5 pointsAs cricket's flagship global tournament stumbles and trundles through its league stage in England, one thing is becoming nakedly obvious. There is a gaping quality gap between the top 5 teams in the tournament compared to the rest. So much so, that the gap between the top 3 to 5 associates, and the bottom 5 "test" teams in the WC is much smaller. This fact was re-inforced by the manner in which the West Indies managed to squeak through the qualifiers and make its way into the World Cup - an eventuality that only occurred due to the dual divine intervention of weather and a poor umpiring decision. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that either of Scotland, Ireland, Zimbabwe would be extremely competitive against the likes of Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, or even Pakistan. The latter, on their "bad days" of which there seem to be increasingly many. However, this little write-up isn't about the injustice meted out to the teams that missed out on the WC - as legitimate as that grievance is. My concern is with the yawning quality gap between the handful of teams at the top vs the other 'test' member nations in cricket. Given the structural and financial constructs of global cricket, odds are that such a gap not only exists, but threatens to solidify into permanence and potentially widen. Such an outcome may provide some gleeful entertainment for fans in the short-term, as historic rivalries tamely meander towards a cycle of repeated beat-downs, it is clear that this is an existential threat to the sport as it exists today. The reality of cricket is that for national teams to be competitive at the highest levels, they need to stand on a foundation of a deep and healthy domestic first class cricket structure. It is not a co-incidence that the top 3 teams likely to make the semi-finals are the socalled "big 3" - happen to be the ones with the best and sustainable domestic cricket structures. As competitive as the kiwis have been in this WC - their domestic system is far from stable, and South Africa are on the cusp of heading the same way. The domestic cricket challenges and problems in West Indies and Sri Lanka are well-known and have been moaned about for donkeys' years. And let's not even get started on the shambles that is the Pakistani set-up. Which is about to undergo its umpteenth "reform" by a self-styled savior with good intentions. Its a hapless repetition of the same approach, albeit with a man at the top whose intentions are beyond reproach. But in spite of that, it is eminently foolish to expect different results when you are doing the same thing over and over. However well-meaning the current leaders of Pakistan Cricket are, they are more or less doomed to essentially the same results, unless Pakistan's national fortunes beyond cricket manage to improve - an outcome even more unlikely than me winning the lottery. And I don't even buy lottery tickets. I am not choosing to dwell on Pakistan's misfortunes only to kick a "rival" when they are down. Pakistan is a good example of a team with a large sustainable market behind them, and one that is relatively well-funded. It is simplistic, and inaccurate, to point the finger at the ICC or the "Pig 3" and attribute the dysfunctional domestic systems to a lack of resources. Pakistan has hundreds of millions of passionate fans, a legacy of supportive sponsors. Sri Lanka has a steady income stream from a steady diet of LOI games hosted against India. i.e. Its not just the money. Extrapolate the current situation a few years out, and the gap between the 'haves' and 'have-nots' may end up in a death-spiral. Like anything else, if you are not growing, then by definition, you are shrinking. Even cricket's golden goose - the masses of Indian fans, may start getting weary if the team runs out of quality opponents to root against. Accepting the status quo, is essentially accepting an outcome where Franchise T20 inevitably becomes the primary format of the sport, with national cricket relegated to occasional tournaments, global or otherwise. So "TL;DR", my point in this write-up, is to ask this question - how can the ICC assist its member boards in stabilizing and improving their domestic first class cricket systems? Till date, the ICC has functioned as a loose federation of member boards, and its actual executive powers are limited to administrating global tournaments and rules. I think the time has come for the ICC to recognize this enormous threat to cricket's sustainable future and work on potential solutions. That the ICC is a toothless tiger, and powerless to enforce its will onto the first class cricket structures of its member boards, is a given. But it is well within their abilities, even financially, to come up with a detailed proposal outlining best practices and minimum standards that can demonstrate the pathway to a healthy domestic cricket setup. Given limitations of weather, facilities, resources, what should be the breakdown of the number of games by format be? To what degree should 4-day cricket be prioritized? Should young players be shielded from T20 cricket so that they develop their foundational cricket skills until a later date? What is the bests way to create feeder systems at lower levels - lower divisions club cricket, university and school cricket - that can bring and keep the game in touch with its grass roots, while creating the player supply for a healthy and competitive First-Class setup? These are questions that need to be answered by all countries. Not just the struggling ones. The least that the ICC can do, is provide a basic primer that can serve as an ideal to aim at, if not attain and surpass. Such a proposal would be helpful, not only to the likes of SL, WI, Afg, but also to the top tier of associate cricket nations - Scotland, Ireland, Nepal, USA etc. As of now, each member nation is left to its own devices and plans, to devise and structure their first-class cricket. And of course, there is no way for the ICC to come up with a "one size fits all" plan, given the diversity of variables faced by the different countries - from USA to Nepal. But, there are enough common problems out there, faced by almost all cricket teams, test and associates, that a properly designed 'template' for First-class Cricket could make a genuine difference. At a minimum, it would empower the well-wishers of the sport to hold their national boards to some degree of accountability. Think about a franchise business model - a 7-11 convenience store, or a fast food restaurant. Each individual location is often independently owned and operated, but they get major guidance in how to structure and operate their business. Obviously those franchise models benefit from stringent ownership rules that allow the central authority to mandate compliance, but absent such explicit authority, the ICC is well within its rights and scope, to show the way. Ultimately, the fate and competitiveness of teams rest with the competency of their national cricket boards. Maybe we will see some creative solutions emerge in the future, potentially even along the lines suggested here on this forum.
