A game plan for the future

Print edition : March 17, 2001

Against a background of allegations of match-fixing and bribery involving players, an International Cricket Council meeting in Melbourne approves a programme to revive popular interest in Test cricket.

FOR long Test cricket has resembled a cinema classic without a climax, a Mughal-e-Azam without the ultimate sacrifice by the lovers. There have been glorious, dramatic moments, a host of glittering triumphs. Yet, there was something lacking even a s fans searched for that conclusive answer, the missing piece in an otherwise complete picture.

A meeting of the International Cricket Council in Melbourne on February 10 to discuss match-fixing allegations.-HAMISH BLAIR/REUTERS

Which was the best Test team in the world? An outfit equally destructive at home and away, a side with that unique blend of talent and character, strength of mind and body.

There have been spells in cricket history when the answers have been clearcut, with certain teams blowing away all comers, leaving the result as predictable as Pavoratti casting his magic on a spellbound audience. Like Clive Lloyd's West Indians, the Aus tralian teams under Donald Bradman, Ian Chappell, and now Steve Waugh. Efficient, versatile and ruthless. Great teams marshalled by men who were both captains and leaders. Sides that could impose themselves on their opponents, deliver when it mattered, t ake wing in alien conditions.

Such formidable outfits, however, are an exception rather than a rule and there were indeed long periods when a pressing if not a desperate need to have some kind of a competition in Test cricket had been felt. A contest that would infuse life into Test cricket which in the era of the abbreviated form of the game, was losing spectator support in certain parts of the world.

Many Test series were forgotten fast since they offered little to remember. For instance, how many of us recall the score-line of the New Zealand-Zimbabwe series in Zimbabwe?

"There is a feeling at times that the one-day internationals maybe have taken over the limelight a bit," said International Cricket Council (ICC) president Malcolm Gray, and he did have a point.

THINGS had to be done, and done fast. It was against this backdrop that the ICC met in Melbourne, Australia in February 2001. The Council, criticised for indecisiveness on earlier occasions, announced for Test cricket a concrete programme that might have far-reaching ramifications.

Called the ICC Test Championship, the race, spread over five years, will commence with the England-Pakistan series in May this summer. A series win will fetch two points, and a tied or a drawn series, one. Importantly, Australia's performance over the la st five years will be taken into account as the Invincibles begin their campaign.

It also becomes mandatory for all Test-playing nations to meet each other twice, at home and away, inside the five-year period, and a series will not be less than two Tests.

In short, the ICC has, rather wisely, chosen to do away with those meaningless one-off Tests, often squeezed between one-day internationals. As many as 23 tours have been planned in the first year alone, which marks a 35 per cent increase.

While some of the Marquee series, like the Australia-South Africa duels and the Ashes, may suffer in terms of the number of matches played, lesser nations such as Bangladesh and Zimbabwe stand assured of at least 36 Tests in five years, which should prov ide the thrust in their bid to close in from the periphery.

The ICC, which has already drawn up a 10-year fixture list for each cricketing nation, would have come in for more praise had it awarded more points for an away series triumph, which surely counts for more.

At the conclusion of five years - there are a maximum of 36 points up for grabs - the captain of the leading team will hold the Trophy awarded to the World Champion in Test cricket. It will indeed be a special occasion.

However, the ICC will do well to reduce the number of insignificant one-day internationals, at strange venues, fuelled by commercial interests, and revolving around television coverage. Indeed, the genesis of match-fixing.

IT also remains to be seen how the competition actually works, given certain practical hurdles. As per the championship rules, India and Pakistan should face-off in a minimum of four Tests, home and away, and given the volatile relations between the two countries, that would take some doing, at least in the near future. Even an India-Pakistan clash at a neutral venue - the hastily arranged one-dayer at Sharjah to raise funds for the Gujarat earthquake victims was a non-starter owing to political compuls ions - remains a distant possibility in the present political climate.

Can a side be docked points in the event of it refusing either to travel or to play host to a certain country? A big question for the future.

