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July 3, 2000

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Cricket uncorked

Harsha Bhogle

Everyone, everyone except the BCCI that is, seems concerned at what is happening to their favourite sport. Mail to rediff has been split between anger and dismay; indeed, one of the letters I got from a well-wisher even expressed concern at my future in case cricket in India collapsed!

And so this little piece, addressed to all those cricket lovers who are wondering, or are convinced, that their game is going the Titanic way.

These are troubled times, especially because the response of the administration has been to set up the Asian Cricket Foundation and talk of raising more money. Dear, dear, when will people realize that it was their unbridled greed, their attempt to put money before cricket rather than the other way around, that led to the mess in the first place. And surely, the way ahead would be to put cricket up front, to clean and improve the product, and then see what it is still worth. Instead, the great arrogance of money still speaks loudly.

Without saying it in so many words, both the ACF and Zee TV are saying that they want a big share of the limitless pockets that the Asian audience seems to have. Actually, I think we need a strong clarification here. It isnít Asian pockets that are deep, it is Indian pockets that are. It reminds me of the time everyone spoke of the great Jayasuriya-Kaluwitharana pairing when only Jayasuriya was getting any runs!

And Indian pockets are deep because Indian cricket lovers are (were?) willing to pay decent money to go to stadiums and put up with a lot of advertising on a telecast. But does that basic premise hold good any more? I hope it doesnít because we need the administration to address itself to issues surrounding the game rather than to keep counting chickens. A lot of those arenít going to hatch at this rate.

And yet, I am optimistic because two days ago, the game proved to me that it is bigger than all the pretenders around it. The West Indies played England in a fantastic cricket match and not a single person who saw it can say he wasnít spell bound. It wasnít just a great sporting occasion, it showed shades of human character that make a good clean game of cricket the greatest spectacle you can see.

First the behaviour. The best behaved team in the world showed why they have achieved cult status over the years; why, in spite of beating the daylights out of everyone else, the world still mourns a West Indian defeat. Curtly Ambrose beat the bat enough times to win the match for the West Indies on his own but the lips stayed sealed. The eyes spoke, like they always do, but they spoke a language of frustration, not vengeance. Glenn McGrath and Allan Donald, great bowlers as they are, would have screamed like a spoilt child asking for more ice-cream.

And occasionally Michael Atherton smiled back; a smile of resignation and of acceptance that he was up against a master. Ambrose at Lord's was a sight to behold, in the first 11 overs and in the last four when even a single seemed like divine intervention.

It was the same with Courtney Walsh. The eyebrows went up, the eyes knitted together and the feet turned to walk back. Cricket was always meant to be played like this; quietly and with dignity. And it isnít just the old guard. Wavell Hinds, who with a bit of luck and grooming will become a very fine player, cloaked his disappointment at being given out with admirable restraint. I think it has a bit to do with Jimmy Adams, a gentleman in the Mark Taylor mould who, in the midst of the disappointment of losing a close game, remembered to go down to the Edrich Stand with his team to acknowledge the support they had got.

It isnít something we see on the sub-continent too often and that is why I keep referring to the arrogance of cricket. And that is why it is always said that humility is the measure of a man.

But to be fair to them, England were their equals; on the field, in their attitude and in their etiquette. And nothing symbolized the culture of the game more to me than a gesture from Dominic Cork towards the end. As the West Indies team, and Darren Gough, waited for him, he left the ground with two stumps tucked into his armpit, then quickly walked back and presented one to Courtney Walsh in acknowledgement of what had been an absolutely outstanding spell of bowling.

I have always been a great admirer of Corkís skill as a cricketer. But success does strange things to people; at worst, it tempts them into taking the game for granted. Over the years, a lot of people have received the old-fashioned kick up the backside and the star in Cork received a bit of a dusting. Initially he sulked but he wanted to play for England more than anything else. It was in this atmosphere that Derbyshire made him captain (a bit like getting a spoilt brat married, in our culture !) and the show of faith and responsibility transformed him.

England need Cork, they need his aggression and they need his attitude because they tend to pick too many soft cricketers there. His presence made Andrew Caddick fire again, for he is either awful or brilliant, and gave England five hard cricketers in the side (Atherton, Stewart and Gough, the other three). Once Thorpe and Hussain are back for Ramprakash and Hick, and they find a replacement for Knight, and that will give them eight or nine tough players, England will be a difficult side to beat; not just for the West Indies but for most teams. For England's problem has traditionally been their attitude and the Corks and the Goughs and Athertons are what they need more of.

The West Indies have problems but you can be sure of one thing. You wonít see them erupt. Meanwhile, donít miss a ball from Ambrose and Walsh for they have aged better than any bowler that I can remember. Only Richard Hadlee, maybe, bowled as well in his declining years.

And they are not going to be around for too long. The West Indies are going to be the side to bat against once they are gone!

But to get back to my initial point. This game showed that we neednít fear the Titanic. The playing of the game, with its attendant good conduct, is so much larger than the pomposity of running the game. And thanks to television, we can go in search of a good game !

Harsha Bhogle

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