It probably isn’t unfair to say that the berth atop the ICC Test Rankings, historically, hasn’t been a paradise for teams that have scaled it. Idealists would find it easy to argue that the current and former number one teams have had questionable, if not in entirety, rises to the top – England’s failure in the sub-continent, and India’s predominantly home-series wins adding alibi to their theories.
English fans, now, find themselves being stopped short of being wildly idealistic. What seems profound here is that despite victories (and draws) against tough overseas opponents on foreign soil (barring their quest in the sub-continent), England finds itself basked amidst vicissitudes of press coverage stating ‘too much cricket’ as an excuse for their exponential dip in form in the ongoing series against the Proteas. Isn’t this true for almost the entire set of test playing nations, or at least the top six nations?
True, just like how the blackout in Northern India has highlighted our dependence on diesel, there have been enough presumptions with regard to England’s dependency on seam-friendly tracks. It wasn’t too long ago in the timeline when the English selectors (rather Andy Flower) had a pleasant headache over the pace bowlers they needed to leave out of an eleven being fielded. Even KP’s antics did little to overshadow the confidence that they had built as a test unit under Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower.
But, isn’t it common these days to witness sparse differences in standards between teams (or if we extend this to organizations in general) vying for pole position? It is healthy, as a fan, to witness intense battles between teams that look not only strong on paper, but have the firepower to back it up on the field.
A nascent advantage of the billions of cash reserves in the Middle East has been the creation of stronger clubs (through foreign ownership) to compete against the cliché of names one usually comes across in the European leagues. Chelsea, for one, given how they’d been a dominant force not too long ago under the billions of Roman and reign of Mourinho, finished sixth last season – it wasn’t ‘too much football’, but stronger competitors.
Fortunately, cricket is witnessing the same. Just to drift slightly off here – as much as I’d love to call the current New Zealand team a touch below par, the resurgence of West Indies (too early to say?), owing to the return of Chris Gayle at the top of the order, has been a welcome sight to most of us.
In paper, they may hardly seem like teams being overworked. Chris Gayle, players competing in the IPL, WICB issues have, in the past, camouflaged substantial on-field press coverage (barring the Ramdin ‘paperwork’ during the series against England). The change in tutorship at New Zealand has received a little more space than an obituary in newspapers here. But they’re competing all right.
Coming back to the perennial issue highlighted earlier – packed calendars don’t help. Agreed. Much has been written in the footballing circles about how players get jaded after a long season (domestic, league, continental competitions adding to the toll) followed by international commitments. And by the time they’re done with it, the new season beckons – it isn’t uncommon to see players who’ve undergone the wrath of such schedules sit out of contention for the best part of August.
Cricket is equally, if not more, demanding in terms of fitness (probably more mental owing to the long stretches of tours away from home). Unlike football (and I’m sure football purists would disagree here), there’s very little space for error in the game of cricket – a lapse of concentration could cost a batsman his wicket, a fielder a catch and a bowler a wayward line/length. Add to all this media hype and expectations (something which I believe dearly affects teams like England and India, more than other teams around) – the end result is a volatile cocktail.
So, have teams at the top been victims of everything (and everyone) but themselves? It is as much about hype and expectations, as it is about packed schedules. The modern day sportsman is trained (through a combination of well-structured training programs catering to the mental aspects of sport) to cope with expectations of a nation, and the glaring eyes of the world.
But few cross the line that differentiates the best from the rest. A double hundred in a dead-rubber test on a flat wicket deserves to be dwarfed to insignificance when compared to a half century on a trying wicket that saves a test. Only when the cricketing community starts setting such standards and yardsticks, will we see the crop of players rise up and deliver.
Let me recall an interesting anecdote I heard from a source (this isn’t fiction) regarding Don Bradman’s reaction, when quizzed by an Australian journalist, after Brian Charles Lara had scored a record breaking 375 against the touring Englishmen in Antigua. The Don, apparently, had replied ‘Okay’.
Assuming that age had caught up with the Don, the journalist repeated his question (understandably more pronounced) to get the entirety of the message across. The Don, once again, without batting an eyelid, replied ‘Okay’ When quizzed further, The Don had said: ‘On a flat wicket, against a scrawny bowling attack in a Test which wasn’t heading towards a result, what more can I say?’
The journalist decided to pose his question thus: ‘Sir, how much do you reckon you’d have scored had you been in this situation?’. The Don thought for a while and said ‘Maybe 260 … or 270.’ Presuming that age had taken a toll on his thinking, the journalist asked ‘Sir, but he scored 375. You’re saying you’d have 260. And you’re not rating his knock too.’
To which The Great Man replied: ‘I’m 85, he’s just a 23 year old kid.’
Maybe, that is what greatness is about.