The Eden Gardens. A witness to many a surreal atmosphere, from the Hero Cup semi-final and final in 1993, to what perhaps was the greatest Test in the history of the game, played between India and Australia in 2001 and immortalised by VVS Laxman's 281, to indeed the World T20 in 2016. And a large part of the aura of the Eden Gardens is because of the passionate fans who have never been too far from expressing their emotions. Fan frenzy, bordering on delirium, has tended to make every match a spectacle here.
But late last month, during India's ODI series against Australia, what greeted us at the haloed ground were large swathes of empty stands. It was quite un-Eden Gardens-like. And it was unlike the near-full house when India played Pakistan in the 2016 World T20, and also during the final of the tournament between England and West Indies.
As the match meandered along on a difficult, two-paced pitch, there were yawns in the crowd. Even the occasional boundary was eliciting lukewarm clapping at best, with Kuldeep Yadav's hat-trick perhaps being the only time the crowd found its voice, and was shaken from its slumber.
Even factoring in the rain forecast, the Durga puja being around the corner and half-yearly exams of many of the students, if that was the general response from one of the most emotional set of fans in the country to what was supposed to be a marquee contest between two great rivals of world cricket, then there had to be something amiss. It couldn't have been that the Eden crowd had suddenly lost interest in cricket.
Yes, the average Indian fan had taken a liking to the short, fast, furious and smartly-packaged T20s, especially after India's World T20 triumph in 2007 and the advent of the Indian Premier League (IPL), so much so that the longer forms of the game (ODIs and Tests) have faced questions over their relevance. But that is one part of the problem.
The Eden Gardens that evening may have given us more than an inkling about what had been ailing the longer versions of the game. It may well be getting difficult to retain interest for 90-100 overs. Matches with no context or objective other than to gather a few rating points or milestones are another part of the problem.
Dead rubbers, played simply because the two boards involved had agreed beforehand to a given set of matches in a series, without much to achieve other than keeping the sponsors and broadcasters happy, are not exactly what you want in order to keep the interest up among the viewers. The cricket in such a scenario becomes repetitive and is a source of considerable ennui.
What the game needs, therefore, is it to be rejuvenated. And this isn't only at the level of the rules — which the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) and International Cricket Council (ICC) have been revising from time-to-time, but also at the level of the planning of bilateral series.
The way bilateral series are held today gives the impression of exhibition cricket, without a proper focus or objective. There are no bigger prizes to be won other than the ratings-based ODI and Test Championships, which are too loosely-structured to even qualify as championships. And herein lies the merit in the Test and ODI leagues mooted by the ICC chief executives' committee (CEC) earlier this year.
The proposal is to have a rolling Test league among the top-nine nations over a four-year period from the end of the 2019 World Cup to the start of the 2023 edition of the tournament. It will conclude with a play-off between the top two teams. Under this scheme, each country would play 12 Tests (six at home and six away) during the stipulated time, with each series consisting of at least two Tests. The ICC CEC also talks about a 13-team ODI league over a two-year period from 2020, which significantly, would be for all purposes World Cup qualifiers, much the same way as in football.
These proposals involve a distinguishable structure, and if implemented, would make international cricket inestimably more competitive and purposeful and generate considerable fan interest. This is what the former administrator Jagmohan Dalmiya had envisaged when he initiated the Asian Test Championship in 1999, the first match of which was played between the arch-rivals India and Pakistan, in an electric atmosphere, in front of 90,000 volatile fans, coincidentally at the same Eden Gardens that today comes up with a laboured response to the traditional forms of cricket. In spite of the relative success of the inaugural Asian Test Championship, it couldn't be institutionalised, which frankly, was a major opportunity to breathe life into Test cricket squandered.
Cricket Australia CEO James Sutherland made some very pertinent points on the importance of playing bilateral series as part of a championship. “What amplifies through that is third-party interest, so other countries, by extension, would have an interest in that series because it has a bearing on where others fitted on the ladder. I think that’s a real positive because there are consequences that come with winning and losing that are far greater than just the bilateral series result as it stands,” Sutherland said.
Now let's go a bit further than what the ICC-CEC had proposed, and try to think of ways to make international cricket even more meaningful and competitive. How about a 'mercy rule' in cricket, the same way that we have in American youth sports? In international baseball and the World Baseball Classic (WBC) too, games are ended when one team is ahead by 10 runs, once at least seven completed innings are played by the trailing team. In tennis, a best-of-five-sets match ends the moment one of the players wins three sets. There is no compulsion to play out the remaining sets.
