What was I, a mere blip in the USA sporting radar, doing at Oxford talking about cricket with people who, in my mind, were superheroes and Gods?
A Report on the ICC Centenary Conference - By Venu Palaparthi
Superheros and Gods!
It's been a month since I returned from the ICC Centenary History Conference, but memories remain of a great trip. Starting with the reason why I was there - the 100th anniversary of ICC, to the location of the birthday bash - reception at Lord's and the conference at St. Anthony's (Oxford University), everything was surreal. What was I, a mere blip in the USA sporting radar, doing there talking about cricket with superheroes and Gods?
Picture: The Changing Game Panel - (L to R) Sir Clive Lloyd, Bob Willis, Saurav Ganguly, Angus Fraser
There was a great deal of camaraderie among those present and, in that spirit, everyone stayed at Oxford’s fabled Sir Thomas White dorms - I routinely ran into Bishan Bedi and Haroon Lorgat as we all navigated the maze of the dorm's hallways. And the quaint Thomas White College Bar became the watering hole where we discussed cricket after a long day at St. Anthony's spent discussing - what else - cricket. [Click here for the conference program.]
The speakers at the conference were the who’s who of cricket (with the sole exception of yours truly). The list included ICC Presidents, academics, sports entrepreneurs, statisticians, administrators, and, of course, several current and former cricketers including Sir Clive Lloyd, Bishen Bedi, and Saurav Ganguly.
The Changing Game
The overexcited Indian media postulated that Saurav Ganguly was “lecturing” at Oxford. If they bothered to check, they would have known that Saurav Ganguly was there as a panelist in a discussion that featured Sir Clive Lloyd, Angus Fraser, Bob Willis, Boria Majumdar and Gideon Haigh.
The topic was “The Changing Game - It is not like it used to be.” The players talked about fitness, fatigue, salaries, sledging, match fixing, scheduling, doping, and somewhat appropriately, the role of the overexcited Indian media.
As for Saurav Ganguly, he struck a chord with the audience as he revealed a well hidden funny bone beneath his somewhat reticent personality. Saurav joked about the incredible riches on offer when he started playing cricket. “Those days, we got paid Rs. 400 for a first class match,” he said. “Like everybody else, I bought my own bat ahead of the 1996 tour. I was paid Rs. 35,000 (the rough equivalent of $1,000) for what was a 3.5 month long English tour.” Saurav was prodded into confessing that he went to the gym once during that tour - “just to see what it was all about.” When he revealed that going to the gym was not really a done thing in the mid-nineties, Angus and Bob agreed.
Saurav was easy and approachable before and after the panel and I invited him to visit USA. For his part, Bob Willis joked about his silky stride and elegant bowling action. I was in half a mind to go and tell him that DreamCricket's equipment brand name, Brown & Willis, was partly inspired by him. Sir Clive Lloyd spoke of the immense sense of pride that he felt when he played for the West Indies. He said, standing on top of the trees and watching his cousin Lance Gibbs play, he knew he wanted nothing but to play for West Indies. Sir Clive Lloyd noted, with mild amusement, that batsmen with an average south of 15 were becoming millionaires these days. To approving nods from his friends, Sir Clive said that it was never about money when he played. He joked that when he kissed the crest after a game, it was not just because he had won the game but also because he had paid from his own pocket for the crest that was embroidered (and yes, he had paid for the jacket as well!).
This was just one panel. There were other panels and speeches ranging from mildly sleep-inducing to mindblowingly stimulating!
The irrepressible Bishan Bedi was clearly not going to let this opportunity go by without speaking his mind. He enlivened the gathering with his comments on chucking, doosras, chucking, match fixing, gambling, bodyline, chucking, sledging, ball tampering (with vaseline) - and did I mention chucking!?
Picture: Half a Century of Cricket Panel - (L to R) Boria Majumdar, Mihir Bose, Bishan Bedi, Sir Clive Lloyd
Outspoken is an understatement when it comes to Bedi. As he took his parting shot, he looked straight at the sport's administrators and said: "Betting, if it is still happening, is going on outside the ground but chucking is going on right under the nose of the umpires!" Sir Clive said that chucking must be prevented at the junior level and eliminated from domestic cricket. Somebody with a suspect action should not be allowed to progress all the way to the national team.
The conference was more than a celebration, it was a contemplation of the 100 years gone by - warts and blemishes included. Something deserving a stronger media presence. Most of the Indian TV channels (are there any other at cricket events?), disappeared without a trace after the panel that featured Saurav, thus denying their viewers a chance to witness this historic event. But the Indian print and internet media was well represented, TRP ratings not being the determinant of their coverage.
