Finis!

What this series has desperately cried out for is a boxing writer, someone from the glory days of the sport – a Liebling, a Mailer, a Plimpton, a Joyce Carol Oates, someone who can wring compelling narrative out of the blood and sweat and triumph and tears when two evenly-matched champions batter each other to a standstill.

The narrative followed the pattern of a classic heavyweight bout – the cocky champion who waltzes around the ring at the start, anticipating the easy knockout and walking all unsuspecting into the well-prepared challenger’s sucker punch (Pune); the counter-punching offensive in the next game that puts his opponent down on the canvas (Bangalore).

And then the rounds of boxing, testing each other’s techniques, their science, their skill, their legs and hearts, landing blows, drawing blood, hammering each other to a standstill (Ranchi), all of that setting up a final round of phenomenal drama, each knocking down the other, each bouncing off the canvas in their turn and fighting back till those dying moments, that final flurry of punches long after human endurance has been stretched beyond limits, when the legs weaken, the muscles of thigh and calf flutter with effort, the lungs collapse and finally, even the biggest of hearts gives out…

It’s the sort of narrative cricket writers are rarely called on to write – a Test series that swings one way then another, predictable only in its unpredictability is, unlike the epic battles between the likes of Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman, a rarity. Gideon Haigh produced one such narrative, on the iconic Ashes series of 2005 – but that is Gideon, among the best sportswriters of our times, writing at concert pitch on a fairytale series, and a lasting regret for me will be that Haigh wasn’t the designated writer for the India-Australia series just completed.

THE last day’s play was a formality – or more accurately, was reduced to a formality when in the second over Steve Smith tossed the ball to Steve O’Keefe. Indian captains do this almost by default – when they have a game to try and win from a seemingly hopeless position, they turn to their spinners, as if it was prescribed in the Vedas or something.

Smith had been stood at slip watching Josh Hazlewood, in the first over of the day, produce deliveries that swung both ways at pace, putting all forms of dismissal – the inside and outside edges, the front and back pads, the stumps – in play. He had a rested Pat Cummins ready to produce one final lung-bursting effort, to push the Indians, to take the fight to the dying minutes of the final round – and he chose to toss the ball to the left-arm spinner O’Keefe. “Brain fade” has, thanks to Smith himself, entered the cricketing glossary, and at the risk of overuse, it applies here.

In the spinner’s second over, KL Rahul smacked him on the off with an immaculate square drive and then produced a perfectly executed sweep, for fours on either side of the wicket. That was pretty much that – the only question at the start of the day was whether Australia would at the fag end of a series where they showed the intent to fight for every inch bring the sort of pressure on India that Bhuvi Kumar and Umesh Yadav produced at the start of the Australian second innings. Once the Indians got away — there were seven runs in O’Keefe’s first over, and nine in the second — that was pretty much that; from that point on, India walked the pooch home with considerable ease.

In one last postscript to an enthralling series, Cummins came on to bowl after those two O’Keefe overs and produced high drama. His very first ball was a sharp bouncer, angling from outside off to leg, lifting at top pace into the batsman. KL Rahul Murali Vijay (Thanks Jithendra for the correction) slipped inside the line and looked to glide to fine leg; the ball lightly flicked the glove on the way through to Wade but barring a muted yelp from the keeper, no one appealed, at a time when you expected the Australians to have gone up for everything, to show that edge, that desperate desire.

In that one fiery spell, Cummins took Murali Vijay out in a classic quick bowler’s dismissal — ball perfectly in that channel between third and fourth stumps, the sort of delivery that, no matter how many times you have seen it and even succumbed to it, draws you forward for the nick off.

He kept the pressure up, Cheteshwar Pujara tried what batsmen of his class usually do – get the single, get to the other end, settle in. His push into the covers and his call was fair enough; Glenn Maxwell had his head in the game, attacked the ball, ran around it, and the sight of that fielder swooping in caused the hesitation, the throw matched the fielding effort and Pujara was run out by half the length of the pitch. Both wickets fell in that one over, and left you wondering what could have been possible.

India on balance would have nailed the win, but the point of competition is to not make things easy. (With the ask in the teens, David Warner was seen racing from backward square leg, chasing a glance off the pads all the way to the boundary and putting in the dive).

