Sevens football is big in Kerala, the South Indian state where cricket is no doubt followed, but the religion, unlike most of the country, is “panthu kali” (literal translation: ball game; translation: way of life). The fan following for the seven-a-side, short and intense iteration of the beautiful game is, inarguably, more in the state than the traditional version. Barring the FIFA World Cup of course, when everything else comes to a standstill. The growth of Sevens football has been pretty organic in the state. When and where it all began is an existential debate fans indulge in over there much like everything around sport (any sport). A school of thought among oral historians of Sevens — invariably village elders who double up as tournament organisers — avers that the way the game caught the fancy of Malayalis had something to do with volleyball. The local tournaments in volleyball predate Sevens and, arguably, edge out football in buzz, intensity and social contract.
All manner of historians of Malayali local football and volleyball tournaments concur on one thing though. It is the intensity, the highly concentrated nature of the action on the pitch, and the tough close matches, that reel in the audience. Much like how T20 cricket has grown this side of the millenium.
Intensity matters, action matters, and complimenting all this, contest matters. I remember a former volleyball international telling me this at a local tournament in central Kerala a few years back, while fighting hard to keep his voice heard above the roar of the crowd matching the booming spikes (smashes) from the players. It was as though the heartbeat and the energy of the fans were synced to perfection with the action on the pitch — rising with the spikes and the blocks — settling down with the change of service. He also pointed out something interesting. “It doesn’t matter what the level of the teams are. If it is evenly contested, then that makes the day for the fans.” Forget a keen contest. At one of its marquee events, cricket failed to give a match even in Sydney last Thursday.
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The international cricket establishment — with its army of CEOs, marketeers and the combined business acumen of the three-odd nations who have ambushed the sport — seems to have failed to understand the basic idea through which a sport thrives and grows. Competition! An idea deeply ingrained in the spirit of the football and volleyball organisers in villages across Kerala. An idea that the noble business of organising sports tournaments revolves around anywhere in the globe.
Wait a minute. Nobility and business in sport mentioned in one breath. Can they thrive together? No and Yes. The business of sport feeds on the action on the pitch and, whatever the ideas of expansion and growth are on paper, if a framework is not set to facilitate good old action on the ground, things will implode into a sorry pile of failed marketing gimmicks. The damage to the sport, in this case cricket, would become irreversible.
T20 is a short and sharp format and hence deserves a tournament that is equally short and sharp if not anything else, as per the International Cricket Council (ICC). That is exactly the justification it gave when it came under fire for the lack of vision in accounting a reserve day for the knockouts of the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup. The day of the semis — an enticing day for fans with India vs England and Australia vs South Africa double header on the cards — was reduced to half a game with just the second match seeing action. That too because the rain relented.
It was the semifinals of a World Cup and the ICC had its own skewed logic about who should reach the summit clash. The judging criteria was the performance in the group stages. The World Cup had 10 nations playing in two groups. India topped Group A winning all the matches, with Australia progressing into the semis as No. 2. Australia’s only loss was to India. Harmanpreet Kaur and Co. booked a semis tussle with their arch nemesis England, who finished runners up behind South Africa in Group B.
Since India had a better record in the group stage, they progressed. Had the Australia vs South Africa match not taken place, the hosts would have exited the tournament. What a failure that would have been for the premier tournament in women’s cricket, which in itself is at a nascent stage. The oddity of the Indian entry into the final is compounded by the significant stat that England have won a whopping 16 times in the last 20 matches against India. Coupled with the fact that in the tournament, India peaked in the opening match against Australia — and since that have been huffing and puffing — and it is fair to say England had the edge. There is no way to find that out now, isn’t it?
The ICC, as always (the way New Zealand lost to England in the men’s ODI World Cup last year thanks to an unsporting Super Overs tie-breaker rule), has forgotten a basic tenet in sport. How can one team be judged better than the other without them having played each other at any stage? A spot in the World Cup final was at stake and the ICC’s tournament planners could and should have ensured a better system. Even gully cricket tournaments have better contingency plans for rains, by the way. The ICC doesn’t, despite the fact that cricket is a game that gets drastically affected by the weather.
Other sports, grass court and clay court tennis come to mind, immersed in tradition and surface tensions much like cricket, have adapted. Wimbledon has a roof on centre court and reserve days for the final. The premier grass court Grand Slam opted for it to avoid the uncertainties of rain despite the fact that the grass behaves drastically different under a roof. Tennis results are never decided on a player’s history. Across the Channel, the French Open will have an indoor venue this year. Again, just like grass, the clay surface acts more turf like under the roof. But the stakeholders, including the players, agree that this is needed for the sport. When will cricket wake up?
Cricket gets reminders, and chiding from all quarters every time a big tournament comes by. Each time the sport and its spirit gets washed down the drain. In Sydney, there was scope to slot a contingency day of action since the final was three days away. It would not have stretched the schedule of the tournament. It would have ensured sport prevailed. What transpired reeks of what could best be defined as clouded vision, a hallmark of the ICC and its top tournaments, the World Cups and Champions Trophy.
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Cricket Australia, on its part, did try to factor in a reserve day for the semis. That was after they progressed into the final four and realised that the matchday in Sydney had a forecast for rain. The sudden realisation that they would be out of the big tournament at home without actually losing to an opposition, made the Aussies wake up. The ICC denied the request. From this episode, it is evident that it is not just the ICC, but the cricket boards themselves who are to be blamed for what happened, or did not happen, at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
When one first heard the news, the initial reaction was that this had something to do with the deep-rooted patriarchy in the male-dominated game. Then one realised that the men's World T20, slated Down Under later in the year, doesn’t have a reserve day for the semis either. So we know now that the ICC is not sexist at all. Phew! They are just horses with blinkers on, hurtling towards a cliff, showing no signs of learning, repeating the same mistakes and seems to not care about it at all.
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