Test Cricket – Demise and Rebirth

It’s a warm afternoon in Birmingham on August 7, 2005. The ground is packed to the brim with bipartisan supporters. Australia and England are engaged in a battle for the ages on the fifth and final day of the second Ashes test match. Last over of the test match – 64 overs into the Australian innings, England needing 1 wicket to win and Australia 4 runs to take a 2-0 lead in the series. Ongoing last wicket partnership of 58. Crowd on the edge of their seats, nervous excitement in the air.

Ball 1 – Brett Lee takes a single off Harmison. 3 runs to win for Australia.

Ball 2 – 5 balls for no.11 Kasprowicz to win the game. Dot ball

Ball 3 – Snorter from Harmison takes the batsman’s glove and keeper takes the catch. England win! England win!

This is what test cricket is famous for – gripping encounters going into the fag end of day 5 capturing the supporter’s imagination with every over of the game. The ups and downs of every session seems almost melodic to the watcher, taking them on a journey one filled with happiness, disappointment, nervousness, fist pumping adrenaline. This is what makes the longer format the ultimate test, needing not just physical attributes but intelligence, patience, determination, concentration, and perseverance – In all a character building exercise.

However, no one at the ground on that day could have predicted the current predicament test cricket is in – minimal viewership, low revenue potential and a cramped cricket calendar have doomed the future of this beautiful game. Test cricket is at the brink of extinction and has taken a backseat to business interests and the glitz and glamour of the shorter formats. There is an immediate need for test cricket to reinvent itself so as to stay relevant with the changing times and changing perceptions of the format.

Over the next 12 months, there are 21 scheduled test matches – that is 21 tests over 365 days. The remaining 260 days of the year are occupied by 20 bilateral ODI’s and T20 series plus the ICC Champions Trophy and the 60 days of the IPL. This is where the ‘commodity aspect ‘of the game reigns supreme – as the cricketing calendar starts bursting at the seams, the cricket boards feel shortchanged and more and more test matches end up on the cutting block. Surprise, Surprise – the one with the least money making ability. Test match cricket is dying!

There is another piece to this puzzle – an indirect correlation of the cramped calendar to the adverse effect on test matches. The calendar impacts preparation time for teams and pitches, consequently reducing the quality of test cricket which in turn affects viewership and profitability. A vicious cycle dragging down test cricket and its about time we take steps to fix it.

The International Cricket Council (ICC) has taken up this issue seriously and worked with the boards in hosting day night test matches on an experimental basis. 4 day-night test matches have been conducted over the last year and 3 more are scheduled to be held over the next season. The last test between Australia and Pakistan was an absolute humdinger with crowds of 20k thronging the Adelaide Oval during the game – it was a great advertisement for the format and evidence that this is the way forward. The fact that all the experimental day night games played till date have balanced the equation between bat and ball providing good result oriented games is vindication for the supporters and the ICC as well.

From a purely cricketing standpoint, the day night test match offers support to both batsman and bowler over the course of a day. The batsman enjoys the perfect conditions at the start of the day while the bowlers come into the fray over the last two sessions once the lights come into effect. The perfect balance between bat and ball is something that analysts believe will bring back the viewership to the format. Another important factor for increasing viewership is the timing of the game itself – most office goers and school/college kids will be able to come in and enjoy the day’s play after their routines. Add the TV viewers to this as well and the financial viability issue of the test match is addressed automatically. The only concern for this to grow across the global cricket landscape is from the players themselves. They need to become comfortable with the changing conditions of the game including that of the pink ball. Perfecting different formats of the pink ball across the different pitches in the world will be the ultimate challenge, but one that can be solved only by greater adoption of this format.

Freshness – Long demanded by the cricket watcher and the reason why t20 was an instant success as it bought all the positive elements of cricket into a four hour bottle at primetime. This is exactly what day night cricket would bring to the test arena – Freshness! Test cricket might not be dying after all!

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The Great Indian Olympic Dream

The last decade for India in the sport has brought a lot of success – we won our second cricket world cup, became the no.1 ranked cricket side in the world, won five kabaddi world cups, ended 2016 with two top 10 shuttlers and so on. However, there is something which confounds us at the grandest sporting stage of all – the Olympic Games. The stage where global superpowers reassert their clout in the sporting arena; one where the second most populous nation finds a way to slink into the shadows at every opportunity. It is unfair for only the athletes to shoulder the blame for this, as they have managed to scale the ranks in a system which sets them up for failure at every turn. It runs deeper than that, it is a societal and cultural issue which has seeped up to the higher levels of organization and the government.

A return of 28 medals from 31 Olympic games is indeed a sad reality for a nation with such a rich sporting history. It is imperative that we try to understand the effort it takes to build a successful Olympic programme. In addition to the financial responsibility, we need to look at revamping the system which identifies and breeds talent in Olympic sports. The grass root level is the most important aspect of an Olympic programme and this is the reason the programme needs a lengthy roadmap to succeed. In an era of quick results, the support required to build such a long-term development programme is no easy task.

