Sunday 18 February 2018

Cricket: Struggling to put positive spin on subcontinent's indifference

Dion Fanning

On Thursday morning, I had two conversations in North London shops. One with a butcher, who happened to be Irish, was about death and loss. The other with a dry cleaner, who happened to be Indian, was on more or less the same subject – the decline of Indian Test cricket and the fall of Sachin Tendulkar.

"In Indian politics and cricket, it's always the same. There are people who are controlling the game and other people are scared to take a stand," a former selector Mohinder Amarnath said recently. He went on to claim that the president of the Indian Cricket Board, the BCCI, N Srinivasan had blocked an attempt by the selectors to sack captain MS Dhoni. This was denied.

Like all benighted peoples, Indians feel powerless over the great forces that govern their lives. When it comes to the Indian cricket team, many see it as a familiar story of a team distorted by the forces of commerce, in this case the IPL.

The desire for riches in the Twenty20 game has become more important than winning Test matches. This feeling will be reflected in the attendances. There was a time when 80,000 people would show up for every day of a Test match. Now those crowds will only turn up for the short form of the game.

As a result, players have lost the discipline to commit to Test batting.

Twenty-four hours after our conversation, Tendulkar failed to make an impression again when Jimmy Anderson knocked out his middle stump and the great Sachin was out for two.

He is a man who has been worshipped by everyone in India, a deity who also appeals to their burgeoning sense of commerce. Tendulkar is a man who has endorsed both Pepsi and Coca-Cola in his time.

But that time is ending. Tendulkar's decline is a reminder that there is another India being created and the time is coming when they can do without him.

It is a series in which England have been irresistible, but the story of India's dismantling is equally fascinating.

India dominates the financial world of cricket, a position which has also undermined it. So convinced are the Indian cricket authorities of the inevitability of their rise that they have sacrificed much, including the direction of their Test side, in the belief that the world will be theirs.

Sky refused to send a commentary team to the series after the BCCI demanded another half a million dollars for the right to broadcast from within the stadiums, while no British paper has used pictures from the matches in protest at the BCCI attempt to control images from the grounds.

More importantly, there has been no DRS, the wicket review system which has revolutionised cricket. There are many reasons given for this but the fact that Sachin Tendulkar believes it is unreliable may have been influential. It is certainly the batsman's enemy.

There was a time when Tendulkar would smote all enemies without the need for bureaucratic assistance but that time is gone. He scored 13, 8 and 8 in his first three innings which led to the mutinous suggestion that it was time for his career to end.

At that point, he showed that he can offer resistance too, making 76. But India needed more and Tendulkar has been unable to provide it.

The series has, in fact, been the story of Alastair Cook. Watching Cook bat in a series in England can induce all sorts of feelings, many of which involve doing whatever is necessary to escape the utterly essential tedium of watching him bat for any length of time.

Yet place Cook in India and he immediately becomes heroic. England's cricket experience on the sub-continent is a story of suffering, a story summed up by Matthew Engel's line that the English winter is "that time of year where somebody, somewhere on the subcontinent is hitting Vic Marks for six".

England have revolted against that history this time with Kevin Pietersen contributing magnificently too. Pietersen has demonstrated that being a disruptive influence in the dressing room can be overcome in any team sport by actually helping a team to win. Any other idea is suburban thinking of the most hollow kind.

Yet four months ago, it was said that there was nobody in the England dressing room who respected Pietersen. All this proves is that being guided by the dressing room isn't always the best thing. Cook is wiser than that.

India must now make choices. Dhoni, Tendulkar and others might go. On Christmas Day, they begin a brief series of Twenty20 and one-day games. It will be hard for even the severest critics of the form to claim the matches are trivial. The visitors to India are Pakistan. They will be dealing with the most profound of themes.

* * * * *

When English football looks for tutors to deliver cultural lessons as part of its anti-racism strategy, Luis Suarez is, for obvious reasons, not a name that will be considered.

However, he can perform a vital role in education. Last week was blighted by the sight of players refusing to celebrate goals against their former clubs. Joe Cole, you might think, would feel that being paid one hundred thousand pounds a week by Liverpool for a return of 15 league appearances and three league goals would override any loyalty to West Ham.

It says much about the plagued recent history of Liverpool that even when they avoid signing a dud as they avoided signing Marouane Chamakh, they can't get out alive. The only way it would be a bad thing not to sign Marouane Chamakh would be if you signed Joe Cole on one hundred grand a week instead.

When Cole scored last weekend, he could have shown a little happiness. Perhaps, given his great wealth, he could have even rolled out a routine choreographed by Busby Berkeley with a troupe of dancing girls to underline how much it meant. Instead, out of respect to West Ham, he did nothing.

Cole showed plenty of respect to West Ham and had a fine career with them. No more was needed.

So when the cultural lessons come around and a player wonders about this phenomenon of "muted celebrations" and the etiquette of celebrating against a former club, they should be told to ask one question and one question only: What would Luis Suarez do?

Sunday Indo Sport

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