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The Changing Face of Cricket

Cricket will never be the same. The game that we know and love has been violently ripped out from under us.

It has seemed like an extremely swift process as well, although it has actually been many years in the making, simmering under the surface. It is only now that the full extent of the changes and implications are becoming crystal clear. In its pursuit for professionalism and growth, it has fallen victim to a hostile takeover.

The face of cricket is changing primarily from three semi-related sources. The creation and initial success of Indian Premier League, the rise in popularity for the Twenty20 format of the game and India’s new found power at the top of world cricket.

The magnitude of the IPL hit home last week when Australia’s Channel Ten announced a multi-million dollar deal with the Indian Premier League to broadcast the new competition that will pit the world’s superstars against each other, located in the financial home of cricket, India.

This was no longer some mythical monster growing across the seas that could only be read about in the newspaper, but a very real situation that will be flashed into living rooms around the country. And it’s not just restricted to the few with Pay-TV either, it will be accessible to all with an antenna.

The IPL poses some serious problems, primarily a huge imbalance created in the cricketing economy. Its budgets and turnovers look like they will dwarf those of international cricket, threatening to make the latter a mere sideshow in the greater scheme of things.

The major immediate threat is the IPL schedule muscling itself into the current cricketing timetable, with such influence, it is only a matter of time before we see less international cricket and more franchise cricket. Some areas of Test match cricket were already taking a hit to the more marketable formats, before the Indian leagues were formed, so it can only be downhill from here, for those who love watching the purest form of the game. It won’t be a sudden elimination of a number of regular international fixtures, but a gradual eating away of a match here and a series there. It will be very hard for the ICC to resist the lobbying of the BCCI and IPL and recent events have shown that the ICC lacks the spine to stand up to its most wealthy benefactor.

It’s hard to feel for the players though, complaining about the massive workload of the international schedule ad nauseum, then lining up with their hands out the second wads of cash are on offer to play overseas, makes them look like hypocrites in the eyes of many. Not to mention those who take with one hand and berate their providers with the other.

They shouldn’t be blamed either, like anyone in life, they have the right to make the most of their skills and look for the highest bidders willing to pay for them, in the case of MS Dhoni and Andrew Symonds earning over a million US dollars at auction, in an effort to secure their futures. Most in the position would do the same, it’s just the illusion of cricketers being righteous figures with purely altruistic motives, who do what they do because they love representing their country that has been well and truly shattered. For some with longer memories though, it never existed.

As Andrew Symonds raised this week in his weekend newspaper column, players ending their careers early is another concern and although measures including no-object clauses have been put in place to reduce the amount of early retirements, it’s not so far fetched to assume it is on the back of many older players minds. Whereas in the past the player would fight the pain and push on, now they have options, multi-million dollar options.

On the other hand, it’s been argued that older players letting go of spots for youngsters in the side might be the serious advantage presented here. In this day and age, where players are able to stay fitter for longer and push all previous boundaries in terms of fitness, older players tend to stick around longer, past their peak, doing just enough to retain spots, often based on previous glories and reputations. With them out of the way, youngsters will be given a chance to impress and excite.

It must be noted that the IPL and its predecessor, the ICL, were only enabled through the advent of Twenty20, a vehicle easy to market to the masses and with India enjoying recent success in the format, it would always be a very secure and profitable undertaking.

Twenty20 has played a massive part in changing the cricket landscape and will undoubtedly do so in the future. Its fate was sealed after the recent World Championships in South Africa, with was an emphatic triumph as opposed to the lacklustre one-day World Cup which disappointed all.

Twenty20 threatens to move in on the international schedule big time. Previously only one game was played per series over the past couple of years – nothing more than a novelty really.

But that is looking likely to change, with the crowds voting with their feet and all the money seemingly in the shortest format of the game. Tests and ODIs are up against their toughest competition to date.

Critics argue that the main problems with Twenty20s are the extreme disadvantage to the bowlers, who are reduced to mere cannon-fodder, and the risk the format poses in transforming the batsmen to brainless sloggers and bowlers into defensive players, unwilling to take any risks.

Pundits worry that Twenty20 style cricket will find its way into the other formats. But perhaps the players are smarter than we give them credit for and are able to properly differentiate between formats, switching mindsets as is required. Or we could see Tests that last two days, each side scoring at 10 an over, but all out before lunch. Who knows?

The real thing missing in Twenty20s though is the sustained efforts of cricketers over long periods of time that make the other formats great. Whereas Twenty20s encourage flash in the pan performances and cameo efforts, the longer formats enable building quality innings for the batsmen and sustained and sometimes mesmerising spells from the bowlers. There is nothing better in cricket than watching a battle between two players over a substantial number of overs, matching their wills and going head to head, each vigorously determined to overcome the other. It is something that you just don’t see in Twenty20 matches that are over before you reach for your second beer.

That’s not to say the current ODI setup is ideal. It’s not at all. Too many meaningless games and series are taking place, boring middle overs where batsmen nudge and nurdle part-time bowlers for singles and a World Cup that just doesn’t work are the main problems that the ICC need to address pretty quickly. If something is not done soon, we might see just one ODI per tour, nothing more than a novelty really.

Bigger than all of the format wars however, is the advent of cricket’s new superpower, India. If anyone still thought that England, Australia or even the ICC were the major players in world cricket, they’re sadly mistaken.

As we saw with the Harbhajan case and the Bucknor episode in the recent Border-Gavaskar Trophy, India are not afraid to throw their weight around to get what they want. They have the support of many of the other nations as well, who have no choice but to follow India, partly out of gratitude and partly out of fear.

The BCCI have shown with the IPL that they are more than able to change the face of world cricket, quickly and at will. They have shown with the ICL that they will fight their enemies and not rest till they are destroyed. Any threat to their prosperity and expansion plans will not be taken lightly and measures will be immediately put in place as soon as any threat arrives.

Still, India’s ascent to world cricket’s throne does not have to be a bad thing at all. India now have an incredible responsibility and have become the guardians of the game. They are now under the spotlight as to how they will use their new powers. Will they look to better the game or will they look to merely exploit it? Will the game flourish under their control or will it become a soulless revenue raiser? Will the game retain its identity that has been cultivated over the past few centuries or will it tragically become commercialised and Americanised? All these questions are for India alone to answer. Let’s hope they make the right decisions and their time as cricket’s superpower can be looked back on in admiration and respect.

As it stands, we have no idea where the next few years are going to take us, it is all speculation at this stage, but what we do know is, cricket will never be the same, for better or for worse.

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