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Falling Standards?

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Not more than two weeks ago, the business of which team will hit the number one spot in the ICC ODI rankings made for useful small talk in formal parties, lifts and other moments of uneasy silence. The topic of actual relevance, which should make for some serious 'big talk', is the fact that no team in international cricket today deserves to be 'number one'.

International cricket today is lacking in the department of great sides. It has been for nearly three years now. Leave the official rankings aside for a minute (or much longer, if you please). If the picking of the 'Numero Uno' were to be a matter of judgment of excellence, and not a process of 'ranking' where the King is, by default, the one who simply does better than the rest in the pack, none of the current teams operating in international cricket would make the cut. The teams on top today are necessarily there as much because of the shortcomings of their peers as their own excellence. They are very good, no doubt, but none of them are brilliant.

There is a natural resistance that one feels towards accepting this; is it because the above statement doesn't hold merit, or is it simply because of the (understandable) primal instinct to not want to believe it? Let us examine the lay of the land (ha, ha) closely.

Who is a rightful 'Numero Uno' candidate? Straight off the bat, it has to be an entity that inspires awe, a sense of significant power. A representative from our era who will look at his counterparts from previous eras and make them quiver, or at least, raise their eyebrows. It needs most of the following qualities - high levels of skill and consistency, all-round strength, weaknesses that are not easy to exploit, strong disciplinary edicts, a David Boon-like appetite for victory.

There is no such stuff of legends on the international cricket horizon, in any format, at this point. None of the current teams fit this bill. The Australians still retain the feisty-ness of their golden era, but in terms of skill and raw ability, they are a pale shadow of the team that was around till 2007. The Indian team is better than any of its counterparts from the previous years only in that they are even more talented than their glittering predecessors, and therefore, it is even more dismaying when they conspire to self-destruct ever so often. Their inconsistency aside, their bowling is half-decent at best, impotent at worst, and ho-hum in general. The South Africans are good, but are far from being invincible. Take Graeme Smith out, and it looks like a very vulnerable outfit indeed, as it did against Australia earlier this year at home.

The fact is all the teams operating in international cricket today can be beaten by at least 4 out of other 8 teams playing cricket on a regular basis even if they have a decent day, and not because the overall standard is so high. Let's look at it this way. If you look at 5 year segments going back from 2007 (2003-2007, 1998-2002, 1993-1997 and so on), you'll see that the best team in almost all these segments would have comfortably beaten the best teams that are around now - particularly in Test cricket.

The number of unconditionally 'great' cricketers this generation has produced (2002-03) onwards is painfully lower than that produced by most of the previous generations. Take out those who have been around from before that, and you are left with Graeme Smith, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir (not great yet but will be if he goes on in this vein) and...and...well, a few from my EA Sports Cricket 09 teams, maybe. Pietersen? Johnson? Mendis? Strauss? Yuvraj? Good, very good, but not great.

What's the point of this? Why is this a matter of concern, or even one to be discussed? Because it reflects some tumours that may have already taken root, and forecasts a few that may yet.

There is one home truth that anchors the sport amidst all the whirlpools regarding the future of cricket and the formats co-existing or cannibalizing each other. It is that the sport will thrive only if the standards of the basic product, the game itself, is high. How well the game does, at the end of the day, is determined almost entirely by the quality of the chief entity that constructs it - the teams playing the game. 

The presence of the above-mentioned 'stuff of legends' can boost interest in the game in a more sustainable manner than any two-innings-of-25 overs, or night-cricket-with-pink-balls sort of tinkering can. International cricket, particularly Test and ODI cricket, needs some brilliant teams to be on show, in these times more than ever. The turbulence surrounding the future of these formats means that to arrest the uncertain interest levels amongst audiences, you need something of the nature of Waugh's Australia or Lloyd's West Indies - or at least, Richie Richardson's West Indies. We cannot afford mediocrity at this point.

The fact that most of the teams playing today can beat each other regularly provides for some good, competitive cricket, no doubt. But it does so in a downgraded manner akin to how the 2009 Ashes provided competitve cricket, but fell several shades short of the 2005 Ashes. The multiple-decade spanning battle for supremacy between Australia and the West Indies that has provided so many great stories, for instance, is by itself sufficient to add a deep and delightful flavour to the game. Cricket needs more contests of that nature, it needs more of the traditional rivalries to be at their peak now and most of them are not. The last truly remarkable ODI series that took place was in early-2006, when Australia played South Africa and an enthralling tug-of-war between two sides at their absolute peak was rounded off by the 434-run chase. 

Real, live ghosts that haunt the game today rear their heads in this affair as well. Is the fact that each international team is playing three-different formats of the game with significant intensity keeping them from excelling in any one? Three different teams for each format is a myth of the past, and the core four or five players for most international teams are constant across all three formats. Surely, this distribution of focus has to tell somewhere? 

The ugly corollary to this problem is the question of 'too-much-cricket'. Firing hard on three formats spread across innumerable private/domestic leagues and layers is a task no teams from the previous eras have undertaken. Forget audience-saturation, leave aside player burn-out, the biggest malaise that 'too-much-cricket' may be spreading is a dimming in the standard of the game itself. Most teams today are not as great as they could be because their players have patchy careers plagued by incessant injuries.

Leaving aside maybe Sri Lanka, every other mainstream international team is a poorer version of what they were five, six years ago (some are, at best, on par with their immediate pasts but no more than that). None of them necessarily look like getting significantly better in the near future. Lying hidden and understated, this could slowly grow into one of the biggest headaches the cricket community faces today.

(Click here to know more about Sreeram)


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