The long and short of cricket

With the euphoria surrounding the Indian Premier League (IPL) over, cricket fans can now expectsome normalcy in their lives. The hardcore fans of the shortest format of the game must have been on detox to sort out their time, spent in front of the idiot box from 7 pm onwards, while the others may have gone back to their prime-time fix — the daily soap tamasha.

The post IPL period saw another event that took place in Mumbai where the cricket committee of the International Cricket Council (ICC) met to discuss a few recommendations that were on the anvil for a while. Chief among them was whether the employment of the toss in international cricket should stay or be done away with.

The committee, led by veteran Indian spinner Anil Kumble, thankfully decided to continue with the age-old tradition of tossing as “it was an integral part of Test cricket which forms part of the narrative of the game.”

The toss, if one looks at the game of cricket in totality, is a small aspect which may/or may not give a home team any kind of advantage since (traditionally) the opposite team has an equal chance of winning the spin of the coin. What really matters is the kind of pitches prepared by the hosts, which help them gain an opportunity to dominate the opposition.

There have been many instances of underprepared pitches which have helped home teams decide the course of the game across the world — some condemned while some conveniently brushed under the carpet. Such cases have generally been few compared to the pitches prepared by hosts which are in sync with local geographic conditions. But then, isn’t that what Test cricket is all about? Being “tested” in conditions not just those that a cricketer is familiar with but also alien to him.

Toss apart, the committee decided on the serious issue of the rising incidents of sledging — “personal, insulting, offensive or orchestrated abuse,” as it was termed and ball tampering. They have recommended that such cases need to be severely dealt with by raising sanctions and penalties and giving match officials “more authority and subsequently greater support around their decision making.” Isn’t it a bit late in the day for this — haven’t there been many cases in the past. Not just players but umpires were “questioned.” For many years the ICC have almost ignored obvious incidents of abuse and advantage gaining, using underhand measures, by non-Asian teams. Captains questioning the umpire was kosher to the body that runs cricket especially if the “query” came from an Australian or English skipper.

The august body had one rule for Asian teams and another for the rest of the cricketing world. The incident concerning Mike Denness, the former England opener and ICC match referee finding six Indian players, including Sachin Tendulkar and skipper Sourav Ganguly, guilty of various charges ranging from ball tampering to excessive appealing will remain a blot in the history of cricket.

Similar incidents concerning Pakistan, accused of ball tampering, and Sri Lankan bowler Muttiah Muralitharan no-balled for “throwing” have, over a period of time, cast doubts over the neutrality of ICC’s match referees and umpires. It took a silly attempt of sandpapering the ball by Steve Smith and his band of boys to actually shake up the ICC and Cricket Australia and get them to take action.

Needless to say, the Australian media, finally caught on the back foot as the players admitted their folly, are still trying to portray Smith and David Warner as little children who accidentally got caught with their hands in the cookie jar. Incidents like the same Steve Smith’s brain fade story after being caught on camera while seeking assistance from the dressing room for a decision review were considered par for course by the same media which kept pointing accusing fingers at Asian cricketers time and again.

The spectre of match/spot fixing and ball tampering apart, the issue that the ICC today seriously needs to address is the health of Test cricket. The longest and the best format of the game has been under threat for many years now and the advent of Twenty20 cricket is slowly but surely driving nails in the coffin of Test matches.

To make things worse, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) wants to introduce 100 ball game soon to appeal to a new audience, those that are not traditional cricket fans. The proposed tournament aimed at “mums and kids,” according to former England skipper Andrew Strauss, is ECB’s move to help county teams that are under heavy financial debt.

Helping county teams apart, it does not take a genius to figure out that this latest concept, considered harebrained by many former cricketers, is in effect meant as a counter to the popular IPL and other T20 tournaments that have spawned internationally over the last few years.

Effectively, unless the ICC can find the right balance between the long and short formats of the game, the game's ultimate edifice, Test cricket, will die an earlier death.