Open Essay

Is it the end of the Cricket Nation?

James Astill is the Washington bureau chief and Lexington columnist for The Economist. He is a contributor to Open
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India’s Test humiliation in England tells a bleak story of the future of a great Indian obsession

‘We remember not the score and the results in after years; it is the men who remain in our minds, in our imagination.’ To read Neville Cardus, the son of a Manchester prostitute and cricket’s great scribe, is to realise what magic has fallen victim to the game’s globalisation, with its 24- hour TV saturation, relentless international tournaments and identikit styles of cricket talk and cricket play. The great, evolving drama of a long-awaited Test series; the cultural clash that international cricket once was, pitting not just nations but contrasting sorts of genius against each other—much of that has been lost. The more cricket we have, the flatter and more forgettable it gets.

Nowhere is this reduction more apparent than in Indian cricket. That is not only because the saturation on Indian television is so extreme or the memory for cricket becoming so short. Ironically, perhaps, is because in India the magic that Cardus described was so intense. For decades, the results of India’s best cricketers were poor; yet their claim on the imagination of millions of Indians was huge. The two Vijays, Merchant and Hazare, Polly Umrigar, Salim Durani—they won only a handful of Test matches between them. Yet in the great series, or innings or, in Salim’s case, moments, they enjoyed, a nation danced.

In more recent times, Indian cricket fans have had a happier balance: great heroes, in Sunil, Kapil, Sachin, Rahul, Sourav, VVS, and much better results. When I left Delhi in 2011, after a cricket-steeped four-year-stay, India were ranked number one in the world for Tests and were newly-crowned ODI champions. There was, it naively seemed to me at that time, a sense of inevitability and perhaps permanency to that supremacy. Based on the success of a new sort of cricketer, including Zaheer Khan, Munaf Patel, the Pathan brothers, born poor and hungry for success, we understood that India’s vast stock of cricketing talent was at last being exploited. Meanwhile, the stocks of other cricket countries were shrinking—including in England, as evidenced by its growing reliance on public schoolboys, sons of professional cricketers and foreign imports to make a national team. The great yell, of triumph and elation, that I had heard echo around Delhi, in the seconds after Dhoni bludgeoned the winning Six at the Wankhede, was, I felt at that time, a promise of a new age of Indian cricketing domination. A new cricketing superpower was coming into being and promised to rule, not for 10 or 15 years, as the West Indies and Australians had, but maybe forever.

This was widely thought at that time. The growth of the Indian Premier League had brought a surge of foreign cricketers, coaches and cricket writers to India, forcing them to confront the enormity of India’s sports-media revolution, its rapid spread, and the tsunami of cricketing talent it promised to unleash. I remember sitting with Shane Warne, one balmy evening in Jaipur, and hearing him marvel at the zest, skills and number of brilliant new Indian batsmen coming into view—India could easily put out two world-class batting line-ups, he reckoned, maybe more. As a fan of the Indian game—and, moreover, one who had come to see in cricket a measure of national progress— I celebrated this. I worried, for sure, about all the usual bugbears—the BCCI’s chaotic management of the game and, especially, the effect of the IPL on the international programme. Nonetheless, a strong Indian side would be more than an inspiration to millions; it would also guarantee that cricket, including Test cricket, would continue flourish.

How absurd that seems now, in the wake of the most abject Indian performance I can remember. Truly, this summer’s 3-1 Test defeat in England seemed worse to me than the 2011 whitewash, which came shortly after that triumph at the Wankhede. Then, India’s humiliation was at least somewhat salved by the grace of the triple-centurion Rahul Dravid. And in the generous ovations that everywhere in England welcomed Sachin to the wicket was acknowledgement of India’s immense standing in cricket. The losses were embarrassing; but perhaps, as an unexpectedly long hangover after the World Cup, they would soon be redeemed. But this summer was different. The England team of 2014 was much weaker than the victorious one of 2011. And there were no heroes in India’s. It was a contest between two ordinary, mid-ranking Test teams, one of which fell apart. For fans of Indian cricket, it was simply embarrassing.

