Our beds are burning

Updated: 19 July 2013 12:36 IST

The Ashes didn't stay relevant through a century of tumultuous change only because of the ties that bound the old empire and one of its farthest outposts. It mattered because it gave the fans something to look forward to.

Our beds are burning

Oscar Wilde described a cynic as someone who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. He could have been talking about cricket administrators. The Ashes began with an unforgettable match at Trent Bridge, but with 14 more Tests scheduled for the next two years, cricket is doing its best to devalue its crown jewel as well.

The Ashes didn't stay relevant through a century of tumultuous change only because of the ties that bound the old empire and one of its farthest outposts. It mattered because it gave the fans something to look forward to. You knew that every four summers, an Australian team would arrive on English shores, seeking to emulate the deeds of Trumper, Gregory and Bradman. And 15 months or so after that, an English side would go down under, seeking to hold on to the little urn or reclaim it.

When I was growing up, there were other series that mattered. Of the 59 Tests that India and Pakistan have played in just over six decades, as many as 22 were in the 1980s. These were seldom great games - there was too much fear of losing on either side - but no one could deny the sense of theatre around them. Political realities, however, have ensured that the rivalry will never match the Ashes, except when it comes to hype.

Back then, despite West Indies' overwhelming dominance, the Wisden Trophy mattered too. The pace quartet had its critics and their methods made some blanche, but wherever West Indies went, they carried with them an air of light-hearted mastery. They were cricket's Harlem Globetrotters with the underlying menace of a Joe Frazier haymaker.

Blackwashes or not, those series were once the central part of the English summer. The same could be said of summers in Australia. For the better part of a decade, it was visits from the Calypso Men that kept Australian cricket in good financial health. The contests on the field were not even - Australia usually managed just consolation wins in Sydney - but the aura of cricket's greatest team meant the crowds flocked through the turnstiles.

The Worrell Trophy stayed relevant till the turn of the millennium, as did England's matches with West Indies. Since then, both series have lost lustre to an extent that they're little more than sideshows.

The other eagerly awaited series of the 1980s was West Indies-Pakistan. While others were cowed into submission, Pakistan fought pace with some of their own. There was also Abdul Qadir, with the conjurer's trick of an action and wiles that found frailties in an otherwise imposing batting line-up. The two sides contested some epic games in the 1980s, and even as late as 2000 when West Indies won by a wicket in Antigua.

Right now, Pakistan are in the Caribbean to play just ODIs and Twenty20s. They haven't played India since 2007. The two series that once defined their cricket are now receding into the distance.

It isn't just the fictional Hercule Poirot that needs order and method. For sport to have meaning, order is everything. If you're a tennis fan, the first Sunday in July means the men's final at Wimbledon. If you're a football aficionado, you know Barcelona and Real Madrid will play at least twice between September and May. If you support the Dallas Cowboys, you're aware that you'll get two shots at the Washington Redskins every season. Rivalries are made of this.

Despite having a history far richer than most sports, cricket has failed miserably to create any rivalries other than the Ashes. India has the money, but not even one traditional Test like Boxing Day to speak of. The rivalry with Pakistan has always been hostage to politics, while that with Australia gained some currency only after the epic win against Steve Waugh's side in 2001. Till then, Australia had played just four Tests in India with a full-strength side since 1969.

As for India and England, who contest both the Pataudi and de Mello Trophies, the matches have either been too one-sided or too drab for a genuine rivalry. There is no Eden 2001 equivalent in the annals. Chennai 2008 came close, but no bails were burnt once Tendulkar struck the winning boundary.

What we have instead is a ramshackle calendar filled to the brim with matches that have little or no meaning. When even hardcore fans talk of taking a rusty blade to their veins at the prospect of yet another India-Sri Lanka ODI, you know just how far off track the administrators have veered.

When you're a little boy, you dream of playing for Australia against England at Lord's, of tossing the winning pitch for the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium, or of scoring the clinching goal for Boca Juniors against River Plate at El Monumental. I doubt anyone fantasises about playing a one-day tri-series in Sri Lanka.

Every sport has sold its soul in modern times - lunchtime kick-offs in football being a prime example - but few have failed as abjectly as cricket to imbue games with meaning.

There was a time in the late 1980s when the Ashes were in danger of becoming irrelevant, given how poor both teams were. That was when Midnight Oil released their best-known song, Beds are Burning. One refrain from that should keep administrators up at night.

The time has come, A fact's a fact, It belongs to them, Let's give it back. They were singing of the land that was once home to the Pintupi. In this case, 'It' is cricket, and the players and fans constitute 'them'. When you look at other sports and the marquee occasions that there are to savour, you can only feel sorry for those exploited in the name of cricket. The children of a lesser God, a lot like those Midnight Oil sang about.

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