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Cricket needs to play it right

Gaurav Kalra | | Updated: October 7, 2015, 5:00 PM IST

Imagine yourself court-side at Roland Garros or Flushing Meadows for the men's singles final. But the heavens have opened up and since these arenas do not have retractable roofs like Wimbledon or the Australian Open, you can't do much other than wait for the rain to relent. What if the organisers offered you a deal as the rain faded? Your finalists will now play a best of three set final and not best of five.

If they aren't able to get through three sets, they would share the title. You see, they have tickets booked to fly out of town on Monday and there is no provision for a reserve day to decide a winner. Ever heard of similar farce in tennis? No? Because it simply does not happen. Because tennis values its core value- the eminence of the contest above all else. Because administration in tennis is sensible not arbitrary. Because if you claim to be a world sport, you aspire to a standard of governance. On Sunday, cricket provided more evidence that it is run by a ridiculously amateurish method.

Why is a marquee tournament different to your everyday, run of the mill battles? Because it demands a higher level of performance over a consistently long period. To win a Grand Slam, a tennis professional is expected to win seven best of five matches over two weeks. He can win a regular ATP tour event by winning four or five best of three matches over a week. There is no compromise made on that expectation if he wishes to lift the trophy. If he can get through each of those matches in straight sets, well done! If it takes five sets in each of those matches, so be it. However, there is no room for an 'abridged' version at any point in his campaign. If it rains, wait it out and return on the next day to complete the match. But you can be a Grand Slam champion only if you win three of the five sets in the final. As for joint winners, that concept itself mocks the very idea of sport. Sharing titles is gibberish. You either win or lose.

On Sunday, India was crowned (deservedly) Champions Trophy champions. For the last few weeks, they had played compelling 50-over cricket. But in the summit clash, they were asked to win the title in a game reduced to less than half that number of overs. They, and their opponents, picked a squad for one format of the game and were asked to contest another. Once they named an XI on the assumption they were playing a 50-over game, both weren't permitted to make any changes to the personnel although the dynamics of the contest were drastically changed. Cricket was being typically rigid.

To give the paying public the opportunity to watch a game is a noble idea. But to protect the sanctity of a sporting occasion is equally if not more important. This was a 50-over a side tournament and its final needed to be played over that duration as well. If that meant it spilled into another day, so be it. If that meant schedules needed tweaking, so be it. It is the only way to arrive at a worthy winner.

The summit clash of any event is the culmination of activity over a period of time. Each of the games preceding the final in the tournament demanded skills of a certain kind - skills required to win a 50-over a side contest. Each of the eight teams was asked to execute those skills and the two teams that did so better than the six others were left standing for one final skirmish. Suddenly, they were expected to re-format not just their playing styles but also their thought process. Just so, the tournament would end on the day it was meant to. Just so, the crowds that collected at the stadium got some value for the money they paid. But who is to know most wouldn't have changed plans to return on Monday to watch what they essentially paid for - a one-day international.

Cricket's servility to its commercial arrangements with Television are now bordering on the ridiculous. Both India and England apparently had other contractual arrangements that left them with no 'wiggle room'. England amusingly have a T20 international to play on Tuesday against New Zealand that meant it was Sunday or nothing for the biggest one-day game of the careers of the entire team. India had flights booked to the Caribbean to play a one-day series where they don't take the field till next Sunday!

It appears cricket officials feel a compulsion above all else to tick the boxes of live televised games to feed an insatiable monster. Sunday - Champions Trophy Final - check. Tuesday - T20 international- check. Sunday - India v West Indies - check. Oh damn, where has this rain showed up from. Sigh, so be it. Some dollars lost - check. Move on - check.

Awful weather and outdoor sport have been unfriendly companions through history. Some sports such as tennis, played over a smaller area, have invested in roofs on stadiums to blunt nature's interruptions. In others such as football and rugby, the combatants just carry on through rain, hail or snow. Cricket alas, doesn't have that choice so must wait out for the wretched elements to make way. But while waiting can be frustrating, is dumbing the contest down the only viable alternative?

At the recent US open golf in Pennsylvania; incessant rain ruined the early schedule. But did we hear a proposal that the final round will be played over nine holes and not eighteen? Would Justin Rose have had the opportunity to make that thrilling run over the final few holes, had the challenge been truncated? Each sport must make a determined effort to keep its essential playing structures intact. Cricket, on Sunday, did the exact opposite. It went in search for a result at all costs, so another day of a contracted agreement could be met.

In his typically measured post-match comments after lifting the trophy, MS Dhoni said it was "unfair that in a 50-over format we had to play a 20-over game to find a winner. That's something the ICC needs to look at". The Indian captain was emphasising that the 'fairness' of a contest is paramount in the minds of players. As professional sportsmen, victory and defeat are part and parcel of what they do. However, they despise being puppets in the hands of men who refuse to look beyond the bottom line.

Dhoni, I dare say, would have happily agreed to board a later flight to the Caribbean if he was given the choice to play an uninterrupted 50-over game on Monday. England's players would have had no objection to the T20 against New Zealand either being moved or scrapped altogether if they had the chance to play a one-day international that might have shoved a 38-year-old monkey off their backs. But they weren't asked. Instead, they were commanded to play a farcical game on an awful, dreary day that will be forever embellished on their CVs. Any sport, where the sportsman is near the lowest end of the food-chain must introspect. Cricket, tragically, will do no such thing.
First Published: June 24, 2013, 5:11 PM IST

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