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A Brave New World

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We are at a point in time where we have been given the best seats in the house, to witness a dramatic and intriguing event that comes by only once in many decades. In cricket’s 132 year history, there have only been four, or perhaps five major paradigm shifts. A quiet survey of cricket's previous 13 decades suggests that the most far-reaching, and therefore, the most significant, of these paradigm shifts is unfolding even as we speak. The legacy of the point in time we stand in now, the years 2009 and 2010, is that they will feature the final stages of these shifts, the endgame that will determine the broad parameters of how the sport is played, viewed and organized for the next ten, twenty or even thirty years.

Every long-lasting species mutates in the course of its life-cycle. The mutation cricket is undergoing is big enough to change the very fabric of the sport. We last saw something like this in 1977 with the Packer period, except that this shift is infinitely bigger, it is one that alters the game's inherent ecosystem.

Cricket's mutation began in 2003 with T20 entering the scene and reached a chaotic crescendo somewhere between 2007 and 2008, but 2009 and 2010 represent its most decisive, and therefore most important phase, for they mark the final few steps of this metamorphosis.

Let's take a quick overview of how our cricketing world has changed in the last four years. To draw an easily identifiable parallel, the world consists of two broad entities - the organisms that occupy it, and the environment that the organisms live in. The introduction of T20 and the IPL marked a significant change in the environment in which cricket operated by introducing a new economic ecosystem, creating new financial frameworks and business models. This change to the environment that cricket lived, ate and drew breath in marks the first part of the evolutionary process.

Equally interesting, however, is the second part, where the living organism itself evolves and adapts to the change. 2009 has seen cricket's first serious responses to the changes its environment has undergone, responses that are very interesting, and not quite in line with what was anticipated.

Contrary to the split, fractioned vision of cricket that many envisaged when T20 found its feet, the sport is actually moving furiously towards one common denominator. All three formats of the game are unifying, taking a few steps closer to each other, in terms of the manner in which they are played. In Tests, scoring rates have been going up for a few years now, but what stands out today is the 'matter-of-fact'ness with which aggressive, run-a-ball+ hitting is pursued.
Like pre-marital sex in the cosmopolitan urban Indian society, 7-runs-per-over innings don't come accompanied with the feeling that you are doing something naughty that is not in line with standard societal norms. Aggressive batsmen are shedding their inhibitions, you can now kiss and tell, have one night stands, buy condoms in the open, slap a 60-ball-80. We are moving from the 4-per-over decade to the 5-per-over era. It is a world where Sehwag is not an aberration anymore - Smith is at it, Dilshan is at it, Gayle is at it, hell, even Strauss is at it.

At a psychological level, T20 has imposed result orientedness as a non-negotiable, and therefore, Test cricket has moved aggressively forward to achieve this end - dead pitches be damned - partly by raising scoring rates to such levels as to create extra time to negate the dead wickets. A series of competitive contests seen in the last three months between India, Sri Lanka, Australia, West Indies, England and South Africa seems to somehow personify an awakening within the format that has rejuvenated it and given it a buzz.

Elsewhere, there are serious strains of discipline creeping into T20, where 150-160 is emerging as a par score on many grounds around the world. T20 is now acquiring the defining feature of Test cricket - layers. The 20-over mad dash that it earlier was has now been transformed into a delicate dance performed under gun point pressure. It requires intricate plans and calculations to be made : an aggressive opening six overs, followed by a brisk but careful period of consolidation in the next 8, sprinkled with calculated assaults on the weak 5th bowler, and so on. One of cricket's finest features - the scope that it allows for the use of intellect, brains and cleverness - is manifesting itself in the way the game is being played, even if it remains painfully absent in the paraphernelia and Bollywood-style glamour surrounding the format.

Observe also how the cricketers themselves are evolving. The five or six players who comprise the core of most international teams today are the same across all three formats. For instance, the ideal batsman is now a very different being from what we thought he would be in 2007. It is, thankfully, not a Yousuf Pathan. It is now more of a Sangakkara, a Dhoni. An example of the new model batsman is Kallis Version 2.0 that the all-rounder showed us in the IPL 2009 - a batsman who can attack when needed, but also holds other key virtues of planning, patience and persistence. A delightful point of convergence between Richards, Gavaskar and Sehwag. Importantly enough, despite the core being common, the varied demands that a combination of all three formats places on teams means cricketers of all other types, offering various other qualities, can also thrive.

The business model in which cricketers operated has also now changed in way that makes it unrecognizable from what it was three or four years ago. Quality cricketers, even from lower-ranked countries, or countries that do not boast of a strong domestic structure, can make a good living off cricket by playing in three-to-four well-paying T20 leagues around the world. This is a development whose benefits simply cannot be overstated. The introduction of a 'Global-Market' economy for cricketers where there talent can find buyers in different countries will mean that kids and young talent even in financially weak cricket-economies will be assured of economic independence should he want to take up cricket as a career.

The point, in essence, is that we now stand at the threshold of a dynamic, exciting and completely new world for cricket.
Events that will follow now in 2010 will give the final shape to the amorphous model that the sport has been for the past few years, a shape that will set the template for the game for the future. It is a change that is somewhat overdue, and it is one that promises much excitement and intrigue in the year(s) to come.

(Click here to know more about Sreeram)





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