spin quartet of Prasanna, Bedi, Chandrashekhar and Venkataraghavan,that got us hard-fought victories in Test cricket, and put the Indian team on the world map. Kapil Dev and Karsan Ghavri were the Indian team’s first medium pace bowling duo. Anil Kumble, for whom a famous traffic circle is named in Bengaluru, is one of a few bowlers to have dismissed all ten batsmen of an opposing side in the same innings.
The tilt towards batsmen has not occurred naturally but through design. Batting power plays are artificial restrictions placed on the fielding team so that the side that is batting can score more runs. So choreographed is the game now that there are three batting power plays — one which restricts no more than two players outside the 30-yard circle for the first ten overs; then, no more than four players and in the final stretch, no more than five players. If scoring runs alone is important, why do we even have nine players to field? Perhaps a day will come when most of them are eliminated so that the batsmen can score freely.
Ironically, the best example of how far India's cricket has fallen was not on display in the match against Pakistan. It was there for all to see in the match against Sri Lanka, which India badly lost. That game was like an extended T20 match with both sides collectively scoring over 640 runs in a single day. Sri Lanka lost just three wickets during its chase. Only one player — Niroshan Dickwella — got out because of the skill of the bowler, the other two were run out.
Gentleman’s game no more?
It is hard to believe that cricket was once the game of Viv Richards (pure talent) and Rahul Dravid (sheer discipline), and every player in between. To purists, the T20 format, which is popular among millions, is not cricket at all. Pitches are designed to generate as many runs as possible and run rates of nine runs an over are now easily achievable. Swinging at every ball with the intent of landing a boundary or a six may show timing skills, but the finesse of cricket is lost.
Even umpiring is so risk-averse. Umpires do not want to be booed for rising their fingers, so they summon the third umpire and a review even for plays where there is little doubt. During the Oval match against Pakistan, on one occasion, the batsman had so clearly crossed the crease coming home after a run that he practically trampled over the umpire who had moved over to the side to officiate. Yet the umpire refused to rule him safe and asked for a review. In the credits during the awards ceremony after the match, not two but four umpires were felicitated — a third umpire and a fourth umpire.
And there’s the compensation. Last month, the BCCI announced that the top seven players would earn a compensation of ₹2 crore a year for representing Team India. This does not include fees that the players will earn for their IPL performances, where private clubs hand out huge payouts, or for the various commercial endorsements when cricketers become brand ambassadors to push products unrelated to their sport. According to Forbes magazine , Kohli earns $3.1 million annually (about ₹20 crores) — in a country with a per capita income of $1,800. Something is terribly wrong with these numbers.
Get over the cricket craze
Cricket is sucking the oxygen out of every other sport. The same day that India lost to Pakistan, the Indian hockey team won against Pakistan. But hardly anyone who wasn’t on Twitter even knew, and fewer watched the game. And they say hockey is India’s national sport. On the same day, Kidambi Srikanth also won the Indonesia Open in badminton. It is no wonder that we do not develop world-class talent in other sports. For a nation of our size, our Olympic medal haul was laughable. In tennis, India has never had a singles player go beyond the quarter final of a Grand Slam. No Indian has ever won an ATP Masters tournament.
True there have been recent successes. Abhinav Bindra in shooting; Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna in doubles tennis; PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal in badminton; Sushil Kumar in wrestling and Vishwanathan Anand in chess.
But we need to do a lot more. And we can only get ahead if we somehow get off from our national addiction to cricket which has become more entertainment and less sport. It is a prospect that seems extremely unlikely given the hold that BCCI has on the game, not only in India but worldwide.