The Botox has gone Toxic

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If you go around in circles faster and faster, eventually you will disappear up your own arse. That would be a Being John Malkovitch moment, albeit at the other end. Right now, the game of cricket has done exactly that and has virtually disappeared up its own behind.

Just this week, that which was ruled as mandatory when the suited honchos of the ICC met this June in Hong Kong to discuss rule changes to cricket has been revoked and deemed “optional” It has taken exactly five months for this volte-face to come about. And when you consider the fact that the issue being downgraded to “optional” affects a most fundamental aspect of the game itself, it makes one wonder where we are headed in the management (apologies for using that word) of our sport.

Yes, the DRS is optional now. Use it if you want it. Use it when you want it. Use the parts of it that you like. Use it if you have it. Use it if you can afford it. Or better, use it if you can get someone to “sponsor” it for you – a la Pepsi pitching in to foot the bill in the UAE later this month. Sure, go ahead have the third umpire decked out in a foam Pepsi-can costume in the booth too. Has it really come to this? An aspect of the sport that is at the core of the decision making that dictates the state and conduct of play on the pitch is being handled this way?

Atrocious is what this is.

The atrociousness here pertains not as much to the actual merits or lack of in the DRS system itself. It is not about the fallibility of the technology employed in the review system either. Neither is it buried in the snide and acerbic comments that this decision is eliciting as being a cop-out by the ICC to strong arm tactics from powerful boards. And yes, there are many who are firmly against using the system for LBW decisions and catches specifically lest the game get de-humanized further. But again, that is not the issue here. The insanity of this decision cuts much deeper. The waffling over the DRS is just a symptom of a deeper malaise.

Yes, there is much larger issue staring at us in the face here.

For our game is being well and truly jerked around recklessly. How has it come to be that the very core of the rules that govern the play on the pitch are modified and revised so rashly, flippantly and with scant regard for the solidity of the decisions or their enforceability? Why is cricket so trigger happy with its tweaking of the rules and playing conditions? Why are so many of these ill-thought out changes being handed down to us condescendingly as being implemented for the sake of “our” increased enjoyment of the sport? And why is this tinkering so incessant?

It is a sad state of affairs that cricket – a wonderful and beautiful sport that has captured the imagination for centuries – appears to be in a perpetual twitchy feverish state about the mechanics and rules of the game. Searching desperately for that elusive rush – like a crack addict who has misplaced his stash. All in the name of ratcheting up the excitement level in the game.

Having oversold its soul to unsustainable television revenues and forced into supporting an insanely overcrowded worldwide schedule, the sport finds itself careening down towards the inevitable crash. Context has been rendered irrelevant and contests much more so with the unabashed neutering of conditions. With a constant blur of cricket matches that unfold, the ennui and mental fatigue that this creates is taking its toll. Now faced with the prospect of dwindling eyeballs for its product (already happening increasingly), all that is left is to resort to mess with the game itself?

So the rules, laws and playing conditions of the game are fair game. They are now the panacea to the sorry state of the union. Platitudes about big money, advances in television coverage, innovation, keeping up with the technology of the times and injecting excitement into the game are just that. In fact they are more than that – just a load of horseshit. Since when did endless tweaking constitute progressiveness in itself? For all that this is achieving is to leave us in a perpetually unsettled condition. Complicating the conduct of play relentlessly and intruding on our basic enjoyment of the beauty of the game itself.

Limited overs cricket, the traditional cesspool of tweaks, innovations and progressive thinking has taken the brunt of the latest round of rule changes. ODI cricket has now been made over with more nose-jobs, botox injections and silicone implants than Pamela Anderson. All for the sake of “our” excitement, we have been informed. To prevent us from slitting our wrists out of boredom during the meandering middle overs. No, let us not even bring up T20s – the Paris Hilton of cricket – right now.

Yet we have overdone it with the latest innovations to the Power-plays. A contrived and forcibly implanted concept in the first place, Power-plays had already been pushed to the limits in the last edition of changes. But would you believe it? More room for excitement has been unearthed – somewhere between overs 16 and 40! This constant tinkering with the twenty (cricket’s lotto winning number) overs of fielding restrictions has me convinced now that this will end only when cricket eventually discovers the perfect T20 game embedded in those fifty overs.

And now the use of two balls – one at either end – in ODIs. Shahid Afridi’s teeth better be in good shape if he ever comes out of retirement. Dew and discoloration? Bollocks. Are we trying to say that it is beyond the realm of possibility that the quality of cricket balls can be improved so that they would last for 50 overs? Hardly an intractable problem is it? Having throttled the format with boundary ropes creeping in around its neck and castrating pitches to the hilt, we had to go further to ensure that the poor batsmen copped an additional break?

All this does is to tilt the game even further in favour of the batsmen. With pitch conditions being numbingly benign worldwide and the quality of bowling attacks in terminal decline, we can only brace ourselves for more ferocious bludgeoning of the hapless bowlers. Not to mention that it sneers at and spits on one of the most unique aspects of the sport itself – the management of the degradation of the ball during the course of a match. And spinners be damned – they are going extinct anyways.