It is not just this absence of a plan, as a few private organizations have come along in the last decade namely, Olympic gold Quest(OGQ), JSW Sports Excellence Program(JSWSEP) and Anglian Medal Hunt Company(AMHC) who have managed to drum up sufficient funds and support to help the cause. This is all but the launch pad in our quest to become a competitive force at the Olympics with the Chinas, USAs and UKs of the world.

Now that we have identified the problem, lets take a closer look at developing a method to address this problem. This is nothing revolutionary, but putting together a mishmash of ideas from what other Olympic superpowers have implemented with great success over the years.

Funding for such a dedicated programme will be the primary obstacle. Let’s look at a simple comparison of the current state of the Indian and US Olympic programmes.

USA Medals won (2004-2014) Funding per medal(in USD)
Skiing/Snowboarding 48  1.4 Million
Track & Field 77  790 K
Swimming 90  590 K
India Medals won (2004-2014) Funding per medal(in USD)
Shooting 4  160 K
Wrestling 4  196 K
Boxing 2  72 K
Badminton 2  376 K

This is a staggering figure as US has won 215 medals in the categories identified as prime focus for their national team in the last decade alone. In contrast, India has won only 12 medals for the events identified as prime focus in the same time frame. There is definitely a direct correlation between the funding per medal as dedicated investment alone will reap rewards –  Greater the funding, higher the medal count and vice versa. It is important to note that there is no govt. funding provided to the US Olympic team. All Olympic investments are funded solely through private donors and crowd funding.

This could be an interesting solution to solving the Indian Olympic riddle as all the successful athletes are currently being supported in their efforts by private groups – OGQ, JSWSEP and AMHC in any case. An increased funding drive sponsored by the government and these private organizations starting off at the grassroots level is required in order to get this programme started.

China established an Olympic programme – ‘Project 119’ in 2001 with a roadmap to attain results at the Beijing 2008 Olympics. ‘119’ refers to the count of gold medals in the medal heavy sports (track & field, swimming, rowing, canoe/kayak and sailing) that the programme would focus on over the next eight years. We can learn something from this initiative to set up a template for the programme itself, along with a strong funding focus supported by the government.

Now that we have identified the problem and looked at some of the effective methods of successful Olympic nations, we should be looking at a three-part solution to implement an Olympic programme.

First – The Indian Olympic Association needs to identify 8-10 Olympic events where India is already competitive on the world stage. Currently, these would be Shooting, Wrestling, Badminton, Men’s and Women’s Hockey, Archery and Boxing – resulting in a total of 38 medal events. We need to aim to set a goal for the 2024 Olympics as being the acid test for this programme where all the efforts and training need to be focus towards.

Second – The private groups which are working on talent development should work hand in hand with the IOA and start off from the schools. They should aim at awareness and training programs to build talent at the grassroots level, and increase enrollment for this programme specifically focussing on the events identified as prime focus above.

Last – Its not sufficient to just set up a training programme but efficient safeguards need to be in place that will ensure that talent entering the system doesn’t seep out prior to achieving the objective. A separate steering committee needs to monitor and govern this programme as an independent organization. This committee needs to comprise of successful Indian sportsmen who will tirelessly work towards realizing the objectives of this programme; and eliminate the vicious powers of corruption and red tape which plagues the sporting fraternity in our country today.

There was a brilliant quote from the recent hindi movie ‘Dangal’ which echoes the sentiment of every sportsman in our country today – “Medallists don’t grow on trees, they need to raised and nurtured with care and attention from the ground up”. Hope this thought process changes in the near future – Project 2024!

The Year of the Underdog – Leicester City FC

Over the last decade, soccer has increasingly become a sport for the big spenders. A look at the top leagues around the world show that there have been only 3 such instances over the last decade when one of the richly endowed teams hasn’t won the title. Three out of forty championships (across England, Spain, Germany and Italy) – that is an extremely low return and points towards the growing monopolization of the sport by the deep pockets of global business magnates.

This is what makes Leicester City’s 2015 season a wonderful achievement and defies logical reason. Sustaining form over an entire season of 38 games is no mean feat, considering that they were up against the bottomless coffers and resources of the Big Four in England. Only four clubs had lifted the Premier League trophy in the previous 20 years (Man United 11, Chelsea 4, Arsenal 3, Man City 2). Leicester City sure made a Goliath-like entrance to that winners club last season.

Let’s take a closer look at the team and how they won the title against all odds, literally beating 5000:1 on the books.

Stable squad of players devoid of major injuries – One of the key aspects of this team was that they were able to scrape through the long English season making only 27 changes to the starting XI. To provide some context, the champion makes 94.5 changes in a season on average, Chelsea in the previous season made 86 inspite of their world class team. This resulted in only 18 players starting a game for Leicester in the season as compared to 23, 22 and 20 for Arsenal, Man City and Tottenham respectively. This stability and player rapport held them in good stead as the team was able to churn out consistent performances week in week out.

Leicester FC have been one of the pioneers in using data analytics over the 11 years that it has existed in the Premier League. They used data analytics and performance metrics to track player fitness, performance levels and preemptively address the injury issue plaguing other top teams. This helped the team understand their strengths, weaknesses and creating a personalized performance program for each player.

