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Is it time for Neutral Groundsmen? - Suresh Menon Column
by Suresh Menon
Feb 16, 2009
By Suresh Menon

As far as is known, John Donne was no cricketer. Yet what he said in another context nearly four centuries ago applies to the game today. To adapt what he said, no game is an island entire of itself... the game's death anywhere diminishes the sport... send not to know for whom the bell tolls...

To put it in plain language, it does not matter whether cricket was embarrassed in Antigua or in Karachi or Mumbai; wherever such things happen, it affects the game as a whole. To call off a Test match in the second over because the conditions are bad - no one, officials, umpires or anyone else was aware of the disaster waiting to happen at the Stadium named after one of the greats of the game in Antigua - is a stunning slap across the face of the game which must see red cheeks wherever the game is played.

I fully understand what Sir Viv Richards meant when he said it was like drilling a hole through his heart. Cricket cannot afford to be made the laughing stock of, especially in regions where it is struggling to survive, like in the West Indies. International cricket must showcase the best the game has to offer if it is to attract a new generation of players (and sponsors). Threatened from outside by the popularity of other sports like basketball and soccer in the Caribbean, and from within by the new format of the game which has already made a bunch of players millionaires overnight, cricket can ill afford to put up this kind of show. That a Test match was hurriedly played to make up at the Antigua Recreation Ground - also unkempt and uncared for - is no consolation.

In the past, when tours were not as frequent, and sporting globalization was yet to arrive, the impact of a disaster like the one in Antigua might not have been as great; officials of that generation were adept at sweeping things under the carpet anyway. But today, it can be truly said that if a player catches a cold in Antigua, someone sneezes in Kolkata.

Sadly for a team that once ruled the cricketing world, most things connected with cricket in the West Indies today are either tragic or farcical, sometimes both, as in the case of Bob Woolmer's death during the 2007 World Cup. What happened in Antigua will affect the sport more than it will affect the island, and that is why it might affect other cricket-playing countries. The game is poised at a delicate stage in its evolution, with money and sponsorship heading in one direction, while the essence of the game lies in a different direction altogether.

The danger, when such things happen, is that sometimes the solution might be worse than the problem. Part of the charm of the game lies in the range of the conditions in which it is played; wickets in Australia are different from those in India, ground, weather and a whole deal of natural conditions affect the game. Great players conquer not just the opposition, but the conditions too. But when a disaster like the one at Antigua occurs, there will be cries to standardize conditions - use drop-in wickets, perhaps, and ready-made outfield that can be transported from centre to centre. Perhaps I exaggerate, but anything is better than the embarrassment of a game called off in the second over because of the conditions.

What can the ICC do? For once here is a problem that it is not directly responsible for. Neutral umpires are in place. Is it time for neutral groundsmen too?

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