Those dismissals had the unlooked-for result of setting up the sort of contest between a fired up quick bowler a counter-attacking batsman on a pitch with pace and bounce – arguably the best sight in Test cricket.

In a 15-minute passage of play, Cummins and Rahane put on an exhibition.

Sixteenth over of the innings, Cummins steaming in, bowling full length in the channel with shape in the air and Rahane gliding onto the front foot, driving immaculately back down the track to the mid off boundary – game on. The next ball was the predictable response from a fast bowler who has been driven back down – the searing bouncer, and Rahane whiplashed into the hook, a shot rarely seen from Indian batsmen, and played to perfection. Those two shots, and another Rahane boundary in Cummins next over, fired both players up.

Cummins got three on the leg side for the hook and the pull. He came around the wicket – the unapologetically headhunting angle. He bounced, Rahane – a rarity in this Indian line-up, muted and low profile even in his aggressions – hooked with ferocious intent and power, this time hitting the fast bowler slanting into him over midwicket, the shot played off his helmet, among the hardest acts in cricket.

Then came the coup de grace: even before Cummins was into his delivery stride, Rahane backed to leg to free up space on his off, waited for the bouncer, got under it, went up on his toes to make the shot and crashed it flat and hard over cover for another six, a shot so stunning in both conception and execution that it will likely gain meme status on social media.

Steve Smith, Rahane’s IPL captain, stood at slip, hands on head, watching the ball, and the game, sail over the boundary and into the crowd.

If Rahane provided the drama, Rahul personified calm common-sense. Batting with a flowing elegance that is all his own, authoritative in his strokes and tight in his defence, Rahul ended the game and the series with his seventh fifty of this series.

Australia had stayed competitive, more often than not running in front of the game, for almost the entirety of the series. But they ran out of gas on the third day and paid for it on the fourth.

Which, when think of it, pretty much defines Test cricket between evenly matched teams — in the final analysis, it all comes down to nerve. To who holds it, and who loses it.

India, to draw analogy from another sport, replicated the template of the marathon runner. For most of this series it sat parked just behind the shoulder of the pace-setter, waited for its moment, and produced that kick in the legs that marks the real champion runner to take over the lead and, in doing that, cut both legs and heart out from the opponent.

A song of fire and ice

THE following happened in the space of 11 deliveries:

A fast bowler produced a searing delivery from around the wicket in the channel around off, seaming away late while climbing. It was good enough to beat attempted aggression by a well-set batsman playing his preferred area square on the off, to find the thick edge and fly to slip, where a regulation catch was shelled by probably the worst fielder in the side. (The fact that he was standing there testifies to this — captain Rahane wanted fleeter feet in front, and despite having caught like a dream at slip all series, opted to pull out of slip and post himself at mid on).

A little later the batsman takes that same line at that same pace backed by a field set exactly for that shot, and nails a square drive that drills a hole through the point region to the fence. To the same length and very nearly the same line, the batsman then pulls fiercely, taking the ball from outside off and despite pace around the 140k mark, hitting across the line and defeating the best opposition fielder at mid-on. The batsman wants either a one or a three to retain strike; it ends up as a two as the fielder recovers quickly.

At the other end, the man who had just dropped the catch gets a ball in perfect line, just close enough to the stumps to compel the batsman to play, the ball bouncing off the deck, turning sharp and late and finding the edge. The fielder at second slip gets down low quickly, gets his fingertips around the ball, holds, appeals, gets the decision, and races into the pavilion because he has to come out shortly and bat.

The decision meanwhile is reviewed and it turns out the ball kissed the turf just the tiniest bit. The player who pulled off the catch (Vijay) has to come dashing back out from the pavilion and onto the field of play. The bowler and fielders are upset; an umpire actually gives one fielder a sympathetic pat on the back in passing.

And one ball later, the bowler makes one go through straight to defeat a batsman on the lookout for turn, hits the pad, gets the LBW, triggers another review, and this time gets the ruling in his favor.

Eleven deliveries from start to finish showcasing good quick bowling (Umesh Yadav), fierce batting (Wade), desperate striving to keep control of the game in his hands (Wade again), intelligent spin bowling that gets a batsman almost out with one kind of delivery, then uses it as set up and takes the same man out with the other type (Ashwin). And sandwiched somewhere in there, both bad catching and good.