Playing style – Widely considered obsolete, Leicester used the much maligned 4-4-2 formation as the perfect foil to their rapid counter attacking style of play. Ranieri came up with the perfect system for the group of players he inherited at the start of the 2015 season. Leicester had a tendency to stay on the backfoot out of possession with a tight pressing style throughout the game. As soon as they won the ball through their press, they would launch a counter attack transitioning from defence to attack utilising the speed of the attackers – Vardy, Mahrez and Okazaki through a simple long ball or a diagonal pass into space. In the age of possession style football, this contrarian system helped them score the 3rd highest goals tally for the season. A solid defensive line along with Kasper Schemeichel deserve special mention as they were under constant pressure against the possession based teams.

Element of Surprise – Most teams were not prepared for Leicester’s modus operandi. They were often caught off guard by the frequency of the long diagonal balls played with the attacking players creating havoc using their speed and accuracy on the ball. Teams were not able come to terms with the fast paced direct nature of Leicester’s football and in the time that they took to adjust, Leicester would already be in front. Any efforts at a comeback would just prime them for the knockout blow as possession based attack played directly into Leicester’s strategy of counter attacking direct football. With teams using the offseason to study and come up with disruptive strategies – sitting back and counter attacking, Leicester have not had much success this season playing their way and are currently languishing at the bottom half of the table.

Rocky & Million Dollar Baby – Two of the greatest sports movies ever made. The common thread running through both was, an underdog with a massive chip on their shoulder rising against all odds to do the unthinkable. The 2015-16 sporting season seemed to follow a similar script for Leicester City demonstrating once more that sport is perfect fodder for the dreamers.

There is something about an underdog story, something unexplainable which brings a smile to the sports fan. Isn’t this why we watch sport in the first place?

Arsenal – An Emotion

 

12 years, 11 months and 15 days ago. This was the day Arsenal won the English Premier League 2004 season and in the process converted me, a die-hard David Beckham fan (consequently a ManU fan) into a supporter of the beautiful sport itself – ‘The Arsenal Way’.

There is a consensus amongst fellow arsenal supporters that I belong to the select ‘few’ Arsenal fans. The ones who were wooed by the beauty that is Arsenal style football on that fateful day. Football which seduces you slowly using subtle off the ball movement, silky touch and passing, breath-taking unselfish play culminating in the perfect goal – ‘The Arsenal Way’. Sounds perfect right? Wrong. The timing was the issue; I could have been celebrating my team as the premier league champions if I had only discovered ‘The Arsenal Way’ a day earlier. More than 4000 days later, the wait for another (or one in my case) premier league title continues.

Thankfully, I am one of those realistic Arsenal fans who understands their philosophy and know in my heart of hearts that we do not compete with the Madrids, Barcelonas and Munichs of the world. I dream of a solitary EPL title and not the champions league. Else, I would be living through the tragedy of an arsenal loss in the middle of the week come February. Right now it is limited to a dull throbbing washed over by a sharp realisation that it was the expected result every other weekend.
In my mind, every Arsenal season can be grouped into 5 stages of fan emotion by using the Hype curve for emerging technologies template. (Yes, I formed a correlation between technology products and sports – 5 years in consulting will do that to you).

Every season begins the same way for Arsenal, frustration at not being able to sign a big player during the entire transfer window up until the last day hinting at a sense of desperation. You must understand, Arsenal fans always believe that we are just one player away from ruling the world. With renewed vigour and hope after a last minute signing who will not be available for the first few games due to a ‘lack of match fitness’, we enter the season not knowing what to expect.

Understandably, there is nervousness for the first couple of weeks as the team takes its time to hit the stride. However, the next 2 months are what define the ‘Arsenal Way’ as stuff of dreams. We take the championship race by the scruff of the neck and hit peak form over that period. This takes us from ‘Early Season Jitters’ into the ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations – (Read hopefully champions of the world). However, this is a fleeting emotion as the familiar curse with injuries and a cramped fixture list attribute to a rapid decline in performance over the next few months. We start losing ground to the eventual champions leading to the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’ over the months of January and February.

As March rolls along, realisation dawns at another failed season and the team starts playing with renewed freedom and a sense of purpose. This ‘Slope of Enlightenment’ period is the most frustrating for every Arsenal fan, as they start playing like a champion side and string together a set of great results. It’s almost as if the team wants to be remembered as ‘also rans’, but the fans know better and they are left with a bitter ‘could have’ type of a season. April and May steadies the Arsenal ship and the team is able to ensure a top four finish with form which would have won the championship with ease if it had materialised in January. Every Arsenal fan ends the season with a tempered ‘Plateau of Reality’. This late season surge instils a sense of hope in us once again for the next season and the hype cycle repeats again.

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However, as they say sport is not just about winning. It represents an almost inexplicable emotion which takes you through immense highs and agonising lows, but the sheer joy of supporting your team is unparalleled and what keeps us going every season. Arsenal – An Emotion.