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Less is more
by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
Jul 09, 2008
The start of summer is a very busy season for the US Meteorological Department, as the hurricane season rolls in along the Atlantic ocean front, routinely wreaking havoc along the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and the Florida coastlines. In order to distinguish one devastation from the other, the Department came up with an alphabetical nomenclature for the hurricanes, from A-Z, till the end of the season sometime in October. Obviously, not every cyclone is one for the record books, and it almost a freak occurrence that two or more ravage the seaboard within the same season, like how it happened a few years ago with Katrina and Rita. Just how can one recollect one particular hurricane from among the many that roll by every year, depends on the destruction and the devastation left in its wake. As the Weather Channel's documentaries point out, one in probably 30 hurricanes actually make an impact and leave an everlasting impression in people's minds. What about the rest? Well, they become statistics, mere numbers, that talk only about the incident and never about the impact. Sadly, the spate of the ODI tournaments, of late, has been reduced to a similar state.

Every year, the ICC releases its calendar, packed with tests, ODIs (and with the current success of the very limited version of the game, the short-changing ones too), much like the Meteorological department, throwing a gauntlet to the average sports fan, challenging him how far and how long he can keep with the table of contents. A long test series is followed immediately by a now obligatory triangular tournament (which is never a knockout, but rather a painful round-robin), and a rush of inconsequential tournaments involving weaklings (just to keep the little guys interested in the club, collecting their membership dues) before the start of the next test series, and the cycle goes on..and on..and on.

There was once a time when results of major tournaments were either celebrated or rued, depending on the result. An early exit was followed by a brutal postmortem, and a victory, a long drawn out celebration. People talked about the results, people cared about the results, in effect, the game actually mattered, it amounted to something. Today, however, it is hard to name at least two significant tournaments that happened in the previous year or the year before. Kitply Cup, Fevicol Champions, Tortoise Mosquito Coil's Clash of the Titans - no matter how much the players keep complaining about the glut, the game never got out of the rut. Just what meaning or to what purpose does a Kitply Cup serve, other than meeting the obligatory bi-/tri- lateral requirements? And if tournament glut is one issue, the subcontinent does not make it any easier, by the tagging the run glut in those tournaments along with it, making it near impossible to care for the sport anymore. If it is a given, that on pitches that are as flat as the AutoBahn that spell death knell to the hurlers, scores in excess of 300-400 are the norm, and the only interest in the game remains, which marauder is going to breach the 200 barrier first. Cricket becomes as good as professional wrestling, in terms of the audience's investment of their interest and passion.

If the recent move by the Australian Board to do away with the annual triangular tournaments is any indication, the day is not far when other boards follow suit, citing the dea(r)th of the cricket fan. Reason - blatant overdose. The situation is sad, because the average subcontinent fan went from 0-100 mph in a little over a second, having near to nothing coverage 20 years ago, and next to everything but the dressing room privileges, now. There never was a graded and a guarded approach in regard to how the sport is marketed to the fan. Just like the BCCI's diktat - all or nothing - it has become a take it or leave it scenario. But is the BCCI (or other boards, for that matter) really ready, if the audience chooses option no. 2 and leaves the fanatical following? The current situation is how the economists characterize as 'bubble'. Critically, it is a bubble waiting to burst.

What can be done to avert the course of inevitable crash and burn? The solution, like the problem, is not so straight-forward. Fewer games and fewer tournaments, one may say. But with the ICC becoming a push and pull political arena, where the age old and the noveau forces constantly are at loggerheads in all matters regarding cricket, the bitter pill of fewer games would not sit well with anyone, more so when there are serious monies involved. It is a tough act, balancing the cause of sport and championing the interest of the fan. Because until now, the voice of the fan is never heard in the halls of the game. It was always either about the players or the administrators. Any game is built on the interest and the support of the fan, and fan alone. And once the sport loses him (like how it happened with the American Major League Baseball in the 90s, following a strikeout of the players), no amount of cajoling, or other carnival acts, can bring him back through the turnstiles or make him sit in front of the TV set.

The Future Tour Programs, the billions in broadcasting rights, the endorsements and the advertisements, are all futures trading, as of now, a pure speculative market, all based on the optimistic delusion of never waning interest of the fan. But if the ICC continues to flood the marketplace with meaningless tournaments and mindless games, making each game/tournament as irrelevant as the one before and as the one next, guess, where else a sports fan would turn to, placing his interests and bets? American Football? International Basketball? European Soccer? - all of which all tightly controlled, efficiently run and always aware and wary of the fan. Right at the start itself, cricket has an uphill task going against other nimble and mobile sports, in grabbing a fresh sports fan, and the administrators seem to compound the issue with a lack of a coherent vision for the game. And once the threshold is reached, the cricketing bodies would find it much easier replacing a player complaining of fatigue, than they would, replacing a fan.

A decent start would be to give it a rest. It really is that simple.
 
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