That was how the Australian second innings ended, and that in microcosm is how this entire Test series and particularly this final Test has been: dramatic, packed with incident, its plot points coming so thick and fast that it becomes impossible to chronicle, or even catalog, them all.

THE events of the previous day’s play had me musing on the irresistible force/immovable object paradox, which the Chinese began pondering as early as the third century before Christ.

Neither they nor anyone else has solved that one yet – but if and when they do, they can get started on the Dharamshala Corollary: to wit, what happens when the two opposing forces change roles, now irresistible, now indomitable, so often that it becomes impossible to tell the other from which?

When play began this morning, Australia was in control. 52 runs ahead in a game where every run has to be excavated at the cost of blood and sweat with just four wickets left to take. An hour into play, India had assumed control – the deficit wiped out, the wickets still intact, the batsmen in the middle batting with increasing nonchalance and near-immaculate control.

In the very next hour, Australia takes back control, blasting out the remaining wickets, allowing just 28 more runs to be added to the 4-run lead. At the end of hour three, India – are you managing to keep track of all this? — are right back in control, having taken three wickets in the space of 11 overs, with the opposition a mere five runs ahead of the game…

Test cricket is about momentum, control, shifting from side to side. But almost invariably, these swings of fortune happen over time and are the result of the slow action-reaction sequences triggered by opposing strategies and tactics.

What has distinguished this India-Australia series is not that fortunes have swung end to end– when two closely matched teams take each other on, you expect that to be the norm. What makes this really special is the pace at which such swings have happened – look away for half an hour, any day of this series, and more likely than not the two teams have changed the narrative on you and taken the storyline in totally unpredictable directions.

While memory is fresh on both sides, someone needs to chronicle it, capture the many events as they ramified, and preserve all in a book. And some day maybe a decade from now, someone born in the age of Twitter and weaned entirely on the compressed versions of cricket will read it and dismiss it all as wild exaggeration.

PostScript: My post-play report is here. And below, please find a couple of thought bubbles, spinoffs from an enthralling day of Test cricket at its very finest:

#1: Ravindra Jadeja gets a bad rap on social media, where he has been ironically knighted. It’s taken a while, but Jadeja is now the one laughing last, loudest, longest.

Even by the standards of a home season that has seen him match, at least statistically, the batting numbers of his presumed betters such as Pujara, Kohli, Rahane, Vijay and Rahul and equally, match and then overhaul the performance of his bowling partner and world rankings topper with the ball, this final series against Australia could be the breakout performance he needs to establish himself as the first name picked in any format, on any conditions, in any country, against any opposition.

That he has learnt to take the pitch out of his equations when he bowls has been evident for a while; that he has learnt to be equally penetrative against left handers and right handers, top order batsmen and tailenders, is also increasingly self-evident. Of more recent vintage is his self-discovery as a complete batsman. He came in to bat when India was down and almost out; he top-scored to leave India in a position to win the game. But what was remarkable was not the runs he scored, but the manner of it.

His wagon-wheel here was exemplary. On the off side, he stroked 11 through the covers and six in the mid off region; on the on, he had six to square leg, 12 through midwicket, 14 to long on. It was an amazingly even spread on a track where the best batsmen on either side were reduced to mostly playing on the on. Accentuating that is the fact that where edges and nudges were the default mode of scoring for most, Jadeja only scored five behind the wicket, on off and on sides combined.

Where everyone found Nathan Lyon unplayable, Jadeja stroked an easy 27 runs off  34 balls faced. His authoritative six off O’Keefe, hit with casual contempt, meant that Steve Smith never used the left arm spinner for the duration of Jadeja’s stay at the wicket — that is to say, for a span of over thirty overs. He left what he had to and defended when he must, playing out 68 dot balls, and he still ended up scoring his runs at 66.31 – quicker, under more pressure, than Smith and Warner had done in the Australian first innings. And this controlled innings came on the back of the one in Ranchi where, with the tail for company, he went after quick runs and batted with freewheeling enterprise.

#2: Ajinkya Rahane is a quiet fellow who goes almost unnoticed on the field, particularly in a team led by the tempestuous Virat Kohli. Even his celebrations are muted – a slight smile, a token high five more for form’s sake than with any vim. In a lippy team, he is the one who has nothing to say to the opposition – and yet, when it comes down to it, he turns out to be the most aggressive of the lot.