3 pointsIt was the year 2000, I was just another Indian kid who watched and played cricket with much pleasure. I switched on ESPN and saw India playing Kenya and a young tall left arm spinner bowling, so I assumed there is another spinner in the team to augment Anil Kumble. Obviously at that age (10), I was not a keen follower like today, completely unbeknownst of the fact that ICC Champions Trophy (known as knockout trophy at that time) was under way and India had won its first match defeating the hosts. It quickly dawned upon me however in the following match when Sachin had a smashing start against Mcgrath, that this was notjust yet another cricket tournament. India lost wickets and in came this tall left arm spinner again. Another fact dawned upon me that this player might be a batsman. Thereafter I just remember crisp drives down the ground and stylish flicks against an Australian bowling attack comprising Lee, Gillespie and an exasperated Steve Waugh (apart from the great Mcgrath) and when finally he got out on 84 runs of 80 balls, me and may be most of Indian cricket fans warmed to Yuvraj Singh. I had become a fan, in the following match Yuvraj flamboyantly smashed the potent SA attack displaying uber confidence seldom seen in Indian cricketers of that era ( I had torrid memories of Jacob Martin, Sameer Dighe, T Kumaran et al making unspectacular debuts not long ago). India did not end up winning the trophy, Chris Cairns ruined my day, however Ganguly had unearthed Yuvraj Singh. Next week, while surfing channels I suddenly see Indian team in the field again, this time in the different continent, in the desert of Emirates. India lost that tournament funnily and ironically called the Champions Trophy. India were shadow of their selves, in sharp contrast to the original Champions Trophy they had dominated a week earlier and more disappointingly Yuvraj was feeble. Watching him bat against the mystery of Muralitharan was an unedifying sight and so came a conclusion Yuvraj struggles against the turning ball. India played lots of cricket in the following season but Yuvraj was not the central figure, to even more disenchantment he was dropped all together. He became an irregular member of the team, however there was this defiant back to the wall effort against SL at their cricketing citadel SSC, Colombo, which is still etched in memory. But the infrequent place in the side finally led to omission. Yuvraj was forgotten but not for long. Indian one day performances and luck seemed to dwindling when India contrived to go 2-1 down against an average Zimbabwe in early 2002. Yuvraj had just made a comeback and once again I was unaware of that occurrence. India were in trouble, staring down the barrel of a series loss, at home. But Yuvraj led way and rescued India (first of many such instances ) with his U19 mate Kaif and one match later salvaged India's home record, as he pulverized Zimbabwe with a brutal 75, batting the hapless Zimbabwe out of the series. Now Yuvraj had the performances to go with the enormous backing of his endearing captain. July 13, 2002 was not a watershed for Yuvraj alone but also for India' ODI fortunes. Repeated failures in the finals had become the identity of Ganguly led Indian team, but it was dispelled temporarily when Yuvraj in company with Kaif did what was the supposed impossible. India had won the tournament, wherein Yuvraj had starred, interestingly with both bat and ball, not to forget his acrobatic fielding skills hitherto not seen in Indian cricket. His player of the match performance in the first game of the tournament was testament to that fact, a half century with 3 wickets to boot. Yuvraj Singh was now a bonafide star, let alone a certainty. I had become an even bigger fan, Indian team was winning, the dynamics, team ethos had changed, diffident team of late 99 and early 2000 was a thing of the past. Yuvraj scored his maiden ODI century the following year and another one against Australia which excruciatingly was not enough to win India the match but the elegant southpaw was still seeking consistency of performances. He was still a second tier performer, a patch on the enormous talent he was purportedly possessing. However, he eventually came of age with a string of 3 consecutive Man of the tournament performances in the season 2005-2006, in process flaying Pakistan teaming up with Dhoni (a partnership which was to become one of the most successful in ODI cricket, certainly my favourite ) and continuing his supremacy of England, his most endearing opponent. Yuvraj was now elite, powerful middle order batsman and India's lifeline along with the then savage MS Dhoni. It was the year of Champions Trophy again, the tournament