Monday, March 01, 2010

'Cricket needs leadership from India'

Sachin's ODI double

Like millions of others, I have been a Sachin Tendulkar fan for many years now. And while the real excitement was watching him emerge as the best player in the world, it has also been wonderful witnessing his endurance. There have been quite a few good judges who have tried to persuade Tendulkar to retire, but I am not one of those. The Indian cricket lovers simply can't get enough of him, and let's face it, he will be retired for a long time. His double-hundred against South Africa was another milestone in the career of a man who has been a great example to cricketers young and old. Despite making more runs than anyone else in cricket, Tendulkar remains true to the spirit of cricket - though he has to live a life that is very different from that of many of his team-mates.

He is so loved. He is mobbed wherever he goes in India, and many other cricket-loving countries. He and his family have to take holidays in remote places to experience things most of us take for granted - like shopping or going for a drive. Even a family meal at a restaurant is just not on. He has handled all this adoration with the same calm control he possesses when he has a bat in his hand. I don't think there can ever be another Don Bradman, but if there is, Sachin Tendulkar would be the man.

Brett Lee's retirement from Test cricket

Brett Lee's retirement from Test cricket shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. He has been through a tough time with injuries, and is now at an age when he needs to manage what he has left in his fast-bowling tank. This likeable fast bowler has also had to manage a recent marriage break-up, and [the retirement] goes with being a good dad to his young son Preston.

As much as Lee loves Test cricket, he, like many of his team-mates, is faced with a tougher decision than those who have gone before. The international calendar has changed dramatically with the advent of the lucrative Twenty20 tournaments around the world. It is no longer imperative to have a board contract to make a living and this is resulting in those close to retirement, and fast bowlers in particular, reassessing their plans. Brett Lee has decided that if he gives Test cricket away, he has a chance of making an impact in ODIs and Twenty20.

He retires as Australia's fourth-highest Test wicket-taker - he took 310 wickets in 76 Tests. His contribution while playing in the world's best cricket team for over a decade will give him immense satisfaction. While Australia don't have a super-fast replacement for Lee, there is no doubt that the very healthy first-class competition will continue to produce hardworking and effective replacements, like Mitchell Johnson, Doug Bollinger, Ben Hilfenhaus and Peter Siddle. The cupboard is certainly not bare. Brett Lee has brought to Australian cricket the excitement that goes with watching a seriously fast bowler. He falls into the same category as Shoaib Akhtar and Dale Steyn - super fast and aggressive. His Test career may be over but expect to see him bowling and hitting out in the limited-over formats.

Are fast bowlers a dying breed?

There are some experts who are worried that fast bowlers are a dying breed. They argue that too much cricket and not enough recovery time is killing them off and that the balance has shifted in favour of batsmen over the years. There is no doubt that this is partially true. The advent of the helmet has certainly reduced the test of courage and bats are far better than they were. It is up to those of us who know the game to come up with answers that address the problems that unsettle the balance between bat and ball. Fast bowlers flourish on fast, bouncy pitches, so all we have to do is see to it that pitches around the world are, in the main, hard and not devoid of surface grass. This past season in Australia groundsmen were instructed to prepare normal pitches but to leave more surface grass on the pitches. The pitches were wonderful, and we saw plenty of good cricket. Flat pitches, like many in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the West Indies, allow batsmen to dominate and the result is often boring. Again, we are in the hands of the administrators of the game. If they don't take action nothing will change.

Premature retirements

It amazes me that cricket lovers and some administrators are surprised that cricketers are announcing their retirement from Test cricket in order to prolong their ODI and Twenty20 careers. Let's try to get all this into perspective. Since World Series Cricket back in the late seventies, the financial position of cricketers has continued to improve. As a result top players are playing well into their thirties, and in some cases forties, to take full advantage of the wealth on offer. As they find it more difficult to handle the hectic programme, something has to give, so it's natural that the toughest and most time-consuming format of the game, Test cricket, is the victim. Giving away Tests gives top players more recovery time, while also allowing them to play in all the limited-overs internationals. It also gives them a better opportunity to play in the IPL and to cherry pick the other Twenty20 domestic competitions around the world, in an effort to ensure they have a team to play for in the lucrative Champions League. It's all about money, and the IPL is the biggest money spinner.

Let's face it, cricket administrators don't know how to handle the new cricket landscape. India have already managed to wrestle from the world game a window of two months in which to play the IPL, but more importantly they have set up a franchise system which is able to offer overseas players financial incentives to play. The whole model is based on television revenue, and every cricket nation is now faced with the prospect of losing their best players to India's IPL for no financial return whatever. It's only a question of time before all this will come to a head, and when it does India will be asked to make concessions, but it may well be too late. Ultimately the players will decide what is best. Do they want to continue to be contracted to their respective boards, and in so doing do as they say or will they choose the freelance option? Some will stay and others will go as they are now, but there can be no doubt that the game as we know it will change unless the all powerful Indian board decides or is forced to adopt a different approach.

The IPL and security issues

The security for foreign players during the IPL has again become a talking point, and there are many players who are apprehensive about taking part in this year's tournament. Regrettably, we live in an age where no government or cricket board is in a position to give meaningful guarantees to players. They do, however, have to listen to the concerns of the players and do their best to implement their requirements. The attack on the Sri Lankan players in Lahore has ensured that it is no longer acceptable to put in place minimal security arrangements. Hotel and ground security has to be top-class and appropriate convoy procedures have to be in place when teams are moved between airports, hotels and grounds. Another player-related incident in India, Pakistan or Sri Lanka will have a shattering effect on cricket in the region.

It's far too easy to accept that the security threat is a modern reality. As far as I am concerned it's an individual thing and I can see a time when cricket authorities the world over will be left with no option other than to allow players to make their own decisions without there being any repercussions. We could even see a situation arise where players who agree to go to places that are dangerous will receive more of a financial incentive for doing so. If, for example, Pakistan wanted to play a World XI in Pakistan in an effort to get some decent home games, they would, I am sure, succeed in putting a team together but it would be expensive. It's also worth noting that the more the cricketers rely on the IPL for a living, the more likely it is that these players will go to India regardless of the threat.

Saving Test cricket in India

Recently Rahul Dravid bought into the cricket-calendar debate and what he had to say was interesting and will raise a few hackles in India. Dravid wants India to adopt a similar approach to their scheduling to that of Australia, South Africa and England. He actually went a step further and suggested that India should use their clout to lead the debate. Great idea, but I am not going to hold my breath because it seems to me that while India holds the financial trumps they will continue to adopt a divide-and-separate philosophy. There are so many issues that need to be resolved before cricket settles down to a period of peace and prosperity. For this to happen the game needs leadership, which has to come from India or it will simply not happen. A rolling programme has to be devised which takes into consideration the requirements of everyone in the cricket family. Such changes don't usually come about until a disaster occurs. It's rather like an alcoholic - there is usually the downhill slide, and then comes the call for help, and the recognition that there is a problem; thereafter it's usually plain sailing.

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