Every Indian captain I have watched as part of my work, and that is a list that goes all the way back to Azharuddin, would in the Australian second innings have gone with in-out fields, trying to find a balance between taking wickets and defending runs.

Rahane attacked flat out – three slips, gully, point in, cover in, mid off in, mid on mostly in, midwicket drawn in, square leg well inside the ring… His intent was clear: he was willing to concede runs if the opposition was good enough to make them, but his first priority was to back his bowlers.

Equally, every captain I’ve watched would have had either Ashwin or Jadeja opening the bowling or, if they felt unusually ambitious, used the debutant hero of the first innings first up. Rahane slipped the leash on Umesh Yadav and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar and let them bowl 13 straight before he even turned to spin.

There was considerable appreciation in the commentary box for India’s aggressive bowling in the second innings, but insufficient acknowledgment of the fact that no bowling unit can attack consistently unless they are given sharp teeth in the field.

Consider, too, his perfectly weighted bowling changes. That he brought Kuldeep Yadav in as early as the 14th over, as the first spinning option ahead of Ashwin and Jadeja, owed to the fact that the debutant had dismissed the two batsmen then at the crease, Maxwell and Handscomb, in the first innings.

When Maxwell went after Kuldeep in his second over, hitting him for a six and a four off successive deliveries, and smacked another four in the next over, Rahane allowed the youngster yet another over and kept the field up. Contrast with Smith, who took O’Keefe off after just one show of aggression by Jadeja and kept him off for the entirety of that partnership. Also consider what it means to a young bowler when the captain shows faith, doesn’t banish him after one expensive over.

Kuldeep’s spell was 5-0-23-0. After that 5th over, you knew he was going off. At the other end, Jadeja was bowling beautifully (4-1-9-0), and yet it was Jadeja who came off to give place to Ashwin. And then in the very next over, Jadeja was brought on at the other end. Ashwin got Handscomb in his second over; Jadeja took out Shaun Marsh in the very next over, his second after the change of ends.

You could dismiss all this as happenstance. When things go well for you as they sometimes will, it is easy to hype molehills into mountains. But go back and consider the post-lunch session on day one, and you see similar patterns.

Rahane is an outwardly quiet lad, but an aggressive one who doesn’t need words and pumped fists and incestuous suggestions to channel his aggression. He is, too, a noticing lad; he sees things and he acts on them.

Kohli will come back once he recovers. And he will take back the captain’s armband, which is both fair and natural. But his injury timeout has had one unlooked for benefit: India has found its next captain, for when it needs one.

(My match report for First Post)

Objectivity is hell, and other thoughts from the Test

Objectivity is an elusive creature – its lack easily spotted in others, its practice so hard when it is your turn.

My read of play on day one of the Dharamshala Test was that Australia had done badly with the first strike in conditions conducive to good batting, and left a good 200-250 runs on the pitch. And that still feels like the right call.

But from there, I called the Indian follow-up as an exercise in batting long and deep, the innings extending six sessions across two days to double the Australian score and still leave itself two full days to bowl the Australians out.

And that is where objectivity went for a toss, and I failed to factor in that if one side could collapse in a session against good bowling and tight fielding, so could the other; if one side could absorb the mental fatigue of a tiring session and come back strong and hard, so could the other; if batsmen on one side could forget their disciplines and end up throwing away good batting opportunities, so too could the other.

Tunnel vision lay behind my reasoning that if India could weather the morning burst with the new ball, the quicks would lose their sting. In any case, I figured as an extension of that reasoning, Pat Cummins in just his second international outing after an injury layoff extending more than five years could not physically sustain hostility over extended periods of time, which in turn would reduce Josh Hazelwood to bowling stock.

Sobering statistic: At tea Australia had bowled 59 overs. Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood bowled 29 of those, with the pacier Cummins bowling the odd extra over. Intensity? His last spell before tea was an extended five overs in course of which he first took out KL Rahul with a searing bouncer to go with some fiery words before; his first three balls to the incoming Ajinkya Rahane were all quick and sharp, the first drawing an attempted ramp, the second a pull, the third a top-edged pull.

And in the final minutes of the day’s play, with 19 overs under his belt, he was still sharp enough to take the second new ball and produce an unplayable lifter off good length, with sufficient late swing at peak pace to draw Saha’s edge and but for Renshaw shelling an easy catch at first slip, force another wicket. You want to stand for Cummins — to bowl that many overs at speeds that rarely if ever dropped below the mid-145k mark, and often inched up to the 149k level, is hard enough; to be able to bounce twice, thrice in every single over through a long day of Test cricket is the sort of effort that exhausts superlatives.