which had brought Yuvraj to limelight. India were top contenders not because it was being staged in India but also owing to India's tremendous ODI run leading upto the tournament. However, Yuvraj and India had a major misfortune (it was not going to be first of his career), Yuvraj suffered a knee injury caused while playing a frivolous after practice activity. Such had become his aura in limited overs setup, India looked fragile and results were unsatisfactory. Yuvraj recuperated and came back for the ill- fated World Cup in 2007. India endured the indignity of first round exit but Yuvraj was back. 2007 was to be the year of Yuvraj. MS Dhoni, surprisingly named the captain of an Indian team denuded of 3 stalwarts for the inaugural World T20, termed Yuvraj as India's trump card in the pre-tournament presser. The Indian captain was not far off as Yuvraj lighted up the event with hitting of unbelievable quality. Most were still in afterglow of Yuvraj's astonishing achievement of dispatching six sixes in an over of frazzled Stuart Broad, when he obliterated an all pace attack of Australia in the semi final with such disdain, not endured by that all conquering Australian side in many a years. India won the semis, Australians had been nudged out by Yuvraj (he did an encore 4 years later) and eventually the WorldT20 title defeating the arch rivals Pakistan in a closely contested match. Yuvraj had now joined the pantheon of Indian legends, his name was part of India’s folklore, winning an ICC event brings those attendant attributes. ODI distinction notwithstanding, Yuvraj was still seeking a permanent spot in that lustrous Indian test middle order. Hopes of that attainment were seemingly realized when Yuvraj continued his penchant for scoring test centuries against Pakistan (3rd in 3 years) in an innings of 169 in 2007, replete with shots of supreme class. By dint of that performance, Yuvraj found his way in that elusive test middle order ahead of classy VVS Laxman for the subsequent Indian tour down under. However, the test demons remained unconquered, same technical frailties reappeared and it was unfortunately much the same when it came to test exploits thereafter. Yuvraj never really became a test player. Things were not particularly rosy on the limited overs front as well when Yuvraj was summarily dropped from ODI side for the Asia Cup, a year before 2011 World Cup. I, was thinking the unthinkable, Yuvraj may not make it to the World Cup playing XI after all. As things unfolded, he became India’s most influential player in the tournament which India won and his all round performances earning him the coveted Player of the Tournament award. MS Dhoni, his friend and most lethal ally, always considered Yuvraj to be a colossal match winner in short formats and he betrayed that belief by promoting the left hander in one of early matches in the tournament and the southpaw repayed the faith with a sparking half century. He eventually ended the tournament with 15 wickets and 5 fifty plus scores, most of them in adversity, the zenith of which was when Yuvraj finally drove Australia out of the World Cup for first time since 1996, the year I started watching cricket. Australian juggernaut had been halted and there was no stopping India, propelled by Yuvraj the bowler in subsequent knock out matches, India became World Champions and Yuvraj became immortal. Six months in cricket is a long time, sometimes its enough time for a settled cricket team to disintegrate. So it happened with this World Cup winning Team India, it was a cascade of gigantic proportions. Exaction of test numero uno status notwithstanding, consecutive test defeats amounted to a mortifying eight. Indian team was going through the motions and were without Yuvraj, still recovering from non-malignant lung tumour, an ailment that had kept the World Cup champion out of all ODI matches played since the World Cup triumph. As it transpired, Yuvraj missed the annual tri nation tournament in Australia. In midst of the series , the news broke Yuvraj had been diagnosed with cancer, the shockwaves were alike for his team mates and transfixed fans like me. Not for the first time though, Yuvraj made a comeback this time putting aside his debilitating affliction and life was back on the track. Not surprisingly the comeback in cricket was not far off, there were glitters of brilliance, shades of prime, that backlift, that flow, those sixes but it was still not the same. Yuvraj was not the same. India most definitely got deprived of some more years of Yuvi magic. But Yuvraj had already done enough to remain etched in the annals of Indian cricket history. All the best Yuvi!!!
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