In an age of instant gratification where literature survives in 140 characters (or is it 280 now?) and attention spans shrink faster than earth’s green cover, the charm of history stands out as a novelty. There is though a fine line that separates the allure of ancient and tyranny of tradition, and as in life, the problem with rulebooks lie mostly in their interpretation than their very existence.
What happened in Centurion on Sunday was a farce. It may still escape incisive international scrutiny as it was, in larger context of things, no more than a regulation One Day International (ODI) whose result was never going to be affected by the comical, if not flabbergasting call by the on-field officials, but it does pose legit questions over the strange straitjacketness that has been International Cricket Council’s (ICC) bugbear for long.
Umpires Aleem Dar and Adrian Holdstock’s bizarre decision to call for lunch with India needing just two runs with 180-odd balls and nine wickets in hand invited some harsh words from West Indian great Michael Holding, who was commentating on-air.
“They (ICC) want to make the game attractive but this was a ridiculous decision,” Holding said bluntly. When the match restarted, Holding welcomed back viewers with a cynical “if there are any” suffix as the broadcaster, almost on cue, beamed contrasting images of a jam-packed stadium before the lunch was called and near-empty ground after the play resumed.
The images, if not Holding’s comments, must be studied by the game’s governing body. By doing things in a draconian, almost Victorian manner, not only they are making it difficult to assimilate fresh entrants, but making it increasingly easier for the existing ones to throw their hands up and leave.
It also puts ICC in a strangely muddled and confused light. Here’s an organisation that has drawn guffaws from the puritans when the 50-over and 20-over formats were introduced. Fifteen-over field restrictions in the ODIs were followed by Powerplays to ensure batsmen get better rewards for risks and spectators get to see something exciting. The use of two new balls from each end in ODIs was sanctioned to facilitate more strokeplay, boundaries shrunk, bats became heavier, Supersubs entered the scene for a while, LED bails came in, cheerleaders appeared, and the game that was once played with the vacuum of typical English quaintness progressively became a slugfest for the spectators.
Not surprisingly, the money poured in, grounds became better, playing and viewing conditions improved and cricketers, especially in the sub-continent, became haloed demi-gods. The number of Test playing nations though is still a royal 12. It was 10 until last year, when Afghanistan and Ireland became Full Members and got Test status.
The ICC has done a commendable job in bringing game as close to the masses as possible; they have even played a handful of matches in the United States, considered a massive untapped market thanks to a combination of a sizeable migrant population from cricket-playing nations and cricket’s prima facie resemblance to baseball.
However, it’s the rules, or the interpretation of them, that has been ICC’s bugbear. On a trip to Europe, this author met people from Hungary, US and Austria, all of who knew about cricket, but were put off by game’s voluminous rulebook. Add to it the inexplicability of what happened in Centurion, and you have a scenario where game’s mandarins gloat about its greatness without so much as bothering to scratch the surface and feel the wafer-thin epidermis.
The ICC’s befuddlement was noticeable most recently when they introduced a fresh set of rules. Among the welcome changes of regularising bat-sizes and not ruling a batsman run-out if the bat bounces off the ground after having been grounded behind the crease, was a strange law of ‘fake fielding.’ It not only seeks to penalise the fielding team five runs, but robs the game of its deceptive street-smartness. Imagine the same rule being employed in badminton, where shuttlers survive on deception, or in football, where strikers routinely feign to go one way before changing track to trick the defender. The ICC, like always, found a way to be ridiculed despite doing a rather fine job otherwise.
Back in 1992, when the electronic scorecard at the Sydney Cricket Ground flashed the shambolic ‘South Africa Need 22 Runs Off 1 Ball To Win’ (it should actually have been 21 off 1, but that wouldn’t have mattered anyway), it led to the abandonment of ‘Most Productive Overs Method’ for the now-prevalent Duckworth-Lewis system. It was a major opportunity for the ICC to redeem itself and embrace innovation in lieu of archaism, and they cashed in, though it still took them about seven years to formalise the Duckworth-Lewis method. Centurion 2018, though not as cataclysmic, does present another opportunity for redemption. The ball, like always, is in ICC’s court.