It is always darkest before dawn
Cricket is only played at the highest level by ten countries, it is the No. 1 sport in less than half that number, and while it has been trying to spread its wings far and wide, it can ill afford to antagonise the fan-base that has sustained it for centuries now.
Sport thrives as much on goodwill and credibility as it does on the excellence of its practitioners. These aren't, and can never be, mutually exclusive. The stakeholders involved, at the top of which pile are the spectators, will indulge brilliance at the expense of less than acceptable behavioural, moral and ethical standards for only that long. Eventually, they will become disillusioned and disinterested, which is the worst outcome for the professional sportsperson who is as much an entertainer as he is a bread-winner.
These are extraordinarily interesting times for cricket, a sport that is anything but global. Cricket is only played at the highest level by ten countries, it is the No. 1 sport in less than half that number, and while it has been trying to spread its wings far and wide, it can ill afford to antagonise the fan-base that has sustained it for centuries now. Scandal isn't exclusive to cricket. But given how limited the sport's reach is compared to say athletics or football or swimming, it becomes imperative for those involved with cricket - the players themselves, the administrators, the law-makers - to conduct themselves with the grace and dignity that is expected of them.
And while these are extraordinarily interesting times for cricket, these are also extraordinary troubled and troubling times for the sport. For two and a half months now and counting, cricket has resembled a soap opera with a mind of its own, twisting and turning through plots and sub-plots. Some of these plots are interlinked, yet others bear no connection to the original story. And then, you realise, you don't even know what the original story is anymore.
The arrests in Mumbai of three players from Rajasthan Royals for their supposed involvement in spot-fixing in mid-May triggered an extraordinary chain of events that has kept cricket on the front pages rather than the back of newspapers almost every single day. Not all of those events are related to the Indian Premier League, or to Indian cricket. Not all of them are tales of concocted sleaze, of greed and temptation, of the hunger for power and authority. But not too many of them are positive, heart-warming tales either, and that is the worrying part.
We've had the fixing controversy in Bangladesh, with Mohammad Ashraful, the former national captain, confessing to wrongdoing and being suspended from the sport. We've had David Warner's Bacchus-fuelled punch at Joe Root during the Champions Trophy, not longer after his Twitter rant directed at two senior Australian journalists. We've had the cancellation of the second edition of the Sri Lanka Premier League.
We've had DRS controversies and umpiring gaffes almost every single day of the Ashes. We have had English double standards on the interpretation of the Laws and Spirit of the game. We have had Mickey Arthur's sacking and his confidential e-mails laid threadbare. We've had an England spinner urinating on bouncers upon being evicted from a night club at 4am. And we have had the silicon tape drama, a slur as damaging as spot or match-fixing because it questions the integrity and character of the person(s) alleged to have found another means of hoodwinking the much-maligned HotSpot. Of course, how a tool that relies on military technology can be fooled with the use of something as basic as a silicon tape raises more uncomfortable questions from a security perspective, but we shall not go there.
But sport is nothing if not resilient. Cricket has gone through many flash points, and come out stronger and more vibrant than before. As has athletics. And cycling. Marion Jones' drug abuse and revelations of her association with the steroid-distributing lab BALCO did little to knock athletics off the global spectrum, while Lance Armstrong's drug-driven seven Tour de France triumphs and his subsequent public confessions of drug use after years of vehement denial have made no more than a token dent on cycling's image.
So, not all is well with the cricket world. There is an understandable undercurrent of cynicism, thinly veiled with the potential to mushroom into utter and total apathy. There is mistrust and a certain fatalistic acceptance that the pristine image of the Gentleman's Game has been sullied, perhaps permanently. There is hurt and pain and a feeling of being let down, a sense of betrayal, if you like.
But there is also hope, a belief, almost the conviction that it is always darkest before dawn, and life can't be just all doom and gloom.
I was at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium a couple of days back, in a room filled with some of the true legends of Indian cricket, and it wasn't hard to believe then that things would become better. As the eye flitted around the room, you saw Gundappa Viswanath, one of India's greatest batsmen and the ultimate gentleman's gentleman, charm and smile and backslap his way through admiring peers and awe-struck youngsters. You saw Syed Kirmani, inarguably the greatest Indian gloveman ever, proud of his accomplishments over an 88-Test career but carrying himself with not a trace of arrogance or pride. You saw Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath, far more contemporary and with a bundle of eye-popping achievements, but determined not to rest on their on-field laurels.
These men had gathered to kickstart the Platinum Jubliee celebrations of the Karnataka State Cricket Association of which Kumble is now the president and Srinath the secretary. Viswanath is the chairman of the cricket academy and Kirmani is its director. In a seamless coming together of cricketers from different generations, the KSCA has shown that its motto of 'of the cricketers, for the cricketers, by the cricketers' is no empty boast.
The culmination of the celebrations will bring together most of the greatest names in Indian cricket. Almost every former Indian captain will grace the occasion, with Sir Richard Hadlee from New Zealand making this an almost global event. All Karnataka cricketers of the past and present will be in attendance, from BK Garudachar, a wonderfully fit and sharp 96-year-old to V Subramanya, under whose captaincy a plethora of legends in the making including Viswanath, Kirmani, EAS Prasanna and BS Chandrasekhar made their first-class debuts and who is flying down from Australia specifically for the event on August 17.
That Saturday night is guaranteed to bring a lump to the throat, a tear to the eye. From all indications, it will be a show to remember, but it's worth remembering that the show will be what it will be not because of the razzmatazz and song-and-dance routines lined up, but because of the presence of men who made watching and following cricket an absolute privilege. And because of the men who aren't with us anymore, but whose vision and drive and commitment and dreams allowed those that followed to realise their dreams and spark dreams in succeeding generations.
If only for those three hours at the Chinnaswamy Stadium on the night of August 17, cynicism and negativity and mistrust will be put on the backburner. Those three hours will most certainly not right the ills that have plagued cricket of late, but they will be a stark reminder in these days when we need reminding that the world of cricket can still be a happy place if we want it to be. And allow it to be.