Cricket in India is not merely a sport, but also a career to earn money and perhaps become rich. It is a generator of wealth and a significant contributor to the Gross Domestic Product of the national economy. Moreover, it is a platform to arouse and enjoy patriotism. Indians, especially Hindus, have achieved few military victories against truly foreign countries. Winning against Pakistan whether in Kashmir, Bangladesh or Kargil is akin to winning in what is basically a civil war. The last military victory against an actual foreigner was by Chandragupta Maurya. This was in 303 B.C. when he defeated and expelled Seleucus I, successor of Alexander the Great in Bactria.
Cricket began as a game for gentlemen at leisure to fill time. This was in the south of England. In due course, interest in the game spread to the British colonies, Australia, New Zealand and yet later to India thanks to the East India Company. The sport got going in the 19th century. Strangely, the Americas did not take to cricket, although North America had been a British colony; the USA and Canada preferred baseball. Cricketers in the early days mostly came from the aristocracy and were called ‘gentlemen’, but not always could the gentlemen find 22 willing players; they found volunteers from among the gardeners and other staff members. Those not from the upper echelons were called ‘players’ as distinct from the aristocracy, who insistently remained gentlemen.
The players were given a separate pavilion gate to use and they wrote their first names while the gentlemen distinguished themselves by using their initials like P.F.R. and not Peter. Players were not made captains of their teams until Len Hutton was picked by England in the year 1952. India also copied the tradition by selecting princes like the Maharaja of Vizianagaram or Patiala or the Nawab of Pataudi (his father Iftikhar Ali and not Tiger Pataudi whom we were familiar with).
There was also a time when the Thomas Cup in badminton used to be an event of national interest. The Indian team was for years a contender for the world championship. TN Seth and Suresh Goel followed by the outstanding Nandu Natekar as well as Prakash Padukone all held national attention in the realm of the shuttlecock. Domestic cricket tournaments have not aroused much crowd interest. In a Ranji or Duleep Trophy or Irani Cup match there is hardly any audience. Yet in the 1930s, the games of the Quadrangular tournament provided thrills and were lapped up by crowds. Uncannily, the most popular matches were those between Hindus and Mohammedans, the prototype of India-Pakistan contests. Parsees and Europeans evoked limited response.
There was a phase when Ramanathan Krishnan followed by the Amritraj brothers made national news in tennis. Football also had its spell of mass following in West Bengal and the south. The IFA Shield was quite an annual event. Internationally, India was represented in the 1948 London Olympics but, unfortunately, we lost to France in the first round. For decades now, we have not qualified for the Olympics. Uncannily, the lack of international success took its toll on the sport’s popularity at home.
Earlier, wrestling too had its phase of glory with names like Gama, Imam Bux and Goonga, who have still not been forgotten. Vishwanathan Anand has brought the intellectual game of chess to the forefront and has made India a world champion in it. There are several grandmasters and it is hoped that this game, which is believed to have been invented in India, will flourish more and more.
Unlike say, football or hockey, a cricket captain can be as important as three or four players. Think of the difference that Clive Lloyd made to West Indies cricket. Be it the bowling changes or field placing, which depends not only on the situation but also equally on the particular batsman facing the ball. The captain should be the first player to be chosen, not only for his ability to bat or bowl but as much as his capability for captaincy. The late Ashok Mankad is a name that comes to mind as an example of this contention. The normal practice is to select the best available combination of eleven players. Thereafter, the most suitable among the eleven, usually a batsman, must be chosen as the skipper. Mahendra Dhoni was selected as a wicketkeeper and blossomed as an excellent captain by chance.
Given the planning, foresight and innovativeness, there is no reason why India should not dominate world cricket indefinitely. It not only has the best batting side but also has a tradition of innovation. The most original contribution made by an Indian to cricket was by Jamsahib Ranji. Until his advent, deliberate scoring strokes were confined to the front of the wicket. It was Ranji who innovated the leg glance, pull and sweep. To quote CB Fry, the famous commentator, from Alan Ross’s book, Ranji (London, 1983), “He can place to leg within a foot of where he wishes almost any ball that pitches between wicket and wicket. He has a slight prejudice against forward play for forcing strokes.”
On the off side, the cut whether lemon, late or plain, came into common use after Ranji’s time. To quote again from Alan Ross, “The Indian has the eye of the hawk and wrists like Toledo steel, and the finest of the batsman’s art is his timing of the ball. He has a late cut which the envious gods are still practising in the Elysian Fields.”
The wicketkeeper cannot bowl but the remaining ten players can hypothetically bat, bowl as well as field. In other words, if every team member did everything well, there would be 32 roles performed. The day would come before long when this should happen. And the day may not be far when enterprising teams would go beyond the 32 roles, when some bowlers would be able to bowl with both arms. If a boy has the aptitude for bowling, why not coach him to use his left as well as his right arm? There are players who bat and bowl with different arms like the recently retired Sourav Ganguly or Vinoo Mankad and John Goddard, the West Indian captain of yesteryears. Why cannot such players especially bowl with both the arms? Or, even bat with both hands; the batsman is then ready to deal effectively with different bowlers. Such could be the allrounders of the future. And the training of 10 or 12-year-old youngsters should begin now.
In a Test match, the burden of attack is on the bowler whereas in a one-day game the onus is on the batsman. Why not therefore ask the faster bowlers not to worry about speed but to concentrate on accuracy? Years ago, Bapu Nadkarni used to bowl immaculately. So much so that it was said he could land his ball on the same spot four or five times in an over. In one Test match innings his bowling analysis was 32 overs, 27 maidens, 5 runs and 0 wickets His length was perfect but there was no guile in his bowling. In the one day game, Nadkarni would be an invaluable asset. The batsmen facing him would get so impatient that they would make mistakes.