West Indies, Afghanistan, and 300 Years of USA cricket
What I was bowled by was the eloquent discourse by Sir Hilary McD. Beckles. Sir Hilary is well known as a historian, professor, and Principal and Pro-VC of UWI. His rousing speech focused on the role of race in West Indies cricket. He spoke of how Harold Austin had insisted that George Francis, a black groundsman from Barbados, to join the 1923 tour, thus breaking the color barrier. Francis was the new ball bowler for West Indies in their inaugural test at Lord’s in 1930. In a matter of deep irony, he said, the problem has reversed now and it was getting increasingly difficult to find white men to play cricket in the West Indies.
As part of my own presentation, I announced in a self-congratulatory tone, that we had a picture in the DreamCricket.com collection illustrating a scene from West Indies’ first tour of USA in 1886. Sir Hilary walked to me after my presentation to tell me that he was going to send me a book he had written on West Indies’ first tour of North America. After my return, I searched for the book and found the picture I was so proud of was on that book's cover. Not just West Indies cricket, Sir Hilary's knowledge of USA cricket was equally extensive.
I was scheduled to speak on the second day. But my speech followed Peter Frawley’s speech about Afghanistan’s rapid strides in world cricket. In cricket, there can be nothing more inspiring than Afghanistan’s journey - they traversed nearly the entire length of WCL 'chutes and ladders' in under 12 months and now enjoy the coveted ODI status. This is real life Lagaan!
After Frawley's inspiring speech, I realized that speaking about USA’s membership woes was going to sound a bit tired. Instead, I decided to focus on USA’s glorious past and promising future. The first documented cricket match in USA was in 1709, which means that USA cricket's 300th birthday happily coincides with ICC's 100th.
I told the audience of the many firsts that USA was proud of - the first international cricket match, first overseas tour by England and West Indies, first overseas collegiate match (against U Penn) by a combined team from Oxford University and Cambridge University - an Oxford cricketer in the audience was startled to hear that! I also spoke about the legendary Bart King, about Ranji's tour of USA, and about Don Bradman's honeymoon tour.
I spoke about the increasing popularity of cricket among kids, and positive strides made off and on the ground under the direction of USA Cricket's new CEO. I spoke of the presidents (from Washington to Obama) that played cricket and of the book called Netherland that everyone (including Obama in Washington) was reading.
Click on the image below to browse through the slide deck that formed by presentation.
Speaking of USA's lasting impact in the commercialization of cricket, I spoke about the visionary Mark Mascarenhas - an American. (I did not mention that other American - Stanford!). Did not forget to remind the administrators that USA's cricket fans greatly enhanced their coffers - USA is the second biggest market for cricket broadcast rights. Of course, using somewhat gratuitous pictures, I reminded the audience about USA inspired Twenty20 entertainment - courtesy of Washington Redskins and White Mischief girls.
There were many other incidents and people that made this an unforgettable event. Sir Clive Lloyd, who some Oxonians mistook for Don King, the boxing promoter, was generous and gracious. In a splendid moment of reconciliation, Mr. Bedi said he did not hold a grudge against Mr. Lloyd's team for what happened at Sabina Park (the fourth match on the 1976 tour), which saw India declare its second inning for 97 for five. The remaining batsmen were injured!
David Frith, the founding editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly who famously ate his words accompanied by red wine (he had said he would eat his words if India won the 1983 World Cup), was a treasure trove of knowledge. As we walked back from St. Anthony's to St. John's, we spoke about cricket across the pond and he was pleased to find out about DreamCricket's efforts.
A walkthrough of the Impact Index, an invention of Jaideep Verma and Jatin Thakkar was well received. The Impact Index allows cricketers to be compared in a manner that is more comprehensive than plain old averages. The method considers contextual factors such as strength of opposition and pitch conditions. I was so impressed with their work that DreamCricket is deploying the index for the players in the forthcoming DreamCricket organized Radiant Info USA Twenty20.
Picture: L to R - The New Age Cricket Panel - (L to R) Ronojoy Sen, Nalin Mehta, Venu Palaparthi
Gideon Haigh, whose literary range extends from the Googly to Google, was impressive. Boria Majumdar, inquisitive as ever, must be thanked - the conference was his idea. Also memorable were speeches by the Presidents and CEOs of ICC - past and present including Ehsan Mani, David Richards, Haroon Lorgat and David Morgan. They spoke of ICC's growth from a file cabinet at MCC's offices to its current status as the international governing body.
Talking cricket with Don Neely of New Zealand Cricket is something I will cherish along with dinner-time interactions with Brian Stoddart, Anthony Bateman, Simon Sweetman, Peter Hutton, Nalin Mehta, Manoj Joshi, Ronojoy Sen and Shantanu Guha Ray.
The tour of the Lord's museum was fascinating. Since I was carrying back some Mongoose bats from England, I walked into the museum with a half-dozen of these radically different bats - did I see a frown on WG Grace's face on the wall?
As I left London, I realized that I had forgotten to take a picture of the poster that hangs in the Lord's museum. It is a Pennsylvania Railroad poster advertising the 1899 visit of Ranji to the Merion Cricket Club in Philadelphia. That will have to wait until my next visit.