In similar vein I reasoned that where India’s two spinners, numbers one and two in world rankings at this present, could find neither consistent bounce nor sharp turn on day one, Nathan Lyon with a spinning finger rubbed raw and a split callus to add to the pain would never be able, in the optimal batting conditions of day two, be able to give the ball enough of a tweak to be sufficiently threatening – and again, to my surprise and some discomfort, Lyon turned on an exhibition of off-spin bowling that was straight out of the top draw: beautiful rhythm and balance, lovely loop and dip drawing repeated errors in the reading of length, great drift, big bounce, and almost square turn every time Lyon wanted it. It was a performance that put both my read, and Ashwin’s first innings performance, in perspective.

There was one other thing I missed: the essential quality of this Australian side, which lies neither in its good batting nor all-round bowling but in its collective spirit, in an ability to fight its way back every single time it falls behind in a game. Again, I should have known better, as should anyone who has been watching what is proving to be the best Test series in a long time: this outfit under Steve Smith has repeatedly showcased that bounce-back-ability in Pune, in Bangalore, in Ranchi. And now, here.

This is true: if you happen to be ringside when the irresistible force meets the indomitable object, the smartest thing to do is to shut the hell up, get out of the way, and let the game unfold as it will.

PostScript: Some days, events on the field of play seem to cohere into an overarching narrative. On other, rarer days the narrative shifts shape and form faster than you can follow.

Today was one such. Four hours of play resembled one of those old-time Western novels where the hero rides his horse across a featureless desert for page after page, the only point of interest being to see whether he or his horse collapses first.

And then everyone went off and had a cup of tea, and the last two hours somehow turned into a Jack Reacher novel with outsize heroes and outmatched anti-heroes and punches and pratfalls…

In my note to the FirstPost editors at close of play, this is what I said:

Follows, a few thought bubbles, fragmentary impressions, from the third day’s play. Fragmentary, because yet again in this series the two sides took turns in the driving seat and often, there seemed no logical, no visible reason, to explain the switches in control. So.

Here are those fragments, those thought bubbles from an engrossing second day at the cricket.

Dharamshala day 1 Match Report

A dozen playing days in this India-Australia series have produced more fairytales than the combined imaginations of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm managed in their lifetime. The latest in the string of unlikely stories to punctuate this see-saw series came in the unlikely shape of debutant left-arm chinaman/googly bowler Kuldeep Yadav.

Everything about his story flirts with the boundaries of probability, beginning with the very fact of his making it to the playing XI. The most foolhardy punter would have hesitated to put spare change on the possibility that with talismanic captain and number four batsman Virat Kohli pulling out with an injured shoulder, the team management would choose as replacement a tyro spinner — more so in a side that already boasts two spinners who have captured the top two ICC rankings.

That he made the side was surprising enough; that he then produced a series of brilliant deliveries to slice through the Australian batting lineup, after the visitors had taken control of the game in a free-flowing first session that produced 131 runs for one wicket in 31 overs stretched credulity to the limit and beyond.

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India v Australia Day 5

(This was written for FirstPost before start of play on the final day)

677 runs and 22 wickets in 360 overs over four days; eight of the first 20 wickets to those quick bowlers who were at peak levels of skill; control of the game shifting from one team to another at least once every day, often once per session — the first four days of this Test have been a template for what Test cricket at its best is supposed to be about.

If pitches could sue for libel, the JSCA would get millions without the jury leaving the box. “Rolled mud”? “Nothing like we have ever seen before”? Really?

The final day begins with one result — the draw — possible; another — an Indian win — probable. And odd as it may seem, Australia’s fate is entirely in its own hands — not in the pitch, not in the hands of the Indian bowlers and, while we are on the subject, not in the vagaries of DRS reviews that seem to be dominating conversations to an unwarranted degree.

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India vs Australia Day 4

(Before play, as posted to FirstPost’s live blog)

One hundred and eighty.

If you like turning over envelopes and calculating possibilities on the reverse, that is the number you want to put down first. 180 overs remain in this Test and every calculation, by either side, will be predicated on that number.