Actually, the concept of a competition in Tests originated from the subcontinent when India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka were involved in a triangular race for the place of the Test champion of Asia in the 1998-99 season. Things, however, turned sour when Was im Akram's Pakistan contrived to keep India out of the final, enabling Sri Lanka to progress in the process.

Situations like these can arise in the ICC Test Championship too, and the ICC should warn the teams against resorting to unhealthy tactics if things become tight during the concluding stage.

There are some significant moves being planned in the area of umpiring too, as indicated by Gray. There is now a distinct possibility of two neutral umpires officiating in all the Test matches from April 2002, if the scheduling and the financial snags ar e overcome in time.

The idea of having just one neutral umpire has not quite worked, and there have been some questionable decisions by home umpires in recent times, not least in the first Sri Lanka-England Test at Galle.

According to Gray, an elite group comprising up to eight full-time umpires and an equal number of match referees would be contracted with by the ICC. There will also be a reserve team of around 30 umpires who will assist the elite panel. The use of more technology in making close decisions was also discussed.

The ICC has also made it mandatory for all umpires to undergo hearing and sight tests. Although the move drew flak in some quarters, Gray defended it.

The captains of eight Test-playing nations also met at Melbourne to discuss some of the key issues. India's Sourav Ganguly and Nasser Hussain of England expressed their inability to attend the meeting. Some of them such as Steve Waugh, and Jimmy Adams, n ow axed as the West Indies captain, did come out with strong views on the disparity in incomes between the cricketers of the various countries.

This was one of the reasons why Zimbabwe lost two of its finest cricketers, Neil Johnson and Murray Goodwin, who felt they were not getting enough from the Board, when a huge income was being generated from television.

There were on the agenda several other vital issues, such as eradicating corruption in cricket, a review of the playing conditions that included the vital area of pitch preparation, and ways to prevent doctoring of wickets.

COMING to India, with the country slated to play more Test cricket - it will tour Zimbabwe (July), Sri Lanka (October) and South Africa (December), this year without cutting down on the number of one-day internationals, the chances of players, especially the fast bowlers, suffering from the burn-out syndrome, are infinitely more. The team is weak on this count, with pacemen Javagal Srinath, Ajit Agarkar and Venkatesh Prasad having a history of fitness problems, not to forget key leg-spinner Anil Kumble' s shoulder surgery.

As India undertakes these testing campaigns, it is vitally important that it has the sufficient reserve strength to cope with all situations; it does require a strong second line of players.

This is one area which A.C. Muthiah, President of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), has often stressed, and his intentions are indeed honourable.

It is from domestic cricket that all the talent emerges, and despite criticism in some quarters the league format in the Duleep Trophy matches introduced this season has worked.

The involvement of former Australian opener and coach Geoff Marsh in the restructuring of the Indian domestic competition to make it more result-oriented and meaningful is welcome, and so is the appointment of New Zealand's John Wright, a committed man w ith loads of experience, as the national coach.

The Chennai camp for the Indian probables ahead of the Australian tour, where Wright, along with the Aussie physical trainer Andrew Leipus, prepared a rigorous practice-cum-training schedule, was among the meaningful measures.

One area that needs immediate attention is the preparation of wickets. India prepares either featherbeds or minefields, and this only results in inflated performances.

The ploy can be counter-productive in home Test matches too, as one witnessed recently in the Mumbai Test. In this Test, on a track that had spin and bounce from the first session, India went down inside three days, with even part-time Aussie off-spinner Mark Waugh getting into the act.

The BCCI president has come out strongly in favour of sporting wickets - the Board has its own pitch and grounds panel comprising Kasturirangan and Dhiraj Parsana that will visit the various venues - but the preparation of such tracks requires the suppor t of the local associations, and ultimately, when it comes to international matches, the team management of which the captain is an integral part.

