Monday, November 16, 2009

Cricket's tangle of formats

The afternoon of 21 August 2009 at The Oval was cold and wintry, not the best for cricket; for Australian cricket, in fact, it could hardly have been worse. Ricky Ponting's team, hanging in gamely after losing a crucial toss, were abruptly upended, in the 21 deliveries it took Stuart Broad to nip out 4 for 8. After Graeme Swann chimed in with 4 for 18 from 43 deliveries, England ended the day with a 230-run lead and seven second-innings wickets in hand, a deficit Australia could not make up for three further days' trying. So it was that the Ashes changed hands.

But it was worse than that, if such a sentiment can be believed from an Australian. Had Australia won that fifth Test, and thus the series, they would have maintained their status atop the ICC World Test Championship. As it is, they slipped to fourth, an ignominy not experienced in a generation. To all intents and purposes, Australia had led the cricket world since 3 May 1995: the date they recaptured the Frank Worrell Trophy, ending the West Indies' 22 years in the Caribbean without defeat. So their 13-year dynasty crumbled in an afternoon. It should have been the proverbial "shot heard around the world" - but it wasn't.

Why? For one thing, the ICC Test Championship table is almost as obscure to the general public in its workings as the Duckworth-Lewis Method. For another thing, Australia's was only a partial eclipse: they remain atop the ICC one-day international table, an ascendancy they have ratified in India, and are not about to slump as dismally as the West Indies after their prolonged premiership.

Yet the main reason is that there was no obvious inheritor of the champion's mantle. It wasn't the handing over of a blue riband, yellow jersey or green jacket, or even a Richie Benaud-style blazer: South Africa rose to the top like a bureaucrat being promoted because of the incompetence of his predecessor. Now there is also Twenty20, cricket's richest and most glamorous format, to consider. Pakistan beat Sri Lanka in its global summit this year, where South Africa fell short again in a global tournament, and Australia was a listless mess

So it's all become a bit of a mess. Indeed, you could liken global cricket supremacy to umpiring: certainty disappeared the minute science and technology were introduced to make definitive judgements. But the overriding difficulty is simple: the game has been allowed to grow so diverse as to make consensus impossible about what cricket "is".

Think about trying to answer the simple question anyone new to cricket would ask: who is the world champion? Where football or rugby are concerned, the answer would be succinct: you would name the last winner of the World Cup. But cricket's World Cup is decided in a 50-over format, and the trophy's last instalment was so dire that you'd be pardoned for wanting to forget it. In general, Chris Gayle always excepted, cricketers think of Test matches as the fullest and most searching examination of a team's skills. But fans are increasingly drawn to the lickety-split spectacle of cricket in 20-over chunks.

So what would you say? "In the five-day format known as Test cricket, South Africa are the best, although they lost their last series at home to Australia, who are now rated fourth, and India are third even though they've only played three matches so far this year and at the moment aren't scheduled to play any next year. In the one-day format… " Too late: your interlocutor is glazing over, he's forgotten his next question about the Kolkata Knight Riders' wacky helmets and is staring into space. Sheesh, how are you going to explain the Champions League?

Administrators keep insisting that the three forms of cricket are cosily complementary. Actually Test cricket, one-day cricket and Twenty20 hang together like an Italian political coalition: because of slight momentary convenience rather than innately long-term coherence; in the free market of entertainment, they are more naturally destined to compete, even to cannibalise one another, searching out the same broadcasters, the same sponsors, and many of the same fans. Already, it seems, countries are more precisely calibrating their ambitions. India, certainly, is contemptibly marginalising Test cricket, hosting its first five-day match of 2009 in November, and leaving Eden Gardens without a Test match for two years. None of which bodes well for the future of international cricket in the face of the rivalry from soi-disant "domestic" Indian Premier League and Champions League. As Abraham Lincoln famously warned, a house divided against itself cannot stand.

To be the top, to be the best, to have conquered all comers and to be garlanded for doing so: this, for players and for fans, is the summit of all ambition. On how that is constituted in cricket, alas, agreement has been made almost impossibly elusive. In hindsight, then, that spell of Broad's was even more seminal, and undersung: it ended not just a dynasty but the last such dynasty, and perhaps the whole idea of dynasties itself.

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