Why has cricket alone mutated like this?

Every single time I see those cheerleaders give a new — and unmistakably crass — meaning to ‘dancing,’ each time I am startled by a sea of yellow or red or blue rising like a tsunami in the stands, somehow a sorrowful picture forms in my mind, one where people are dancing on the grave of a great game — Test cricket.

For all we know, we might be witnessing a historic transformation in a game that turned its reviewers — men such as Neville Cardus — into poets. It may be a paradigm shift of such huge significance that it could very well mark the extinction of one species and the birth and growth of another.

Call it creative destruction — if you want to use a phrase popular in the Silicon Valley — or whatever you wish. But what we are witnessing now in cricket may, two or three decades later, come to be looked upon as the end of an era, the era of dinosaurs (Test matches) and the beginning of the time of tiny mammals (T20).

In the all-too-brief life and times — in evolutionary terms — of the sport, no other cultural (memetic) revolution, not even the Kerry Packer-triggered upheaval, has had the impact that the Indian Premier League has made on the sport.

Perhaps our grandchildren may look back on these few years and decide to divide the history of cricket itself into two distinct periods: Before IPL (BIPL) and After IPL (AIPL).

Sportertainment

What may be happening right now is the slow, but sure, death of Test cricket and the quick rise of its superbly packaged replacement — sportertainment — which will, some day in the not-too-distant future, have only a passing resemblance to the sport from which it evolved!

Of course, no sport can rise above the demands of the age; and IPL’s unabashed commercialism is proof enough that cricket has failed to do so.

But why has cricket alone mutated like this? Tennis has its tie-breakers; football has its penalty shootout. But they are part of the game, not a game in themselves.

Yet, looking back — and, more importantly, looking forward — the T20 reign looks inevitable, doesn’t it?

It is, after all, a product of our time — an era in which people do not seem to have the patience to wait more than 15 seconds for a page to download on the internet. We want it all now, here, this second, not a minute later. Delayed rewards are not our cup of tea. Instant gratification is IN.

If Test cricket is passé, it is because we hate complexity — and we do this, ironically enough, during one of the most complex periods in human history.

We do not have time for nuanced understanding; we seek information, but do not have the time to distill wisdom from it; we seek emotional fulfilment through sport, but are no longer willing to sit through five days of ebb and flow for a conclusion.

The preening vanity of some of the IPL team owners and their self-dramatisation might make the purists wince. But these things are here to stay. And what will stay, too, is our faith in the market, the so-called free market. The perched-on-Everest cultural mediators of taste have vanished from cricket, at least in this part of the world. Price and Value have become interchangeable words, both losing their meaning in the process.

“It’s the non-judgmental appeal of market reasoning that I think helped deepen its hold on public life and made it more than just an economic tool; it has elevated it into an unspoken public philosophy of everything,” Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel told Edward Luce of Financial Times (UK) in an interview recently.

This is very much true of cricket in the context of IPL. Sandel is the author of an influential book, What money can’t buy: The moral limits of markets (Penguin). But he is an American, and he might never have experienced the IPL phenomenon.

Surely, there are millions who believe that T20 is wonderfully entertaining and its thrill-a-minute plot-line can never find a place in the longest form of the game. But everything comes down to what you mean by thrills. It is rather subjective.

Then again, sporting experience itself — or, for that matter, all experience — is subjective. And if there are a few million cricket connoisseurs who would dread to see the day when Test cricket will have its funeral, then there are perhaps many, many millions who will see that as a normal event — death from natural causes after a long and fulfilling life.

Perhaps it is a little inappropriate to talk about all this as another bout of IPL fever rages in the country. And I may be proved wrong. But no writer who ever worried about being wrong ventured deep into the future, or deeper into the past.