Cricket - where did the great players go?


There was a time, not long back, when every team in the world had at least five or six great players in their midst. West Indies, Australia and England had some of the greatest players of all time, unmatched in sheer brilliance to this day. Even countries like India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan had a handful of the world’s finest bowlers or batsmen. Wicket keepers then were the best to have ever donned gloves. They were all specialists in their area, batting or bowling or keeping. All-rounders were those who specialized in everything. International matches pitted the guile of the best bowlers against the skill of the best batsman in the world.


There are far more countries playing more cricket now than ever before all over the world. Players have far more motivation in terms of money, perquisites and fame. They enjoy the most scientific coaching and training methods and facilities, with even automated tools at their disposal. Yet, the number of truly great players has dwindled. Macgrath, Tendulkar, Lara, Wasim, Murali and possibly Warne are the only ones who would have made it to a World XI ten or fifteen years back.


Today’s cricketers are extremely effective. They bring clinical efficiency to the game, deliver and collect the goods with no-nonsense, businesslike professionalism. But very few evoke a sense of awe, a feeling of sublimity that those great players did. There is a difference between being very good and being extraordinary. Greatness awes even the most partisan spectator.


Both versions of the game, Test and one-day, make their own particular demand from the players in terms of talent, dexterity and toughness. All the players cited above have left an indelible mark on both versions. There is little doubt that players like Sobers, Chappell and Pollock would have stamped their class on both versions too as would have bowlers like Trueman or Lindwall or Benaud.


It is understandable if test cricketers do not succeed in one-day cricket. But the reverse is becoming equally true. More and more players are being compartmentalized as being good in one or the other. Wisden’s ratings are revealing.


77 of the all-time top 100 Test batsmen have already retired. 16 batsmen of those currently playing figure in both lists. Only 4 match their ratings in both versions. There is a wide gap either way between the ratings of the others.


Of the bowlers, 84 of the top 100 in Tests have retired. 13 current bowlers figure in both lists. Only McGrath matches his ratings in both versions. 4 or 5 are pretty close but the others seem to excel in one more than the other.


One-day cricket is giving rise to a new breed of cricketers. They are efficient in whatever they do, useful in every spot on the field, capable of doing a good bit of everything, proverbial Jacks of all trades. They are masters in none. They don’t need to be. Being adequate is enough.


The difference between Test and one-day cricket is becoming more and more like the difference between art films and commercial cinema. The former needs actors; the other breeds stars. We all sigh over the one and promptly switch channels to the other. Everybody agrees that Test cricket is the ‘real thing’ but it’s the ODIs that draw in the spectator and his money.


Test cricket is dying because it lacks excitement. Few matches yield results and fewer still produce exciting finishes. As Test cricket attracts lesser and lesser crowds, the authorities are understandably unwilling to sink money in a product that does not sell. And as with such a product, its users are dying out too.


One-day cricket has stepped in to fill the breach. It has changed cricket enormously. The demand of playing round the year has raised fitness levels. The need for higher fitness has lifted fielding standards while dramatically bringing down the average age of teams all over the world. Increased competition and compensation has attracted talent from every walk of life.


But we have paid the price in terms of quality. It has always been the batsmen and bowlers who make the game. And that is where standards have fallen. Only two of the top 20 Test batsmen, Sachin and Lara, are currently playing, but the latter has dropped to 10th place in recent years. 8 bowlers of the top 20 are currently playing, but at least five of them are on the verge of retirement. The next playing bowler comes 32nd in the list but after that, it is the 54th. The ODI list looks better but then, it should – it’s a relatively recent phenomenon.


Maybe it is time to come up with something that will capture the essentials of both forms of cricket. A limited-overs-Test version might be the right antidote. It will bring back the charm and thoughtful skill of Test cricket while infusing it with much-needed excitement and positive cheerfulness of the shorter version. It will speed up proceedings during a match, keeping interest alive throughout, and bring back the paying crowd because a result is guaranteed.  Batsmen will need to build an innings but without having unlimited overs to do it. Bowlers will need to go on the offensive instead of them just restricting runs and waiting for batsmen to fall to a slog. Above all, this version will remove the phrase called ‘playing for a draw’ from cricket’s lexicon. It is not merely a coincidence that countries are allowed to play official international one-day cricket before they get Test status. The longer version has always been considered more difficult.


It may be argued that the game has seen a lot of its stalwarts retire in the past decade or so, and many countries, barring Australia, are in varied stages of rebuilding their teams. If it is merely a matter of the game being in a state of flux, it is acceptable. If, however, this is what the future holds for discerning lovers of the game, it is certainly disturbing, if not altogether alarming.