If you are an Australian point of view, you need to figure out how many overs you reckon you need to bowl India out in the second innings. This is neither Pune nor Bangalore and even in the last innings, you want to budget at least 90, 100 overs for the job.

Sounds like that is rating India too high, or selling the Aussie bowling too short? Their main strike bowler is Pat Cummins who, in just his second first-class game after injuries kept him out for five years, has had to combine the durability of the workhorse and the penetration of a shock bowler. He produced consistent, searing pace and headhunting bouncers; two of those got him wickets that would have been beyond the capabilities of most other quicks — but it’s been hard toil for a player not yet fully grooved into the demands of Test cricket in these conditions.

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Cricket clips

# The admin interface on this blog shows you the latest comments right on top — and as it happens, the first comment I saw this morning was tagged to a Chris Broad post, from a certain John who apparently gets his jollies reading all the “crazies” who ramble on in the wake of controversies. I hate disappointing the public, so here’s more “ranting”:

The Australians always seem to get away. Whatever their transgressions on the field, invariably it is their opponents who end up paying a price. Somehow or the other, teams playing against the Aussies seem to invite the match referee’s wrath.

That is why I am not looking at the most recent incident in the Australia-West Indies series in isolation. In the Delhi Test against us, my last, the one that earned Gautam Gambhir a ban for having a go at Watson, the same umpire and the match referee were officiating.

At that time, the umpire Billy Bowden didn’t see it fit to report Simon Katich who had later obstructed Gautam and the match referee Chris Broad too didn’t bother to act on his own or follow it up with the onfield umpires even though it was very much evident on TV. And as on that occasion, the provocateurs got away in Perth too, with Haddin and Johnson receiving minor reprimands.

There doesn’t seem to be any punishment forthcoming for someone who provokes and that to me is against the principles of natural justice.

Dear John, the “crazy” who wrote that is former India captain Anil Kumble (who, most famously, also said this). Getting to be a fairly crowded asylum, innit? Here’s more “lunacy” — from Chris Gayle. And strangely, Ricky Ponting seems to think us crazies may actually be on to something.

#The weekend’s action at the Centurion and the WACA provided the perfect coda to a couple of months of fascinating cricket. Make that Test cricket. For all the tons of runs that were scored in the “thrash the bowlers” versions of the game, the final quarter of the year has been memorable for Test cricket action between Sri Lanka and India; between a New Zealand and a Pakistan intent on examining the limits of their own frailities; between an Australia that prematurely wrote the opposition off and a West Indies unit that re-discovered talent, spark, and the will to fight; and between a conservative South Africa hoping for a win and a tentative England hoping not to lose. Ian Chappell’s summation of the field comes apropos.

# Test cricket has been compelling, but the crowds haven’t felt compelled to come out in their numbers. That’s the sort of thing that triggers laments on the ‘Test cricket is dying’ lines — but perhaps there is another explanation? Here’s Gideon Haigh:

Frankly, for what English cricket fans pay to watch Test matches, the security indignities they undergo, the general dilapidation of grounds and the killjoy prohibitions of administrators, they should be allowed to parade in the nude if they so wish. But there’s the rub. Crowds, in general, are simply assumed, like sightscreens and drinks breaks, and reported with a similar degree of understanding by journalists high above them in air-conditioned comfort, who haven’t had to pay to get in.

Nobody speaks for them: they have no association, no lobbyists, no agents, no spin doctors, no ghost writers. Who has protested the scurvy treatment of fans in Kolkata and Johannesburg, deprived of international cricket by ludicrous administrative turf wars? Where were the thundering denunciations in England when the ECB cancelled a Twenty20 Cup quarter-final 10 minutes before the start because of a dispute about a player’s registration, thereby wasting the journeys of 4000 hapless fans? When wronged, fans have no recourse but the withdrawal of their interest – a self-penalisation.

The main reason for this indifference to the spectator’s lot, in administrative circles at least, is television. For 20 years and more, cricket has been obsessed with its telegenia – how to improve the experience for viewers, and so to maximise the value of the game as a media property. And as viewers have grown in financial importance, so live spectators have diminished.

Crowds flowing through the turnstiles — or not — have become irrelevant to the game’s financial health. But to therefore dismiss diminishing live audiences is, Haigh suggests, short-sighted.

