In academia, (I chose this for the reason that it was my previous stomping ground in my previous avatar as a grad student) there is nothing more pervasive than the influence of an old boys club. By this, I don’t mean to suggest that other fields are certainly immune to it. One glance at the supplementary information of a newspaper (my previous occupational hazard creeping into my post-academic afterlife- supplementary information is an additional section appended at the end of a technical paper which provides additional details), talk shows and news rags would yield how inward looking the film fraternity/ Bollywood society/ cult is to an outsider. The primary underlying subtext in all examples is that everyone seems to know everyone from a very long time and this is a necessity in order to be first in line when the opportunity comes knocking. I understand it is foolish to expect everyone to have an ascetic’s solitary existence whilst in the pursuit of excellence in a chosen field, especially in today’s connected world. But an old boys’ network marries exclusivity with collective narcissism like a trigger happy marriage officiant at Las Vegas. Be a part of the network, a whole new world of opportunity, perks and privileges open out to you; be apart from the network, spend eons in wondering what it would take to get a seat at the table- leave alone dine at it. One needs to be a part of the network to get any chance is a vicious circle/ self- fulfilling prophecy in itself.
I often wonder if initiation to every sport involves the same amount of difficulty. Since I’m fond of comparing cricket with football, with my own personal experience I can say that I’ve found that people get initiated into the game of football far more easily compared to cricket. The entry barrier is far lower. I don’t mean to belittle the game of football by calling it less complex- the gameplay, a resounding yes; the offside law, not so much. In addition to the lower entry barrier, almost everyone is guaranteed a touch or activity close to their zone once in a while (even in the presence of ball hungry teammates) due to the fluid nature of the game. On the other hand, in cricket, one usually proceeds to field for an inordinate length of time before one can contribute with the bat or ball in a manner of any significance (in terms of representation for a team especially when you don’t have a reputation for being a good player to start off with), even in an amateur game of cricket (of course, the dynamics are quite different when one owns the cricketing equipment being used in the game). Even the skill set needed to keep the game ticking is largely based on individual skill, thus hampering the entry contributions of a greenhorn. In short, the game of cricket is far less welcoming to a newcomer compared to football.
If international cricket has taught us anything about this, it is that this behaviour of exclusivity has manifested itself in many ways, effectively stymieing the entry of a new country into elite level sport- may it be granting test status or by proposing to cull the associates for the next world cup. Take for instance the first trophy of preeminence in the game of cricket- The Ashes (The world cup was almost an afterthought). It is so inward looking that no other country apart from these 2 from the first world could compete for it. It is another matter that the edge has been taken off recently due to a lot of non- contests and the emergence of the other countries. The Ashes, in a way, is a relic from the time of zenith of the English empire- where it had to fight itself for supremacy- and was the greatest contest at the time. Other countries faced the condescending ignominy of a patronizing MCC side and some times, even faced off against a second string English team (that until recently Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s pedigree was always questioned at the highest level based on his performances against English teams is a fine example of this attitude. Very often, sport serves as a proxy for other events- matches & rivalries are often coloured with a social hue- this is best illustrated in the Hand of God and in a famous Tour de France rivalry). The celebrated English cricketers would not travel if a guaranteed purse was not given. Even today, the English and the Aussies do not travel to other countries during their home season. The Boxing day test at Melbourne, the New year test at Sydney and the traditional international set of summer home fixtures at various English grounds are sacrosanct and non- negotiable. Why, only recently has India been thinking of a home season in spite of all its might. In these times where the original form of cricket faces an existential crisis, the test club has swelled; albeit, in the manner of an endangered panda colony. It was only recently that England and India played the first 5 test series since the time of Aesop’s fables, a feat accorded only to the West Indies in their pomp and Australia for guess what? The Ashes (There were six test series too!). It is a problem when the highest form of the game is played only by 10 nations. That too, in a non- standardized competition format rife with recent whitewashes in home tests. Is there any meaning or relevance to ranking hierarchy with such lopsided statistics? The world events have also been similarly condescending. An odd event (World T20 series) once in 2 years does not satiate the hunger of someone yearning to be a part of the system. If cricket has to survive and thrive, it needs to have the expansionist but inclusivistic mindset, unlike the spiritual forebearer of the game- the English empire.
An inquiry into how deep this malaise runs has to be through a thorough examination of the origins of organized sport. Post the industrial revolution, due to the increased standards of living, patrons and time of leisure, industrial Britain was one of the places (along with America) where a large number of sports were invented and organized. All organized sports have amateur beginnings since they require consensus building on how to spend leisurely time and engage it in sports via rules involving competition and cooperation. How could the word amateur, once associated with noble beginnings, come to be denoted with something slipshod and second rate? It wasn’t always like this. The etymology of the word lies in the Latin amare, which means “to love”. It was more respectable to be an amateur a century ago- you could take part in the greatest sporting events like the Olympics, tennis grand slams and other sport where professionals were banned. That you did not have any monetary gain from partaking in a sport was a sign of pride and a badge of honour & commitment. Since the gentry did not have to worry about financial obligations, it was no surprise that the first participants of the sport were from the upper social class. In fact, the amateurs resisted the entry of the professionals into organized sport and looked down upon the people who played the sport with the intention of making a living from it. One cannot be faulted at mistaking the virtues of a Corinthian from the spirit of cricket today. This holier than thou feeling is not limited to cricket alone. The “Back in our day” appeal to nostalgia is an oft used tool to celebrate salad days with insane levels of passion and commitment to a cause in scientific research and art (theatre, music etc.) as well, often with great personal sacrifice and above financial reward & sustenance. Accepting a job offer/ getting into commercial cinema is something akin to blasphemy or selling one’s soul.
