Lure of the spotlight

Saturday, two teen friends of mine from the neighborhood came home to watch the cricket [‘Uncle, watching cricket with you is great fun’ was the opening gambit, when I opened the door to their ring — very flattering, except for the ‘uncle’ bit]. Both aspire to play cricket; one is already fairly decent skills-wise and of late, they have developed an interest in reading books on the game, and on sport in general [one of these days they will hopefully learn to return the books they borrow].

“This Puttick — how come he has never played for South Africa, if he is that good?”, asked one as the Cape Cobras captain weathered the early loss of Herschelle Gibbs and Henry Davids and, with JP Duminy for company, began turning it around.

That led to a fairly intense discussion of domestic cricket, how talent filters to the top from school and collegiate cricket on, and why not every talented player will necessarily find space on the international stage. “Must be way cool for these guys — you think they’ve ever played in a stadium this big, before a crowd this noisy?”

Possibly. Domestic cricket is hugely competitive in places like South Africa and Australia, and good matches attract a decent amount of spectators. But the youngster’s point was well taken — this is a step up from domestic cricket, a newly erected stage that could over time redefine ‘international cricket’ as meaning more than ICC-stamped encounters between nations. And clearly, the fact that they were now competing against peers from other nations was spurring teams and players on to perform out of their skin — even as we spoke, an admiring Mike Haysman in the commentary box was saying this was the best he had ever seen Putting bat.

What caught the attention of the kids was the standard of fielding, especially in the second half of the game, as the Cobras turned it on. “He must spend all his time throwing a ball at a single stump,” one remarked as Herschelle Gibbs pulled off a stunning straight hit from mid off. [While on that, the fielding by the club teams has been outstanding. Clearly, it is this high standard set at the club level that translates into the brilliance shown by the national teams; the antithesis is India, where the fielding at the domestic level is mediocre, and that in turn translates into the way our national team performs.]

That led to a discussion on by-rote practice as opposed to developing situational and positional awareness. How do you explain that concept to kids? Two examples worked. The first was a quick trip online to watch The Shot, by Roger Federer. Clearly, he had practiced hitting that shot between his legs, with his back to the opponent, time out of mind — but what made the shot was not the act of hitting a ball in that fashion; it was positional awareness at its best, with Federer ‘seeing’, even with his back turned, the possibilities on-court and the position of his opponent and thus finding the best angle to pull off the winner.

Another example was a story I’d once heard of how Pele used to practice his pinpoint accuracy. Apparently his coach would line up, at one end of the ground, a series of flags with sequential numbers on them, each flag separated from the next by the width of a ball and a half. Pele would start his run from one end of the ground; as he gained momentum, the coach would roll a ball, at varying speeds, in tangential lines to the player’s approach. As Pele got to the ball and pulled his foot back to kick, the coach would yell out a number — and the trick for the player was to then, without pause, adjust so his kick sent the ball between the designated flag and the next one.

Henry Davids helped the discussion along by putting on a show. He had already run out Brendan McCullum, and was discussing that live with Harsha Bhogle. I want the ball to come to me, Davids said — and on cue, the ball came to Davids who raced in from his position at long on, turned sideways to field, and fired in the return long, to the striker’s end to catch Neil Broom short.

“COOL!”

“Hey, do you think one day all players on the field will be wired like this, so commentators can ask them about the play live?”

Watching cricket with kids is a salutary lesson in what how the next generation sees the game, in what excites them — I wonder if the ICC, which currently is in the throes of ‘reform’, carries out such exercises to get a sense of the audience they seek to attract.

If my two friends are exemplars, it is not about national loyalties any more — what turns them on is great cricket, and it is immaterial to them what flag the team flies. [An amusing example of such shifting loyalties came later the same evening, when a spectator at the Chargers versus Somerset game held up a banner welcoming ‘Gilly bhai’ and ‘Symmo anna’].

“If you had a choice between watching India play Australia and watching this game, which would you pick?”, I asked.

“I’ll check both out, uncle — and watch whichever is more exciting.” Simple, unambiguous, immediate.

“And,” chipped in the other one, “If India is playing ODIs and there is a good T20 game on I’ll watch the T20 — more fun.”

“Except if Sehwag is batting for India — then I’ll watch him!”

There’s been considerable talk of reform, of revolution even, in recent times with various notables advancing suggestions to ‘fine tune’ the game. Increasingly, it seems to me, this talk is akin to Louis XVI and his nobles discussing what flavor of cake from the Marie Antoinette Bakery to distract the peasantry with, completely unaware that  said peasantry is busy dismantling the Bastille brick by brick.

The ‘revolution’ is already on — one of these days, the ICC will wake up and notice that their carefully constructed edifice is in ruins.

