It’s been almost 15 years that I have been watching and passionately following the Gentleman’s game. Witnessing India’s unsuccessful tryst with World Cup glory after coming so close under Saurav Ganguly in South Africa was the first time I understood cricket. 15 years later, there have been so many changes in the sport that the 2003 World Cup seems like an eternity ago.
The sport’s fans in the 21st century have probably witnessed the most changes in the shortest amount of time. Somewhere around 2005, powerplays replaced the mandatory field restrictions in the first 15 overs. The super sub rule was also introduced, but was later done away with. Then came the ball change rule at the end of 34th over. That too gave way to 2 new balls being used at both ends.
Then, in 2007, the first ever World T20 was introduced. A year later, DRS was introduced and later made mandatory for all international games. The free-hit rule was extended to ODIs, the bats became larger and boundaries shorter. The game of cricket moved on from runners for the batsmen. The game was becoming far too much in the favour of batsmen, so two bouncers were allowed in ODIs. And many other changes were introduced in the game.
In a nutshell, cricket has probably undergone the maximum amount of change as compared to other sports. But the game still falls short in terms of popularity in comparison to other sports. An early argument blamed the duration of the game, but the advent of T20s has rendered that argument weak. There are a few reasons for this lack of popularity and majority of the blame lies with the ICC. In fact, in some ways the cricket governing body, along with the stronger boards are killing the game. Thus ensuring that the game never truly goes global and thus cricket itself is its biggest enemy than anything else.
One of the major reasons for the game lacking global appeal is the stupid and outrageous idea of having a 10 team World Cup. It is argued by a lot of people that having the Associate nations play in the World Cup leads to a lot of one sided games and uninteresting games, but what about the upsets and the mad celebrations that make it to the front page of every newspaper in cricket playing nations?
Who can ever forget Kevin O’Brien’s fastest hundred against England in Bangalore in 2011. Or Bangladesh’s and Afghanistan’s crazy celebrations after winning against England and Scotland respectively in the 2015 World Cup? How many times has a national holiday been declared the next day in the country like it happened when Bangladesh beat Pakistan, the finalists of the 1999 World Cup?
These wonderful sights and images paint a story in themselves and make the sport beautiful. Keeping emotions and story telling aside, lets look at this decision objectively. In 12 of the 42 matches involving the top 8 teams in the group stage, there weren’t many close games. Exceptions can be made regarding the Australia v New Zealand game in Christchurch and the Pakistan v South Africa at Auckland. India comfortably beat Pakistan by 76 runs, South Africa by 130 runs and West Indies with 4 wickets in hand and 11 overs to spare. Australia beat England by 111 runs and Sri Lanka by 64 runs. NZ beat Sri Lanka by 98 runs and gave England an absolute hammering by chasing a target of 124 in under 13 overs, while Sri Lanka beat England comfortably again by 9 wickets to spare. Similarly, South Africa beat West Indies by 257 runs, and West Indies beat Pakistan by 150 runs.
On the other hand, in games involving a team out of the top 8 and a team from the top 8, there was much more drama and excitement. Sri Lanka almost got out of jail against Afghanistan, Ireland chased down a 300 plus total against the West Indies, Bangladesh ran NZ really close, so did Zimbabwe against Pakistan and Bangladesh knocked out England.
In the games involving both the teams outside of top 8, there were few really exciting games. Afghanistan beat Scotland by one wicket in a nail-biter, Ireland just managed to defend a total of 331 against Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe chased down a 280 plus total with 4 wickets and two overs to spare against UAE and Ireland versus UAE turned out to another exciting contest with Ireland chasing down the target of 279 with 2 wickets and 4 balls to spare. Infact, West Indies barely edged out Ireland for a spot in the Quarter Finals who had 3 victories. All this was on the back of their net run rate courtesy the margin of victories of West Indies.
Even the knockout stages hardly witnessed any ‘close’ games. Again, the exception was the semi-final between New Zealand and South Africa. This semi-final was well-known for leaving the Proteas teary-eyed.
Almost 3 years since the last world cup, Bangladesh have started to become an Asian giant which they always promised to. Afghanistan too, have made rapid strides in ODI cricket. In fact, Afghanistan were the only team to beat the West Indies in the 2016 World T20, the tournament where the West Indies emerged as champions. England, South Africa, Sri Lanka and India all lost to the West Indies except for Afghanistan. Zimbabwe have been strengthened by the return of Brendon Taylor after his Kolpak deal. Meanwhile, Scotland have beaten Afghanistan at the World Cup Qualifier, and West Indies lost to Afghanistan again in the warm ups for the World Cup Qualifier.
The shorter format of the game provides a chance to lesser sides to punch above their weight and win on the back of individual brilliance’s. At the same time, it keeps the uncertainty alive in the world events. The ICC restricted the participation of the associates in the 50-over world cup. Even the last World T20 had only 10 teams participating. It not only demotivates the associate nations such as UAE, Netherlands, Scotland, Nepal, Papua New Guinea but makes the sport an elite one. In some ways, it directly contradicts some essence of sport in general. Sports is meant to provide a level playing field for everyone.
On the other hand, other team sports like Football, Hockey and Rugby have participation of 32, 16 and 14 nations respectively in World Cups. Hockey, a predominantly Asian game with the skills of ball control, dribbling and speed is played in a European fashion. Even for teams like India, Pakistan and Malaysia, long passes are the norm now.
One other major reason why Cricket is its own biggest enemy is the lack of common sense in terms of applying the rules. In the Durban test between Australia and South Africa, overs were being lost since Day 1 due to bad light. Now it’s a different story that Australia comfortably won the match. But it would have looked silly if Umpires asked Steven Smith not to bowl pacers in the last 10 overs of the day if Australia needed 2 wickets to win on the final day. Or worse, the equation would have been South Africa needing 30 runs to win 3 wickets in hand on the final day. Common sense would dictate play starting earlier at 9 am to ensure no loss in overs. Unfortunately, because of some strange rules, it can’t be done. A similar situation arises when matches are held in the eastern part of India in winters and almost 10 overs are lost everyday.
It has been in far too many instances that the umpires keep the play going as long as they can in fading light, but suddenly a wicket falls and the umpires start checking for light. Furthermore, then they would go off due to bad light making the game look really absurd.
Another absurd incident that recently took place was in the 2nd India versus South Africa ODI. The umpires decided to break for lunch with India needing just two runs to win after a 15 minute extension. The reaction across the whole cricket fraternity was that of shock and awe. Thankfully there was no rain, because had the rain come down during the lunch interval and not resulting into any play, the match would have ended in a no result because India had only batted for 19 overs and the DLS method is only applicable when both the sides have batted for 20 overs.
The Duckworth Lewis method is a story in its own. It will remain a mystery till the time the game of cricket exists and there’s no point even debating it.
Rahul Dravid during his lecture at the Bradman Oration in 2011 had mentioned how the game of cricket need to take care of its biggest asset, the fan for the game to continuously grow and become bigger. The cricket fan, irrespective of country, wants to see the underdogs compete at the World Cup. Who knows, maybe even upset one of the heavy weights and keep the uncertainty alive. The cricket fan wants the game to do away with the archaic rules and see result oriented games. He is investing his time, money and energy in the game without expecting too much. The governing bodies must do that for the game to become global and keep growing!