The setting up of the National Cricket Academy (NCA) in Bangalore last year was another step in the right direction, with the country's hopes going to a finishing school to hone their cricketing, mental and physical skills, with greats such as Rodney Mar sh and Sunil Gavaskar offering guidance. A marked improvement is noticeable in the fielding standards of the boys who have graduated from the Academy, what with youngsters such as Reetinder Singh Sodhi giving their all on the field.

It has not been all smooth sailing though with Raj Singh Dungarpur, Chairman of the NCA, and Sunil Gavaskar, who is involved with Academy in an advisory capacity, engaged in a war of words. Gavaskar even offered his resignation. However, Muthiah, whose c almness during moments of adversity has served him well in the fire-fighting operations, managed to keep the great opening batsman in the NCA's scheme of things.

Similarly, Muthiah has handled the issue of dissension in the BCCI ranks with finesse, punishing Punjab Cricket Association chief Inderjit Singh Bindra for indiscipline - he cannot attend any BCCI meeting for two years - but at the same time keeping him in the fold. There are whispers of an unseen enemy in the Jagmohan Dalmiya faction, but Muthiah has managed to keep his adversaries at bay.

When it comes to setting an example in rooting out corruption in cricket, in other words punishing those guilty of fixing cricket matches, the BCCI has clearly shown the way.

Among those banned for varying periods are two significant names, former Indian captain Mohammed Azharuddin, who is just one short of 100 Test matches, and Ajay Jadeja, who had quite a bit of cricket ahead of him. The two cricketers had presented a legal challenge to the BCCI, but this time around the Board appears ready to cope with any situation.

Contrast this with the response from other countries - Mark Waugh continues to play for Australia, Brian Lara for the West Indies, and Alec Stewart for England. The three big guns too are under a cloud following allegations by an Indian bookmaker.

In the same breath, it must be acknowledged that the ICC's anti-corruption team headed by Sir Paul Condon is stepping up the heat on the various boards.

Sir Paul, a former Head of Police from London, who will submit his report to Lord Griffiths, a former judge, and not the ICC - though he and his team are funded by cricket's ruling body - said in Melbourne that there could be quite a few stunning revelat ions in the next few months.

When Mark Waugh refused to meet the ICC's anti-corruption team, he was told in no uncertain terms by the Australian Cricket Board (ACB) that it would be curtains for him as a cricketer if he failed to comply. With India taking a strong stand - the Board has also framed a stringent code of conduct for players and officials to check the scourge of match-fixing - there is that much more pressure to act even on the ACB, which chose to look the other way earlier, when it should have dealt firmly with Mark Wa ugh and Shane Warne.

Indeed, the BCCI deserves to be complimented. The choice of K. Madhavan, former Joint Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), who had been involved in several key investigations such as the Bofors probe, as BCCI's anti-corruption commissio ner was a master-stroke.

A man with, both integrity and courage, Madhavan, who conducted his own inquiry taking the CBI report into consideration - he had good words for the effort put in by the CBI team headed by R.K. Raghavan - did a commendable job under difficult circumstanc es even as all kinds of speculations were doing the rounds in the media.

Madhavan did not buckle under pressure, and his inquiry into the India-New Zealand Test at Ahmedabad, where the host did not enforce the follow-on when it was in a winning position, and the one-dayer against the West Indies at Kanpur, in which the Indian chase turned mysteriously slow towards the conclusive stages, continues.

The roles of Kapil Dev and Ajit Wadekar, the coach and the manager of the teams during the period, are under scrutiny too. Madhavan may have an even bigger role to play once the CBI submits its report on irregularities in the BCCI's telecast rights.

MEANWHILE, in a dramatic development, Edwin King, who heads the King Commission inquiring into the match-fixing scandal in South Africa, has approached the President with the plea to close down the hearings.

According to King, since the commission had already published two interim reports on cricket match-fixing and related issues, it had already achieved its objectives. The decision of the attorney of the disgraced South African captain Hansie Cronje to cha llenge the constitutional validity of King's appointment could have also played a part in the retired judge's move to end the commission, which began work in June 2000. If the commission concludes at this juncture, the "Big" question whether Cronje told the "entire truth" will remain unanswered.

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