It is quite disheartening these days to talk to fellow cricket followers and realize to what extent our day to day conversations have been tainted by all of this. So inured we are to the blur of cricket and the constant fiascos of the game’s management that cricket conversations are surreal – caught up the minutiae of these srewups and in the chaotic nature of the cricketing calendar. And when respected players start spewing the “increased excitement” mantra too, you know the disease has really taken root. Like when Kumar Sangakkara (in the panel discussion following his MCC Spirit of Cricket lecture this summer) claimed that having players invoke the DRS in the course of the match instead of the umpires “added excitement” to proceedings.

The last time a rule change and its immediate revocation caused as much anguish was when the ICC implemented the concept of the “Super-sub” in 2005. Again, purportedly done for the benefit of our increased excitement, this was a grievous mistake that went against a basic tenet of the sport – of the sanctity of the list of eleven names exchanged at the toss. Adopted flippantly by the same exalted Cricket Committee of the ICC, this came with the jarring image of a gleeful Sunil Gavaskar announcing the decision like an excited poodle. Of course it was scrapped the next year, by when opposing captains were hatching agreements at the toss to not even deploy it.

But we have truly crossed a line with the DRS.

Television reviews to support or replace human decision making is nothing special to cricket. Even as recently as in the FIFA World Cup in 2010, football went through a throe of navel-gazing about the application of television replays after Frank Lampard’s no-goal in England’s game against Germany. This was not anything new to football and debates and discussions raged about whether it was time to employ cameras to monitor the goal line in football matches.

Without getting into the issue of whether football should resort to replays or not, the point to stress is that no rash decision has been taken regarding it. While most football fans are not enamoured by FIFA as an organization or its leadership, they still understand that this is a decision not to be taken lightly. But football has resisted till now. And there is something very reassuring that the rules and playing conditions at say, el Clasico in Madrid or Barcelona, are identical to those at my kid’s house-league game at a neighbourhood park.

In 2008, baseball, that most American of sports implemented a “limited instant replay” (in the words of Major League Baseball) to eliminate errors caused by parallax in determining the legality of hits along the first and third base sidelines in the outfield. Again, this was a decision that was taken after lengthy deliberation and cricket could learn a few things from it. Firstly, it was a blanket decision. As of August 29th, 2008, all baseball games were to be played with the replay in effect. Secondly, they chose to carefully limit the scope of the replay and also ensured that it relied on bare-bones television cameras for its implementation. Baseball as a sport has resolutely resisted any changes to the playing conditions with the last rule change before this being the introduction of the designated hitter in the American League in 1973 – a decision which is debated even to this day.

Ironically, baseball is one sport where a primary mode of dismissal at the plate can be automated flawlessly. For the technology to pin-point a virtual strike-zone and track the trajectory of pitches with respect to it has existed for a long time. Television viewers have been provided the precise point of entry of the ball into the strike zone through instant replays on every single pitch. Forever. But I am yet to hear a single baseball fan advocate the use of technology for calling strikes once in my lifetime. Ranting and cursing at umpires and their individual interpretations of the strike-zone is oh-so common, but even a kid in the little leagues would be appalled at the suggestion of making it “flawless” using cameras.

Cricket was managing fine with runouts, stumpings and border-line catches being judged with the aid of replays since the 90s. All done with the aid of simple television cameras. The DRS arrived as problematic – with its multiple technological aspects, some of them quite advanced and unproven yet. Not to mention the costs and the difficult logistics of deploying these technologies.

Regardless, the primary issue here is its introduction before ensuring the uniformity of its enforcement in all international matches. For there is something unnerving about looking back over the scorecards of a year recently passed and knowing that some of them were judged using a significantly different decision making process. And not knowing which ones.

Uniformity is absolutely important in this matter. Uniformity should matter to anyone who really cares about the game and its evolution and history. Compromising it is absolutely preposterous. And now allow teams and boards to decide when they choose to implement it and also choose the parts they prefer? Cricket will be better served if the DRS were scrapped instantly till a policy that applies it in a blanket manner in all international matches can be ratified.

India has just commenced their ODI series against England at home. This “return” series, which follows barely a month after the Indian team flew back from London after their tour (where they already played five ODIs), encapsulates all that is wrong with the sport at this point.

The sheer meaninglessness of it – other than to feed the coffers and fuel the jingoistic urges of Indian fans hankering for revenge after the abject performance of their team in England – is staggering. It will also unfold with the latest handiwork of the ICC Cricket Committee in full bloom – with no DRS (I think) and a Rubik’s cube of Power-plays. Oh yes – and two balls.

One can only sit back and rejoice that cricket has finally grown a pair.

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2 thoughts on “The Botox has gone Toxic

  1. I understand and share your anguish. My faith on the ICC, and also on individual national cricket boards, is long dead. When traditions are tampered with and when the games DNA itself is being tweaked around, some of us may retain our touch with the game through individual players, to have a sense of grip and feel the reassurance that comes with recognition. Our crutches are a Dravid or Sachin or Ponting. But they will have to eventually go away. And when we lose our connection with players, the game will be dead for us. The supposed monetary riches of the game will mean nothing then.

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