Similarly in cricket, this would essentially stop a series the moment it is won by one of the competitors. What it would do is to eliminate the pain of sitting through an inert set of games, played without any significant result in mind, and have meaning only for individual players approaching milestones. So for instance, there is not much to gain for a team that has won the first three ODIs of a five-match series, by going after a whitewash, other than bragging rights.
A 5-0 scoreline is statistically a bigger margin of victory than a 3-0 result, but does it tell the story of the victor's dominance more emphatically? And if the series is not being played as part of a championship, would a bigger margin serve a greater purpose? The answers to both these questions would be a resounding 'no'. Even a 4-1 margin would not narrate a different story for that matter.
From the point of view of the vanquished too, playing extra matches is a wasted exercise. A counterpoint could be that those matches provide the team that has lost the series an opportunity to play for pride. This argument, however, seems erroneous, because what pride is to be salvaged after a losing a series? A defeat is a defeat; let's debunk the notion of an honourable defeat, unless you are an Afghanistan playing one of the elite teams, trying to make an impression.
What pride did Australia salvage in their recently-concluded series against India, by winning a solitary ODI in Bengaluru? When their captain Steve Smith came for the post-match interaction, he cut a desolate figure, having been thumped 1-4, and accepted that they were "outplayed and deserved to lose". Australia were thoroughly humiliated and their prestige punctured.
Eliminating dead rubbers would hugely accentuate the value of the ICC-CEC's proposals for Test and ODI leagues, and make them even more competitive. It would also save time, money and energy, markedly reducing the workload on the players, who are in any case caught up with non-stop cricket, all year long, both on the international and domestic circuits. The mushrooming of lucrative domestic T20 leagues all over the world means that there is no respite for the players. In such a scenario, it makes sense to dispense with inconsequential matches.
What then about the experiments, such as the one that India have been carrying out by rotating their cricketers in preparation for a showpiece event like the World Cup? Aren't dead rubbers most suitable for such experiments? Perhaps they are, but such an exercise can also be carried out in subsequent series, and tend to be most effective when conducted in a competitive setting. And regarding the argument that cutting down on matches would also mean cutting down on opportunities for experiments and match practice, let's say that it is a small price to pay to make the game more interesting. Also in any case, the top teams at least would play enough matches before a big event, even if you leave out the fixtures that only have academic value.
Another suggestion to make ODI and Test series more streamlined and competitive would be to fix the number of matches being played in a series, which at the moment is quite arbitrary and haphazard. Bigger teams tend to play a greater number of matches among themselves and fewer against the smaller sides. The number of matches in a series should always be odd, which would offer the maximum chance of a result, unless one or more matches are washed out/tied/abandoned.
Now, how many matches is a fair number in a bilateral ODI series? The ICC has capped the number to three for the purpose of working out points, which is reasonable. So the idea is do away with one-match and two-match series, which make for too small a sample size to test the relative strengths of the competing teams. There is every reason for a minimum three-match-per-series norm to be applied to Tests as well. There is no harm in a five-match series either, with the proviso of every series being played with the mercy rule in place.
There is also a case for having more tri-nation or quadrangular series than we currently do. The Titan Cup in 1996, the Coca Cola Cup in Sharjah in 1998 (famous for Sachin Tendulkar's 'Desert Storm'), the Commonwealth Bank series in 2008 and the Hero Cup in 1993, which was a five-nation tournament, were memorable multilateral series and whipped up a lot more fervour than a bilateral series could. Multi-nation series inevitably are more eye-catching and the stakes are higher, with a larger number of people interested. It is a pity, therefore, that the last tri-nation series that was held in India was way back in 2003.
Care should also be taken to plan bilateral series better. For instance, consider this: India had been involved in a full tour of Sri Lanka (three Tests, five ODIs and one T20I) only in July-September. What is the logic of having another full series with Sri Lanka as early as November-December? Also, a limited overs series (five ODIs and one T20I) against West Indies between the Champions Trophy and the Sri Lanka tour looked no more than an attempt to squeeze in a series somehow. That is meaningless scheduling.
Again, New Zealand played a Test and ODI series in India only last year and now they are returning for an ODI and T20I series in October-November. This invariably results in a team playing a few teams more than the others. A case in point: India have never hosted Bangladesh in a limited overs series and have hosted them for a Test series only once in the 17 years that Bangladesh has been a Test-playing nation, and that too for just one match. This completely defies logic.
There is a pressing need to re-calibrate international cricket as it is played today, there is a need to streamline bilateral series to keep them relevant. Too many bilateral series give the impression of 'friendlies'. There is a need to shake things up and make them more combative and a major step should be to eliminate the inconsequential matches. This is the least we can do to revive flagging interest among viewers.