Goose on the Barbie (Cricinfo)

Published in Cricinfo, July 2009

David Morgan, President of the ICC might as well have been smirking in a military jacket sporting epaulets as he leaned back in his plush chair, stroking a cat, as he unveiled his latest threats to the game of cricket last month. “We are examining whether Test match cricket can be played over four days rather than five”, he announced, following it up with “I would be very surprised if within a year you haven’t seen some significant changes in Test match cricket.” Dwindling crowds and the propensity of Test matches to end in dull draws are the instigations for this apparently. Given the tumultuous and foundation-shaking times cricket is enduring, if you were hoping for reassurance from the gentlemen who purportedly “run” our sport, you were looking for a mirage in the desert. In the deserts of Dubai, in fact.

Pray, which Test series in recent times was it that pushed us over the edge? The last two between India and Australia? Or the recent back-to-back ones between Australia and South Africa? India against the Lankans, Proteas or Kiwis? Riddled with boring draws they were all, weren’t they? If all of the above contests couldn’t bring in crowds, “sexing it up” (to use Bumble’s advice) via four-day affairs played at night in neon clothing accompanied by laser shows and mandated strategic streaker invasions won’t do the trick either. Or was it the recent one between the West Indies and England? Where one of the teams was saddled with a sulking and pouting captain who claimed he couldn’t be arsed about the death of Test cricket as long as it meant him pocketing his full IPL salary?

The 2009 Ashes currently underway wouldn’t sway their minds either, I presume?

The word ‘innovation’ has taken on connotations of a curse in cricket when it comes to the workings of the ICC. It is a get-out-of-jail-card used when faced with the detritus of bungled up decisions and take cover behind the facade of bleeding-edge decision making. Faced with the consequences of their own ineptitude and inaction, it is their norm to embark on a dangerous path of innovating their way out of the mess without thought given to the consequences. Every recent development stemming out of their offices has revealed an inability to act when it was prescient and meddle and tinker their way out of the aftermath. And now, we are being preached to about the length of Test matches being the reason why for diminishing crowds?

Every time Freddie Flintoff clangs a ball off Phil Hughes’ helmet in the 2009 Ashes, rivalry and history aside, consider why even neutrals will look forward to this bi-annual clash. It is easy to look past all the hype, hubris and hoopla that surround the series and relish a simple fact. It happens only once in two years. It allows for the loser to lick their wounds and wallow in the face of the smirking winner for two years. It also permits the cycle to build up steam again in the lead up to the next edition. All of this unfolds without the drama getting diluted by insignificant head-to-head meetings between the two teams in between.

Right now, to anyone who is getting hot under the collar and is on the verge of spewing indignantly about the Border-Gavaskar trophy being a more valued contest compared to the Ashes, I say: Sorry mate, not a chance. You know why? A big reason is the seven ODIs series against Australia that pans out this fall in India like it did in 2007 too, just before India headed off Down Under. Why on earth do we need this? And why did Australia have to visit India for a full fledged Test series in 2008 when the ball from the previous edition was still warm from January of the same year? These days, it feels like Ponting talks to Dhoni at the toss more often than he chats with his wife at the breakfast table. Can’t we be allowed to anticipate and relish the prospects of what has rapidly turned into one of the most compelling rivalries in cricket without enduring these larcenous attempts to bolster the boards’ bottom lines?

This June, it dawned on most of the cricketing world – as they watched Younis Khan and his men celebrate their T20 World Cup win at Lord’s – that the next T20 World Cup will be held in eight months time in the Caribbean! This impending Rosemary’s Baby of a T20 world championship will not permit Pakistanis to savour their team’s superb showing in England this summer before it gets underway again. Yes Shahid Afridi, you are entitled to rue this disastrous scheduling fiasco which won’t let you be the proud holder of the Man of the Match trophy from the final for even a calendar year before it is up for grabs again. And in between the two T20 World Cups is the ICC Champions trophy this fall? What kind of scheduling logic from hell produced this cricketing calendar for our consumption, one which ensures that in a period spanning eight months, we get to view the national teams of all the cricketing nations competing for a world crown three times? A year later, we get the World Cup in the subcontinent too?

Have the overlords heard of overkill? Have you ever woken up from a nightmare in which you saw yourself waking up from another nightmare?

Consider the ICC’s most recent “innovation” which gets set in stone starting this October and that is the team initiated review system. While I may have too many personal reservations about this move, it is prudent of the ICC to explore this avenue to ensure uniformity in the decisions of umpires. What is irksome in this case is not their dabbling with the use of advances in television technology to assist umpires, but their utter reluctance to address the root cause that necessitates it. Tinkering away with a toolbox of Hawkeye, Snicko, Hotspot etc. and endless deliberation about their use masks the fundamental question that needs to be asked of the ICC. Allow me to pose the question this way: How come, in spite of being the financial hub, command and fan central of the sport, India has failed to get an umpire into the “elite” panel since S. Venkataraghavan retired after the World Cup in 2003?

That is six years for a country that has eighty percent of the fan base and financial clout to not have a single person be considered qualified enough to be an international umpire on a long term basis! Does this even concern anyone on the ICC as much it gets their goat over the use of technology to resolve decisions? Do we really have a system in place to develop, monitor and evaluate the competence and quality of umpires? On one hand, given the manner in which the BCCI bulldozes anything and everything in its path to dominating the sport (like having an appointed umpire kicked out on the eve of a Test match), the absence of an Indian umpire in the elite panel can convince you that a perfect system exists. One that has prevented the BCCI from bullying the ICC into shoe-horning an Indian umpire into the panel. A more plausible view is that with their singularly laser focused attention to the bottom line regarding TV revenues and their hyper-ventilating exertions of milking it through a rabid frenzy of match scheduling, the ICC aren’t bothered enough to try and ensure that the quality of umpiring rises to a level at par with the interest in the game worldwide.

Are competence and quality being sacrificed at the altar of technology?

Mull it over, gentlemen of the ICC. We want you to succeed at the administration and management of the game we so care about. But first, convince us of a few things. Convince us that your periodic meetings about the Future Tours Program are not like the floor of a stock exchange with touts shouting themselves hoarse about buy and sell orders for upcoming tours. That we don’t feel like Ponting and his lads landed in Joburg for a Test series even before Smith and Co. flew back from their epochal win in Australia. That you will start to pull the plug on meaningless tournaments like the Champions Trophy. That your gaze will focus on “sexing up” pitches for Test cricket, the state of the game in the Caribbean and the quality of umpires in India before you fret over infiltrating the market in China or the 2020 Olympics.

And leave Test cricket alone.

We promise we will come back in droves to Test matches if you do this. And for heaven’s sake, forget the golden eggs. This goose is sizzling on the barbie right now. We can smell the burnt meat too. And it is not pleasant.

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