West Indies cricket commentator Tony Cozier’s death last month brings to an end the phase in cricket when the game’s live transmission depended on the spoken word. Radio was king.
John Arlott, our very own Vizzy, Devraj Puri, Dicky Rutnagur, Nobby Clark, Pearson Surita – a procession passes by. Control on diction, descriptive passages, tone, measured pauses, humour – this is how cricket was packaged to us in our school days. Richie Benuad was the master of commentary in the TV era. With the briefest of interventions, he magnified the fine point.
With the first hint of winter, came the announcement of the visiting team for a five Test series. Scrap books were out, the size of a broadsheet. With such diligence, we pasted pictures of batsmen and bowlers who promised to dominate the series. A column was saved for averages. The first three day encounter with the Cricket Board President’s XI was always in Pune.
My autograph book at school represented my two earliest interests: Urdu poetry and cricket. From right to left were autographs of all the poets beginning with Josh Malihabadi. Frank Worrell was the most exotic name in the list of cricketers.
Cultural schizophrenia was our lot from the beginning. I opened my eyes in an environment rich with Urdu, but was put through paces in English to keep the wolf from the door. That was one explanation for my bifocal autograph book. There was also a more straightforward explanation. Urdu poetry as well as cricket, blossomed and mellowed in the shadow of a declining feudal system.
The sheer poetry of players in white against the lush green was enhanced by Dom Moraes’ ‘Green is the Grass’ which he wrote when he was 13. Little wonder he went onto win the Hawthornden Award for poetry at Oxford. Literature and cricket mingled a little more in Neville Cardus’ writings, stocked in the school library.
With these aesthetics, the mind is liable to go into a tizzy at an American sporting arena – baseball, basketball or what they call football. The tinsel razzmatazz, the carnival atmosphere, cheer girls et al are not without their attractions but they were so different from anything one experienced in India, West Indies, England.
Some clubs across the US played against each other and called it the “world series”. The rest of the world was presumed beaten. It was American exceptionalism at its peak. It would have been quite harmless had it not been accompanied by a very American desire to see the world in its own image.
McDonald’s, Martinis, Manhattans on the rocks, are all American exports. In cricketing terms, it was left to the Australian media tycoon, Kerry Packer to graft American sporting culture onto cricket. That is how World Series Cricket was born.
We had embraced the Packer package and that is how the ODIs were born. That was the thin end of the wedge. Rampaging capitalism was to drive home the advantage. Money, and not the aesthetics of cricket, became the primary consideration. In one fell swoop, Lakshmi had snatched the game away from Saraswati and shaped it for the marketplace. Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket was born.
In the corner of the West View bar at Kolkata’s ITC Sonar Bangla, grumbled Morne Morkel, “It’s killing the game”. But on a high bar stool, Wasim Akram was holding forth. “T20 has come to stay,” he grinned from ear to ear.
Not just Wasim, other greats in Cricket’s Hall of Fame, have traded their stature for sinecures in the burgeoning IPL fraternity. It is a Faustian bargain. They diminish. Test cricket diminishes most. Really, for a handful of silver.. .?
I am actually filled with remorse being tardy in my admiration for Virat Kohli. He may be doing wonderful things for IPL but I cannot help feeling that it must be at the cost of Test cricket. He ranks with our greatest Test batsmen already. Eleven centuries in 41 Tests is an amazing record. That should have been his trajectory. A leading newspaper recently described Virat as “Bradman of T20”. Frankly, he stands more circumscribed than praised in that editorial.
Admittedly, T20s have transformed fielding into an art form. Sensational catches have been taken. But what else? By universal consent, the format has been a bowler’s graveyard. With decline in bowling standards, is great batsmanship possible? Neville Cardus described a great batsman as one who was “courageous and skilful in the face of a fine attack”. What “fine attack” when low cunning will do – bowl yorkers on the tenth stump.
T20 or the Big Bash tamashas will draw crowds. But these are not cricket crowds. These are T20 crowds. Cricketing respectability has been accorded to these events by once big names in cricket who are in quest of not just post retirement sinecures but also a little bit of the spotlight. Imagine, Balasaraswati and Yamini Krishnamurthy choreographing Bollywood item girls or Bade Ghulam Ali Khan singing “Biwi number one”.
If T20 were a passing squall which would leave our Test cricket untainted, I would make my adjustments. But I do not trust our ability to stand our ground. We only talk of tradition and culture but are easily swept off our feet. Other cricketing countries may have dabbled with IPL type variations. But they have held on tenaciously to their traditions of Test cricket.
Come Boxing Day, and Melbourne cricket ground will be filled to capacity. A roar will go up as the two umpires amble towards the pitch, signalling the start of a Test match. There will be no compromise on a five Test series.
Even as I write, England are playing a somewhat one sided series against a depleted Sri Lanka side. But that slow hand clap at Lords is still music to cricketing ears. Their seasons for Test cricket are sacrosanct.
We have become an economic power house in cricket. But, alas, we have surrendered the sanctity of our five test cricket season to the profligacy of the market place.
(A senior commentator on political and diplomatic affairs, Saeed Naqvi can be reached on email@example.com. The views expressed are personal.)