A random point my young friends brought up are also worth mentioning. “How come,” one of them asked, “the big IPL teams are getting their butts kicked by clubs we have never heard of?” [While chatting randomly on Twitter yesterday, I realized this is a fairly prevalent question, and comes with its set of conspiracy theories on the lines of ‘The franchises are guaranteed payment, so there is no incentive for them to exert themselves].

I suspect the answer is considerably simpler. Drawing up a list of 11 ‘stars’ does not make a team. The club teams are composed of players who have been playing together, have a sense of each other’s game and a trust in their mates built through constant association. The franchises, on the other hand, are made up of players who got together just the other day, and have not as yet begun to gel as a unit. For the IPL, most of these teams got together at least a fortnight before the event to train together; not so for the Champions League — and the resultant lack of cohesion is showing in the on-field performance. I suspect the franchises — or at least, the ones that survive the preliminary round — will start to come into their own from the next stage on.

Aside: Did you notice the rain midway through the Somerset chase, Saturday? Here’s the question: How come the umpires didn’t immediately wave the players off the field, but permitted play to continue? Or, to flip that question on its head, how come the same umpires, standing in ICC-sanctioned tournaments, call off play at the first hint of rain on the grounds of ‘danger to the players’, and then waste our time with endless inspections? How come there is, within the game, such variance in the interpretation of what constitutes ‘suitable’ playing conditions?

Somerset continued its chase, got distracted by the D/L rules, stumbled, picked itself up and played on to a dramatic win — and those of us watching enjoyed every minute of it. To paraphrase a famous cricket quote for the benefit of the game’s mandarins, we come to watch cricketers play, not umpires ‘inspect the ground at 12’.

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9 thoughts on “Lure of the spotlight

  1. Great post. Thanks – quite insightful.
    I follow anything and everything cricket and being away from home I guess I’m unable to see where the winds are headed now a days. May the ICC has the same issue? – they just don’t know what is happening in THE country.

  2. Prem – I have actually gone the other way. Because i think that there is too much ODI & T20 cricket, i have no interest in them. The last series that i watched with any interest was the Ashes Series and the Test Series in NZ.

    I am not against ODI or T20. I do like these formats but i think there is too much of it these days and hence the fatigue.

    My ideal yearly Cricket calendar would look like this: 12 Test Matches, 2/3 ODI series featuring at least 4 teams (ban all ODI series involving 2 or 3 teams!), 3 – 4 T20 series with 3 or 5 games, IPL and CLT20 Tournament. That’s 150 days of cricket and it greatly reduces the ODI exposure rather than eat into Test cricket.

  3. The only problem is that ICC is just a bunch of folks who are old enough to be YOUR uncle, Prem, and they don’t give a shit about the young spectators.

    • Yes well — they’ll need to learn, if they don’t want the young audience to s**t on them. 🙂 These kids I was with are something else — they follow sport with a passion, and football is drawing them away from cricket though both love playing cricket. Reason, they said, is cricket is too “boring” these days. “IPL and CL are enough for us, uncle”, one said with no ambiguity at all.

      • My school classmate who used to play First division at Madras (you will know that it is high up there), nowadays watches football games on TV, actively discusses it on twitter and facebook with his circle. Watches very little of cricket these days.

        A couple of young cousins of mine actually chided me for *still* watching cricket – they have all moved on to football. They have favourite clubs and players, leagues, etc.

        If you want to bring back those folks to watch cricket, IPL/CL is the only way to go.

  4. As you said Prem, the IPL sides should start to turn it on now. The match yesterday saw the Delhi Daredevils finally play to their potential. It helped that they finally learnt from their mistakes and picked Mcgrath.

    Today’s match between the Challengers and Otago will be a sort of litmus test to your line of thinking. Let us see if the Challengers finally get into the “spirit” of things (Pathetic pun, had to get it out of my system). Though they will be facing their boogeyman of IPL1 today which will make it really interesting.

  5. This post reminds me of an interview Md. Yusuf gave where he told how Bob Woolmer made him practice to play the shot as late as possible. Bob will throw him balls with random colors from close-in and Yusuf had to hit the balls but before hitting them tell the right color of the ball. Although, this is more of a shot awareness for the batsmen than the field awareness 🙂

  6. I actually liked watching the CLT20 games – I watched a couple of games and both were good enough. One was the Puttick century. Actually started watching to catch JP in action but ended up feeling how come this Puttick guy is not in the SA team? Maybe, this is a one off. But I am willing to bet that he will come good consistently too.

    Second was the Delhi game yesterday. Loved every minute of the game – Sehwag was brilliant. Good to see Karthik coming up with a good knock as well.

    My take – T20 is the future. I do not have the patience to watch ODI games. And on T20, I am more interested in these club matches than in two nations playing T20 games. Somehow that does not seem to be as interesting.

    Lalit Modi is sitting on a gold mine!!

    • More accurately, Modi hijacked a gold mine the ECB had been sitting on and didn’t have the tools, or brains, to develop. 🙂

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