In this unspoken shared belief among administrators that somehow it is immaterial if crowds no longer gather, and that only the vast, diffuse, invisible audience of viewers counts, lies the seeds of a grave crisis for cricket. In the most straightforward sense, crowds matter aesthetically, in a way ratings never can. They ratify by their presence an occasion’s importance; they dramatise by their passion a game’s excitement; they negate by their absence an event’s significance. Tendulkar’s 12,000th Test run should have been one of the great moments of Indian cricket; it will be remembered instead, as even ICC chief executive Haroon Lorgat noted, with dismay and disillusionment.

Those who trouble to attend cricket are also its core constituency; to set aside a day for a Test or a one-day international involves a huge investment of time and money, which deserves proportional return. Yet the members of this core are being treated as political parties sometimes treat their most loyal voters, and listed corporations their most steadfast small shareholders: marginalising and alienating them as they take them for granted – and no party or company has done this long and prospered. On the contrary, commercial organisations dependent on public patronage lavish extraordinary efforts on keeping their most loyal customers, encouraging them to return by loyalty cards, bonus programmes and other incentive systems. Why does cricket, so purportedly savvy in the ways of commerce, care so little? Australian golf might have looked a little ludicrous at the Masters last month with its serpentine queues, star-struck melees and striving for church-like quiet – but at least it was trying.

#Headline writers have been having a field day with the outing of Tiger Woods’ latest mistress, bringing the tally thus far to 18 — the puerile golf course analogy apparently proves too hard to resist. Meanwhile, in Cuttack and in their homes across the country, Indian cricketers must be laughing their heads off — the newest among them has notched up far more ‘conquests’ than Woods with his stature, his charismatic looks  and all his billions can only dream of.

I’ve never been able to figure this out. We expect a Gandhi, a Mother Teresa, to provide us a moral compass to chart our lives by, but we do not simultaneously expect them to entertain us. Why then is that not the case in reverse? Why is it not enough for our athletes, our sports stars, to entertain us? Why must they also set “moral examples” for the young?

The two most common answers I get are, oh, but they are in the public eye and, two, our children idolize them. As far as the first goes, so too are politicians — but we accept their affairs, their involvements in crimes ranging from mega corruption to murder with equanimity and even pick potential jailbirds to lead our states, our country. Apparently it is okay for those who would chart our futures to be morally flawed, but not our sportsmen. And as far as our children’s idolatry goes, what then are parents for if they cannot steer their children towards heroes more worthy of moral emulation?

My friend — and favorite sports writer — Rohit Brijnath nails it in this lovely piece in the weekend edition of Mint. An extended clip:

But I rarely go to stadiums expecting lessons in morality. These aren’t arenas of real bravery for this isn’t real life. These weren’t my guides, not my North Stars. My heroes are different, they are ordinary people taking on life, they are my parents, teachers, friends who grapple patiently with troubled kids, they are families who take care of the ill with a selfless love, they are preachers of tolerance.

I have expectations of the athlete, especially the great ones, for with fame arrives responsibility. Certainly he must obey the rules, stay away from gunfights in nightclubs, respect the law, conduct himself appropriately when representing his country. It is not a difficult list. Roger Federer meets it nicely. But not everyone.

But then it gets tricky. What moral standard do we hold the athlete to, a higher one than we have for ourselves? Marriage is beautiful and we are unimpressed by the adulterer, but do we hound them from our groups of friends and from our offices? Is Tiger Woods different, worth such public scorn, because he portrayed himself as a virtuous family man? It would appear so. And as much as the tawdriness of it all, the sheer number of infidelities, what seems to upset people is also the deception. He fooled us, this billionaire hero. He made us buy his shirts while he was taking his off.

What we tend to forget is that the great athlete presents to us an image. On that basis we claim to know him, but we really don’t. Andre Agassi’s revealing autobiography, Open, suggested our view of him was almost entirely inaccurate. Woods is similarly a mystery. We know him as outrageous golfer, bland interviewee, smiling salesman. Beyond that he is hidden. It suited him. His golf was perfect, his trousers creased, his shoes shined, and so he let us assume the rest of his life was as polished. The point is this: He should have known better than to do what he did, but so should we have to have swallowed his myth.

# There’s a one-day game due to be played this afternoon, but all that, and more, tomorrow. Have people to meet, and a packer coming home for a preliminary ‘recce’. Later, peoples…