Edit: This is a long post, it rambles, but eventually gets to my point. It started out as a post about why the World Cup victory is bitter-sweet to me, so it has a lot of my personal history with cricket. To get to my reasons, skip to the last 2 paragraphs.
In the 2 weeks since the madness of April 2nd there have been countless articles & blog posts written, thousands of tribute vides created, many gifts distributed and god-only-knows-how-many emails circulated about India winning the 2011 Cricket World Cup. Dhoni has been hailed a Midas, Yuvraj as the comeback-kid, and Sachin the saviour of a nation and the person who carried the burden of a billion people until the Cup could be won back after a 28 year gap. Journalists have used the opportunity to write about how the win, the first by a country hosting the World Cup, represents India breaking the shackles of foreign dominance. It is a symbol of the confidence of a country bursting through and taking the bull by the horns.
The night of the victory was special for me (as it was for every Indian). I hugged numerous strangers and a smile was plastered on my face. I’ve been a cricket fan (and sometime cricketer) since I was 10. A vague memory lingers in my head of watching the imposing Imran Khan lift the cup in 1992. 1996 is much clearer to me. My friends and I took to filling out the win/loss brackets in between classes playing hand cricket when teachers weren’t looking. I’m certain I wasn’t the only one embarrassed by Vinod Kambli’s tears after the semi-final in Kolkata. Sri Lanka deserved to win, however. The 1999 edition was perfectly timed – during the summer vacation between my 10th and 11th grades. Sachin’s 140 against Zimbabwe after his father passing away, Rahul Dravid scoring the most runs despite India not reaching the semi-finals and Lance Klusner’s appetite for big sixes are the highs in a tournament that was otherwise largely forgettable for Indian. 2003 was exciting though; I was away from home for the first time and watching and playing cricket with new friends. Trudging through over a foot of snowdrift at 2 am to get to where I’d paid $100, along with 6 others to install a dish so we could receive the broadcast marks the pinnacle in my desperation to see India win. And they almost went all the way. The thrashing they gave England in the group stages, having Zimbabwe and Kenya qualify through to the Super Sixes and finally having to beat Kenya in the semi-final, made me feel like this could be the year. But then Ricky Ponting happened. I wont even go into the 2007 edition, it was that miserable.
In the 19 years since I’ve been watching cricket, I’ve also been one of very few people I know that truly enjoy Test cricket. I watch any game India plays in, all 5 days if possible. And if England, Australia, or South Africa are involved against anyone else I’ll usually watch that game too. I also fancy myself a cricketer of sorts. My first coach believed I’d be a decent seam bowler given my lanky build (at the age of 13). But I quickly found myself more interested in the art of wicket keeping. But given the opportunity I loved having a bat up the order as well. Yes, for a bits and pieces player I didn’t do too badly. I ended the president of the Drexel Cricket Club and even captained the University club team to a memorable tournament victory when the regular captain was unavailable. Tennis ball cricket was a frequent pastime in the American summer as well.
So what is this story about? Yes, I’ve waited a long time for India to win the 50-over Cricket World Cup. Yes, Yuvraj Singh has proved he’s capable of a renaissance, MS Dhoni has appeared out of nowhere to first, be the #1 batsman in ODI cricket, then lead the Indian team to the #1 test rank in the world, and then win both the 20-20 and ODI cricket world cup. But for a fan like me, is it really what should’ve happened for the good of cricket?
I’ve been vocal (when asked, of course) that ODI cricket needs to be put to rest. Despite all its quirks as a sport, I don’t believe that cricket can sustain 3 formats at the international level, especially with only 7 or 8 teams capable of competing at the highest caliber. T20 cricket has been great for the sport. It has lead to innovative stroke play, attacking bowling and cunning captaincy. It has enabled the discovery of players who may never have been given opportunities otherwise (courtesy the IPL). And finally, it has elevated cricket to a truly professional sport. Players who would only ever have played domestic cricket and not earned a sustainable income, now have the opportunity to make a true living just off the T20 format.
Many believe that the success of the 50-over World Cup in India shows that the format is healthy and can survive many more years. The ICC has, in fact, already begun preparations for the 2015 and 2019 editions (to be held in Australia and England, respectively). Sachin will certainly no longer be playing. MS Dhoni & Yuvraj Singh, both 29 years of age, may no longer be playing. That’s not my concern though. My concern is for the longest format of the sport. Will Test cricket still be a viable option in 2019? With our short attention spans, will anyone really care of a game that lasts 5 days? And if fans don’t demand it, broadcasters will now show it. And without broadcasters, there will be no advertisers. And there will be no Test cricket. (When was the last time you saw Table Tennis on TV outside of the Olympics?)
Yes, as much as I enjoyed the 2011 victory (strangers in Trafalgar Square will testify to that), and enjoyed watching every other edition of the cup despite India’s (often lackluster) performances, I believe that it doesn’t bode well for the future of Test cricket. Outside of India, England, Australia and maybe South Africa the sport has become vulnerable. Even in India it is impossible to fill a stadium for a 5 day game unless it is a weekend and there is the possibility of seeing Sachin score a century. And unless Test cricket survives, we will begin to lose what made cricket special in the first place. Maybe the future greats will emerge in the T20 format, but count me amongst the skeptical. The best ODI players have also been the best players in the longer version of the game. No one really remembers Michael Bevan or Ajay Jadeja. They remember Gary Sobers, Brian Lara, Steve Waugh, and Inzamam-ul-Haq. Wasim Akram, Glenn McGrath, Muralitharan, and Anil Kumble are the names that come to mind when one thinks of modern bowling legends. Images of Yusuf Pathan, Mike Hussey, or Paul Valathy will never adorn the dressing room at Lords.
Yes, at the risk of angering 1.2 billion Indians, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it may have been better for the future of cricket as a sport if India has crashed out of the 2011 World Cup early on. We may now never see the next Sachin Tendulkar take guard against the next Shane Warne and that is a loss of immeasurable proportions.