Football fever is in the air with the World Cup in South Africa kicking off last night. The hype surrounding the event may make you lose sight of the fact that the Indian football team is ranked 133rd in the world and by that virtue not even an outside contender for a place in the Football World Cup - in the foreseeable future at least. The last time India qualified for the Cup, they didn’t play (believe it or not) because they weren’t used to wearing shoes.
A majority of Indians (especially outside West Bengal, Goa, Kerala and the metros) do not follow football and are not even acquainted with the rules of the game. All this hasn’t managed to stop the Indian media (including some of my colleagues) from going gaga over Messi’s moves and Rooney’s aggression.
In contrast to that, the Indian cricket team is ranked number 1 worldwide in Tests and 3rd in ODIs. Cricket is considered to be a religion in India and cricketers are treated no less than deities. But with all the hoopla over football, is anyone out there thinking about cricket?
To be honest, I don’t blame them. The Indian cricket team has been playing one inconsequential ODI after another and if that wasn’t enough, some inconsequential T20s have also been thrown in for good effect. These along with the IPL, the now numerous World Cups, the Champions Trophy etc means that the cricket calendar is all year-long with little or no build-up. When I was in my teens, World Cups were looked forward to at least a year in advance but with things the way they are now, most Indians aren’t even aware that India is co-hosting the next World Cup that is a mere eight months away.
The BCCI dug their own grave by deciding not to send a team for the Asian Games and took away whatever little chance cricket had of igniting some national fervour. The selectors meanwhile decided to field a largely second string team in the recently concluded tri-series in Zimbabwe which also included tournament winners Sri Lanka. The Indian team couldn’t even manage to make the finals, losing twice in the round-robin stage to minnows Zimbabwe. Interest in the tournament was at an all-time-low and I personally couldn’t get myself to sit in front of the TV for beyond three minutes. The absence of A-list stars, youngsters who still can’t hold their own, lack of interesting opposition (how are we going to get excited and competitive if we play the Lankans every other day) are some of the factors that contributed to the diminishing enthusiasm in fans.
One of the other possible reasons is the ODI format itself. The debate over the future of Tests and ODIs has raged on ever since the inception of T20s. Test cricket seems more or less secure for now given that it is the true test of a player’s ability and the purest form of the game. This is despite occasional demands for the introduction of day and night Tests. But ODIs have increasingly found it difficult to keep interest alive with people feeling bored in the middle overs. The immense popularity of the IPL has in a way sounded the death knell for the One-day version of the game.
Last year, master blaster Sachin Tendulkar proposed that the total 100 overs in an ODI could be split into four innings of 25-overs each in order to reduce the advantage gained by the team winning the toss. In the first official attempt to revamp One-day cricket, England and South Africa reduced their domestic limited-overs tournaments to 40 overs.
On Friday, Cricket Australia decided to split their domestic ODIs into four innings. Their argument behind the move was – The One-day game enjoys public support but needs refreshing and issues with the current 50-over format need to be addressed. They are also worried that interest in One-day cricket will wane to the point of irrelevance by the time Australia co-hosts the 2015 World Cup.
The ICC however doesn’t seem as eager to make changes just yet, having recently approved of the current format for the 2015 World Cup keeping its commercial contracts in mind. This is even as the ICC's cricket committee met last month to investigate how to ensure ODIs retain meaning and competitiveness.
Whatever the future of ODIs may be, the die-hard cricket-aholic in me is looking forward to a much-needed boost to the game because at the end of the day like Rahul Dravid’s t-shirt once read – Cricket is life, the rest is mere detail.