Hawk Eye

Second XI: The story of the underdogs

The Afghanistan cricket team. Photo: AP

The Afghanistan cricket team. Photo: AP  

Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.

An oft-quoted line from a recent film on mathematician Alan Turing’s life The Imitation Game, it didn’t sound as annoying when I thought of non-Test cricket playing countries. The above statement, it could be argued, would do justice to the sides’ exploits at the Cricket World Cup.

We seem to enjoy it, don’t we? The number of people who were delighted with Ireland’s win over West Indies reminded us that this is one of the reasons why the 50-over quadrennial event hasn’t become monochromatic yet; though, as William Porterfield justifiably argued, it wasn’t an upset. Nevertheless, our general estimation of sides remains well entrenched. Even if we don’t like it, the Associates are never considered to be on a par with the Full Members.

Neither should they be. Considering the number of matches played against the latter bunch and financial assistance received from the International Cricket Council, it would be a travesty to see the Associates and Affiliates as equals.

Our knowledge of these teams, as compared to the Test-playing nations, is hardly the same too. Not for nothing are these sides called ‘lesser-known.’

In this regard alone, Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts assumes significance. The book, largely co-authored by journalists Tim Wigmore and Peter Miller, traces the history of some of the nations that exist on the periphery of the cricket world.

You could be forgiven for asking why anybody would be bothered to learn more about the teams that rarely occupy our television screens, let alone our minds. The book’s relevance isn’t determined by the timing of its publication but it’s important.

We are in a strange moment. Despite the low enthusiasm for watching these unheralded teams generally, it should be about trying to make the best of what we’ve got in Australia and New Zealand currently. The latest iteration of the World Cup could be the last one to feature non-Test playing sides. Considering they’ve been an inseparable part of the tournament’s narrative, the realisation is poignant. If your memory cheats you, a look at the match records of past World Cups will serve you well. Only in 1975 & ’87 did a non-Test playing team not win a match.

Hence, with the reduction of the 50-over showpiece event to 10 sides, there’s a genuine risk that these colourful additions to the tournament may fail to find the path they need to exist and prosper.

In the light of this extraordinary move by the ICC, the stories of genuine enthusiasm for cricket in the countries discussed in the book evoke pathos. While the factors behind development, stagnation or popularity are localised too, the governing body’s stunted vision for the game’s development connects every country.

The chapters on China, Nepal and Papua New Guinea—excellent contributions by Sahil Dutta, Tim Brooks and Gideon Haigh, respectively—bring this issue into sharp focus.

The ICC’s move to not seek participation at the Olympics has major ramifications for the sport, most acutely felt in China. As Dutta notes, “There is International Olympic Committee (IOC) funding of $15m–$20m made available every Olympic Games and Olympic Solidarity funding of $4m–$6m a year for participating countries to tap into. In addition, once a sport gains Olympic status, governments pay more attention. This is emphatically the case in China. The China Cricket Association’s (CCA) deputy general secretary Zhang Tian has said as much as $20m a year could pour into cricket from central and local governments if cricket became an Olympic sport.”

On this evidence alone, a participation at the Olympics will benefit cricket as a whole. However, the love for self-interest that afflicts the 'Big Three' (the cricket boards of India, England and Australia) should mean that there's little hope of cricket becoming a truly global sport.

Despite being threatened by irrelevance, there are stories that generate optimism. The rise of PNG, Afghanistan, Ireland and Nepal has added to the romance of cricket. Despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, these teams have rebelled and succeeded.

However, the history of Netherlands and Kenya should serve as cautionary tales. Sometimes, it takes very little to suffer an extraordinary fall.

It takes perspective to understand the significance of the non-Test playing countries, including their successes and failures, in the grand scheme of things. It may sound ridiculous but any achievement of theirs is insignificantly significant for the mainstream section of the cricket world. While the success may not bring tangible benefits, it gives everyone an opportunity to praise the weak and expand on their 'vision' for cricket.

This is where Second XI excels. It tells the story as it is; there's no lip service or patronising the have-nots. The writers, blessed with perspicacity, are able to provide a social context to this history of cricket too. The ICC is a major problem, but not the whole of it. This understanding permeates the account.

In the future, barring a miraculous turn of events, teams like Afghanistan, Kenya and Scotland seem set to struggle in their battle for equality. If the ICC continues to walk on the path that holds a darker future for these sides, Second XI will help us to understand why the gloom descended and what was put in danger. It's a book that will stand the uncertainty of time.

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 10:06:58 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/blogs/blog-hawk-eye/article6912813.ece

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