Sachin Dev Barman, scion of the royal family of Tripura, was a failed tennis player. No matter, he had a superior passion. Gifted with a rich lilting voice, a slight nasal twang adding to its allure, his music took the Bengali middle class by storm in the Thirties and Forties of the last century. His fort' was juxtaposition of Bengali folk with Hindustani light classical and the 78 rpm discs he rendered were collector's items in that era. One particular song, Tumi aar nei shey tumi ' 'You are no longer the you you once were' ' made everybody swoon: 'Your eyes cease to sparkle as in the past in my presence, the serpentine tresses down your shoulder have lost the golden glint of yore, the bells on your feet do not jingle in the way they used to, all ardour is spent, you are no longer the you that you were'.
These annals are as dead as a dodo though. Soon after independence, Sachin Dev Barman crossed over to Mumbai, began composing for the film industry over there, and struck it rich. He became S.D. Burman. His songs turned street-smart, flashy, brittle. His son, Rahul, soon arrived on the scene and conquered all that was conquerable in the world of commercial music. Sachin Dev Barman was in no time reduced to a near non-entity, R.D. Burman's father; he was, obviously, no longer what he once was.
Is not something pretty similar happening to the game of cricket' It has ceased to be cricket, and is fast becoming bang bang. The change was heralded roughly a quarter of a century ago with the advent of Channel Nine, and is by now almost complete. Cut out the old lazy five-day sprawl of test matches, which does not gel with the intense pace of the information technology age. Time is money; besides, people now demand packed entertainment. The finer points of the game are for the birds, it is the thrills that count. Forget about the old-time grace of indolent country matches presided over by the English gentry with luncheon, tea and drink intervals thrown in. Forget about the old social division, gentlemen entering by the front gate; for the so-called players, the wicker gate in the rear. Bury the past and welcome the new one-day version of the game: fifty overs and three-and-a-half hours allotted to each side.
Batting, bowling, fielding, each has undergone a metamorphosis. Better dispense with the moribund notion of building an innings through dogged defence in the initial overs; your reputation will be mud if you concede a maiden over or too many dot balls; learn to score right from the first ball you face; your role all the time is akin to that of a pinch hitter in baseball, never mind whether you are playing one down or arriving at the crease on the fall of the seventh wicket. Whatever its length, line or pace, your aim must be to hit each ball with fury. Practise sixers, which are like home runs in baseball. Run the impossible run, catch the unbelievable catch, save the inevitable boundary, display all the calisthenics you are capable of as you pounce upon a full-blooded pull or square drive. And while bowling, try to eliminate the fancy stuff; be as miserly as Shylock, increase the frequency of unplayable swinging yorkers. Put a tiger in the tank of your body; it is not just cricket, it is crusade. At the end of the day, should you win, it means pots and pots of money, either outright on the spot, or on your entry into the dream world of endorsements.
As with football and baseball, cricket is rapidly getting transformed into a spectator sport. It is already so in India and those other countries in south Asia where the game is played; England is not far behind. The boisterous crowd is ready with participatory rituals. It roars, it cheers, it spits venom, it makes and unmakes a player's reputation, and therefore his career. A spectator sport attracts sponsors. Successful players proceed to earn fabulous sums, sometimes forty, fifty, a hundred times more from endorsements than from actual participation in the game itself. Understandably, cricket is getting increasingly identified with a performing art, with accent on attaining dizzy and dizzier heights of perfection on the part of the players.
This specific requirement ushers in the coach. Again, as in football or baseball, the coach becomes an integral, and perhaps the most important, part of the overall set-up. He reigns like a king-emperor. His word is law. He commands remuneration of an astronomical size. Thanks to the coach, the team learns to perform a little more impeccably with every game. It is however a dynamic situation: what is impeccable today is bound to be poorly performance by tomorrow. There are competing teams and competing coaches, who also are practising impeccability. Should a team lose a string of matches, sponsorship drops for players, the market price for the coach too drops. If one is not impeccable, one is dispensable. It is a battlefield, it is a relentless struggle to stay ahead of the others. A couple of decades ago, scoring 250 runs was considered respectable enough for a fifty-over innings. No longer; now a score of 350 is threatening to be the criterion of minimal achievement.
Even a king can be made to abdicate or sent into exile. A coach too can be fired if the team falls behind in competition. The coach, not surprisingly, drives himself hard and drives the players as well. He ensconces himself in what is no longer exactly the dressing room but looks more and more like a reserve bench or a dug-out, and constantly monitors the performance of his players. Should they under-perform, he bawls them out; he is paid to do that.
As cricket gradually becomes indistinguishable from the format of other spectator sports, coaches begin to be traded in the open market. Who knows, in that milieu, country and club loyalties too will perhaps be dispensed with. A player, irrespective of his nationality, will be purchased for a season or a couple of seasons by one country, he will play for this country even without acquiring its nationality. But he might be disposed of in the open market should he fail to satisfy. There might be another development as well: in case a country cricket association is short of funds, it could decide to sell a Brian Lara or a Sachin Tendulkar in the market and raise a fortune. Contests between country a and country b will still continue to be the epicentre of patriotic emotions. They will, however, more and more assume the character of corporate bouts ' encounters between brand names.
Once all this happens, along with many other totems, the role of the cricket captain will also go the way of all flesh. The concept of a captain as the first among equals, a somewhat superior, remote, aloof figure, will be thrown out of the window. A captain will still be formally named, but he will be little more than a figurehead. The coach will take over. He will shout at and, should he feel it necessary, order out the captain. Bereft of other options, the captain will retire and write his memoirs.
Cricket is no longer the cricket it once was.