What is the antithesis of this? It has to be the professional- the other side of the coin. Once used derisively to describe someone who does a job due to compulsion rather than by choice, today, the word is used to describe something that is of a high standard or someone who is an expert with specialized education/ training. Ever wonder why the salary at a job is termed as compensation? In today’s world where football players move not for the love of the club, where countless of Indians indulge in an arms race to get software engineering degrees, come up with outrageous stories for a management education/ grad school interviews and then proceed to get a high paying job, being a professional comes with its own occupational hazards. The world of sport, science and art need not snigger at the professional. That they are not required today is so far removed from the truth. In any field, there is a necessity of a critical mass of professionals to keep the timely churning of content and disseminate it to its audience in order to complete the circle. If a field is filled with only amateurs, the ones that are a slave to the prevailing economy are bound to be washed away without institutional support. A random lucky or endowed patron might survive the odds but far more is lost due to loss of a support structure. The word “professional” should not be treated like a profanity in today’s times. If the success story of Andre Agassi has taught us anything, it is that there is hope for someone to be world class even if you do not enjoy the sport during your upbringing. Let us not forget that the professional improves due to the continuous chafing and rigour of the system- wherein lies his /her biggest asset.
Today, the cricket establishment finds itself at odds with two opposing forces- one, expanding the game; two, keeping the game competitive. Establishment usually reacts swiftly when its own existence is in doubt- cue in Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, the birth of T20 and BCCI banning the ICL. The rest of the time, machinations work in a way to maintain status quo. In these times when the future trajectory of cricket is under the microscope, there is no dearth of opinions. Different ways to improve test matches have been discussed, some which include some radical measures and the other by Ian Chappell to restrict the highest form of the game to a select few. Due to the inspiring and heartening performances of the “lesser” nations at the world cup, some voices in the game have had a change of heart. Tendulkar, Ed Smith and Martin Crowe have batted for a longer world cup with the associates. Whereas Aakash Chopra prefers a 10 team tournament with 5 spots open for qualifiers, something that Sambit Bal prefers in a slightly different flavor. Predictably, Dhoni wants the associates to get a chance but would not put his hand up to face them for a game outside the mandatory ICC schedules. Ian Chappell wants to discuss the “Quo Vadis?” question about the World cup in a summit. An academic exercise, one would say. With so many viewpoints, the only way to answer this question is to go back to an earlier part of this article where the initiation to a game was discussed. The quality of test cricket mandates that on an average, about half the side needs to have a good game in order to win a match (which is why the number of upsets are much lesser compared to the shorter forms of the game). For the smaller formats, a smaller number such as 4 or even 2 are good enough to win the game. It must be noted that these numbers are only a thumb rule and should not be taken at face value. But the point remains that in terms of difficulty for a newcomer, T20 is the easiest for initiation into the game. It does not help its cause that most T20 games are pooh poohed, rather snobbishly, as games involving poor technique (I would be hard pressed to find anyone who disagrees with Yuvraj Singh’s knock in the 2007 WT20 semis not being a classic). It is essential due to its shorter timeframe and a greater propensity of an upset that T20 be used to draw newer audiences into the game. What will help this push greatly and give it the audience it needs is its induction as an Olympic Sport as well as at the pan- continental games in both the men’s and women’s categories. We could use an U23 plus 3 over-23 roster like football at the Olympics. With the prospect of winning a set of medals, a whole set of nations would participate in the game like never before. Unfortunately, the powers at the helm seem to think otherwise due to financial implications with existing world events and this could make it an impediment to cricket being a truly global game in terms of pan-national representation. In order to truly make the cricket world cups a successful contemporary global event, it needs to be expanded to more nations with a target timeframe of a maximum of 5 weeks to retain freshness (for the ODI format, 3 for the T20). This would imply that more than one game be played on a daily basis and this would spell the end of mutually exclusive TV programming.
How do we solve the quagmire that the game is in today? The only way to make the game more meritorious and non- traditional (I don’t use the word tradition lightly here since it is the famous facet of the old boys club, along with a sense of entitlement) is to professionalize the game and make it coexist with international cricket in all 3 formats. My terming of professionalism is a misnomer here considering that amateur sport has been buried since the 60s. It has to move the football way where the bread and butter form of the game is the club form of it (It does not help matters that the status of lowest common denominator is bestowed to the term “club” cricket. Perhaps the marketing gurus can reinvent the terminology). Earlier, the football World cup was the place to see where the game had progressed. But today, the evolution of the game can be observed in half a season in the UEFA Champions league, which some people consider it to be the best football played on the planet. Cricket should look to get to a point where commercially run enterprise, coexisting alongside international cricket, resembles the cauldron that is European football. It is due to a club based model that Belgian and African football teams have been able to emerge from the backwaters by a bunch of players (via transfer windows) getting educated at the finishing schools across European club leagues and in turn improving national teams in an iterative manner. This way, a player from the associate teams can showcase his/ her talent at the biggest stage and does not have to hope for a good set of teammates and the benevolence of the powers that be for participation in order to inspire his/ her countrymen. Just imagine the players showcasing their wares if the 7 Indian player rule did not exist in the IPL (and we could have forgotten about Piyush Chawla). It also does not bode well for the biggest trophy in the cricketing world to be decided on the basis of 3 good days- the knockout games. The league system is a more consistent churner of the cream to the top and this is something that the game of cricket should embrace and will go a long way in solving the international cricketing puzzle which should be built around the world cup cycle. A professional setup will have a lower entry barrier for newcomers (for a player to be competitive as compared to an entire team in a nation based setup), better financial incentive for someone to take the sport and pursue it to a high level irrespective of his/ her background. That, along with an article on the advantages of club- run sport, is a topic for discussion for another day.
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