Forget it, some will say. Indians don’t care about Test cricket, so let it be. They care about the shorter formats, at which the Indian team, already 2-0 up in the ODIs in England, is again demonstrating its mastery and the English their ineptitude. But that is not good enough. If India’s Test tradition dies, cricket in India and everywhere will be much poorer for it—in both imaginative and in the end, I believe, financial terms. It would be a calamity to end cricket as we know it.

The first Test, at Trent Bridge, was an anomaly—a tedious draw, dominated by one of the worst wickets ever prepared for a five-day game in England. It was as lifeless as baked sand, produced by the Nottinghamshire groundsmen, many suspected, to rule out any prospect of an early finish. That would be a potentially ruinous prospect in this series, because of the rack-rent fees the English cricket board had charged the Counties to host the games. It was a dismal start to the series. The match ended with Alastair Cook getting a maiden Test wicket, that of Ishant Sharma, with a Bob Willis imitation, which was as good as it got. But at Lord’s, for the second Test, the series perked up, in a splendid Indian victory.

Murali Vijay, with 95 in the first innings to follow his century in Nottingham, and Ajinkya Rahane, another Indian name on the honours board at Lord’s, were in fine touch. Their performances recalled recent talk of Dhoni, at last free of the long shadows of Sachin and Rahul, having vowed to leave a new world-beating batting unit as his legacy. But on a good green pitch it was the Indian seamers who won the game; Ishant Sharma’s 7-74 in the second innings was a marvellous reminder of his mislaid promise. Meanwhile England looked even more ordinary than many of us feared they were. “Sorry, but your spinner…” chuckled my friends in the Indian press pack. They all agreed that Moeen Ali was no good.

And it was all downhill from there for the Indians. A series they had looked well-placed to win degenerated into ignominy— a 266-run loss in Southampton, then an innings defeat in Manchester and an historic thrashing at the Oval, by an innings and 244 runs. It was India’s third biggest defeat ever, and so total that even ardent England fans saw little glory in it. Reduced to 90-9 on a good pitch on the first day, India were so bad they would have struggled to stay in at Trent Bridge. Only some angry hitting from Dhoni got them into three figures. And when they traipsed out to field they looked spent from the start. Their heads drooped, their fielding was poor, their throws back to the bowler were lackadaisical. It is a funny thing, to see a talented side, on the face of it the equal of this English one, behaving so hopelessly. In the press box, Indian commentators cringed or, in the case of some past greats, seethed. “If you do not want to be playing Test cricket for India, quit,” snarled Sunil Gavaskar.

What had gone wrong?

Three things were obvious, starting with the age-old Indian story of weak leadership. In Sunil Dev, a Delhi fertiliser tsar, the touring party had, it must be conceded, a rather eccentric manager. I like Sunil; he is warm, helpful and amusing, with a well- worked here-I-stand, an-honest-man-amid- the-madness, schtick. But it is doubtful he provided the sort of calm support Dhoni needed on a gruelling tour. On the contrary, Sunil, who is rarely calm, seemed unduly concerned with more footling things—such as Virat Kohli’s decision to share a hotel room with his Bollywood star girlfriend or Dhoni’s to skip net practice in order to take a break on a shooting range. Duncan Fletcher, a withdrawn and seemingly marginalised coach, was no more help. Either should have sought to restrain the Indian captain from his ultimately pointless campaign to get Jimmy Anderson sanctioned for some idiot behaviour. Meanwhile, Dhoni’s on-field captaincy was inept at times; so was illogical faith in Stuart Binny and distrust of India’s likeliest match-winning bowler, Ravichandran Ashwin. Only the captain’s inelegant, but effective, batting saved his reputation in England.

