Sunday, January 19, 2014

It is time to change the game

By John Cheeran

Cricket needs to reinvent itself. The game has been tinkered with many times in the past with one-day cricket being brought to life from the rib cage of Test cricket on January 5, 1971. Then came the Twenty 20, suitably cut for an age bereft of ideology. Later came the beast IPL.

All these changes fundamentally go against the grain of cricket. Simply put, they are reductionary and limiting in nature. Cricket’s (read Test cricket) charm lies in its open-ended approach even though it has a time frame of five days, and 90 overs each a day.

Unlike other sport events, Test cricket offers you a second chance, a luxury that life does not offer you. You can turn a game around purely relying on the second innings. In football you have a second half, you have the extra time, the final minute and the kick in the ass. In boxing you have round after round, you can get up after getting knocked down but in such cases they are merely continuations of the first minute.

A Test match can end before lunch on the second day or can go on till the last ball on the fifth day. A football or hockey match, even if one side is leading by 30-0, has to run till 90 or 70 minutes. 

But that said few have paid attention to make Test cricket more beautiful, more thrilling and more beguiling. To derive the maximum from Test cricket, you have to make it limitless, you have to make it timeless.

Since those who are in a rush and impatient have their own Twenty 20s and Fifty-50s it is time to liberate Test cricket from the stultifying time frame. Let the game play out itself. Let us remove the barricades of five days and make it a primal fight to the finish. Challenge is always in pushing yourself to the limits.

There will be no changes in rules except that each side will play out their first and second innings completely. Over restrictions will not hamper the game. The Test, if need be, can go on to a sixth or seventh day. Till the last wicket falls or the target is met. In limitless Test cricket, there will be no place to hide on the ground. Only persistent bad weather can lead to calling off a Test. 

Whereas all sport events produce a winner, (now including cricket with its popular versions of Twenty20 and original ODIs. T20s have super overs to eliminate the rarest of rare ‘ties’ ) it is only Test cricket that makes room for ‘exciting’ draws.

To live with a draw has its own benefits (and there have been many, many exciting draws in the history of Test cricket with the latest being the one played out in Johannesburg between visiting Indians and South Africa) but draws only further the cause of diplomacy. 

After five days what separated India and South Africa in Johannesburg was the absence of a few overs. The match ended in a draw with South Africa requiring eight runs and India needing three wickets. The force, certainly, was with South Africa, who after being outplayed grabbed their second innings chance to make amends to first innings follies and attempt the impossible – accomplish the highest ever successful run chase of scoring 458 runs. Another over or two would have settled the match’s outcome. So why, after watching every ball for five days, one should settle for an ‘exciting’ draw? How much of truth and justice is in the cliché that no one deserved to lose? Most often, draw unduly favours the weakest side and hence we write the line, escaping with the draw.

There are no draws in basketball or in boxing ring. That’s why Americans love such honest arguments. That everyone wants a closure to life’s fundamental questions is well accepted fact. A crucial reason for Test cricket’s lack of popularity apart from the Commonwealth nations is its inbuilt room for draw.

Fears that limitless Test cricket will lead to endless boredom or stalemates are misplaced. Nor will it take away from the glorious uncertainties of the game. No side will let their first innings extend into a third day just because the Test is timeless and bowlers are directionless and the wicket is a sleeping beauty. The age of Anshuman Gaekwads and Mudassar Nazars are behind us. Remember that there is someone watching the game. 

Followers of the game are demanding, if not intolerant. Crawlers on the crease will lose their endorsement and entertainment in value in no time. Limitless Tests will also force the host nations to prepare wickets that offer some purchase for bowlers so that they will not end up with a situation where after five days both teams have not completed their first innings. That would be a scheduling nightmare.

Another fear is that captains will not exercise the call of declarations when Tests are timeless. Why declare your second innings when there is enough time to bowl out the opposition? Why declare the first innings when you don’t know if the batting conditions remain true in the final sessions?

But how often in recent history you have witnessed first innings declarations? Very few. Even declarations in the second innings have come only after ensuring what is a safe position, given the strength of the opposition’s batting rather than the time left in the game.

There is no doubt that only antidote to ODIs and Twenty 20s is limitless Test cricket. It will take both the art of batting and craft of bowling to its purest forms. It will cleanse the game of false reputations as all Test playing nations will be forced to search for bowlers who can deliver the results and not merely be a statistic.

Let’s change the game.

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