The Decision

Leave when people ask why and not why not.

I have often pondered this thought about sportspersons deciding to call it a day. Be it Sachin’s prolonged end, Dravid’s hasty exit or Federer’s continuing struggles, it is a conundrum every athlete goes through as their success at the top of the sport wanes. It is understandable, this struggle. At the highest level, the pressure of performance, fame and adulation of supporters can give you an adrenaline rush that compares with few others in life. Add the financial benefits and every athlete feels the need to stay in the sport as long as possible. How long is too long? In my opinion, every athlete should be given the freedom to choose when they want to walk away from the game, however doesn’t it make sense to walk away at the top? If only every sportsperson was able to accept their impending decline, to step away.

This is what makes MS Dhoni a special sportsperson. Be it the day he announced himself as the long haired swashbuckler in Vizag or his swagger while leading his team to all the cricketing honours achievable, the one common thread – doing it on his terms. It is something that defined the way he went about not just the game, but his life as well. His public admission of treating national cricket as a regular job and the desire to serve in the armed forces were not something commonly seen among sporting superstars. The one true charming quality of MSD has been his ability to focus on team glory sacrificing personal milestones through his captaincy career – be it for India or for his franchise teams. Along with his street smarts, this has etched his name as one of the greatest leaders in sporting history.

It was not a big surprise to the MSD fan that he resigned from captaincy the way he did – no fuss, practical and simple. There was no time to celebrate or dwell on his success, MSD the person wouldn’t want that as it would take away from the next task at hand for Indian cricket. Ever the pragmatist, you can almost imagine Dhoni drawing this decision out on a whiteboard. This is why it makes sense.

  • Virat Kohli has seamlessly taken over test captaincy to lead India into the next chapter of its cricketing journey. Recent success abroad and home for the Indian team under Kohli seems to have vindicated MSD’s decision of retiring from test matches last year mid series in Australia. Further proof of his ability to handle the dual pressure of being the batting talisman as well as being captain.
  • With the current cricket season for India packed with test matches, MSD spends most of his time away from the national team, which is not the most ideal situation for a captain. This could have resulted in a power vaccum when he does return to the limited overs squad as captain. Keeping the future calendar in mind, having a single figure of leadership leading the team makes sense.
  • At the twilight of his career, MSD can now return to the original finisher role which he has made famous over the years. He is easily the best wicketkeeper batsman in the world and along with an established role at no.4, we could see MSD play till the 2017 Champions Trophy at least if not the World Cup in 2019. The freedom which entails this decision could be the best gift for Indian cricket.

Sans the long hair, but still carrying the swagger which made us fall in love with MSD. This finally could be the second chapter for MSD the player, something he gave up a decade ago to serve his country at the time of his calling.

Here is to Mahi – The guy who has made every gully cricketer dream.

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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!