Many Indian commentators, including Gavaskar, suspected the Indians just didn’t care enough. There was probably some truth to that. It must be hard to earn $30 million a year appearing in sugary drink and mobile phone commercials, as we’re told Dhoni does, and still prepare, play and fight as Gavaskar did. Yet there were also clear exceptions, including, to my certain knowledge, Cheteshwar Pujara, who, from an early age, had dreamed only of scoring Test runs for India. When his hero Dravid told the Indian batsmen, at the outset of the tour, that to play Test cricket in England was the pinnacle of their careers, Cheteshwar believed him. That was why, at the end of the series, he arranged a short stint with Derbyshire. Yet Cheteshwar needed that, despite his dedication, because he had had such a disappointing series; his batting average of 22 was the lowest by a regular Indian number three in England.

The biggest reason for India’s underperformance was, palpably, the team’s abysmal lack of preparation. In agreeing, after much arm-twisting by the English board, to a rare five-Test series India’s cricket bosses had signalled they were serious about the game’s longest format. But sending the team, fresh from the crash-bash IPL, to play the Test games in tight succession with only two practice games to acclimatise to English conditions in advance, showed that they were not. What followed was to a great extent predictable. Muhammad Shami, a fine bowler in Indian conditions, was at sea in English ones; he had no idea how to control the swinging ball. Pujara had some experience of English greentops; yet his game was riddled with the corruptions that technically correct batsmen such as he pick up in slog-cricket and, given the relentlessness of the schedule, there was no time to iron them out. In short, whatever blame was attached to the players in this debacle, the administrators deserved their share.

The BCCI’s error, and India’s losses, were far from unique. In 2013, only two of the 41 Tests played were won by the away side—both against Zimbabwe. And the same combination of packed scheduling and a paucity of practice games, against the backdrop of a surfeit of crash-bash T20 cricket, is to blame. It is killing Test cricket as a contest. If N Srinivasan, the most powerful cricket administrator of modern times, cares about this as he says, he must reverse it. Only he and his supporters at the BCCI can restore sanity to the international programme and Test cricket to its former pre-eminence. Very seriously, then, the Indian board needs to ask itself a big question: does India really want to play Test cricket?

The answer may not be in the affirmative, I fear, though it will reveal itself gradually. The fiction that India, the most powerful cricket nation, takes seriously its obligation to safeguard the game’s greatest format will endure for a while. But if India’s pampered celebrity cricketers, now reared, unlike Rahul or Sachin, to play the shorter-formats, are not reconditioned to prize Tests soon, India will suffer more embarrassments abroad. And that minority of Indian cricket fans which prizes five-day cricket as it deserves, will become yet more depleted; until the notion of the Indian board spending time and money on a format which most Indians do not particularly like and at which India, abroad at least, rarely wins, will seem ridiculous. And what then?

One of the world’s great sports-cultural traditions, connecting Virat to Salim and CK Nayudu, would have been ended. Because an Indian game no longer rooted in the technical rigour of Test cricket would be a poor thing. For what great spinners will emerge, once slow-bowling has been reduced to serving up run-saving T20 darts? And where will be the batsmen able to play on a sticky pitch—the modern-day Vijays—when T20 has obliterated the point of occupying the crease?

If this is what the new age of Indian suzerainty, off the pitch if not on it, promises, it is a bitter shame. Those Indians, including Jagmohan Dalmiya, who fought to break the English- Australian patrimony in international cricket, were right to do so; but always assuming they did not bring anything worse to the game. And in the reckless commercialisation, the corruption, the fixing, the brute juggernaut of the IPL that has followed, it is hard not to conclude that they have.

How self-defeating this may prove to be. Because T20, I fear, becomes a pretty poor spectator sport, as fast games go, after a while. It is too structureless. Its run gluts are too meaningless. It owes too much to chance. Football is a much better, more competitive and enthralling short game; perhaps so are tennis and basketball. And such intruders are increasingly coming to Indian television screens. Cricket’s monopoly hold on Indian sporting affections, we can be fairly sure, is coming to an end. It will soon have to do much more to justify itself to Indian fans. And for that reason alone, I ask, is this the time to treat Tests, the most distinctive form of cricket, or any sport, so carelessly?