Rather grand title, no? But as I was on another interminable subway ride, I started to wonder: why do some cricketing nations dominate, and others do not? And — given Australia’s recent fall — why do some decline?
The simplest, and possibly best, answer has something to do with the quality of players. Modern cricket has known only two great teams: the West Indies, which had the reins for a frightfully long time, and Australia. Both these teams had unmatchable players, and kept producing them. The West Indies had Viv Richards, Rohan Kanhai, Malcolm Marshall, all the way down to Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose and lastly, Brian Lara; the Australians — well, you know who they had.
Once that long supply was exhausted, the team suffered, and Lara was not enough to carry it. The West Indies also missed a trick with the rise of spin, which the Indians consitently relied on, but the Australians — with one Shane Warne — took to a match-winning quality. Pace alone, and spin alone, cannot do the task; one needs both, even if Paul Harris is your one spinner (as in South Africa’s case). Australia, however, now find themselves in the same position the West Indies did in the early 1990s: gone are McGrath and Warne, and Langer and Hayden, and Lehmann and Martyn, and the Waugh brothers and Gilchrist.
There are underlying factors behind this sudden lack of resources: first, you can’t stay lucky forever. Second, in the West Indies at least, cricket’s general popularity has suffered, with basketball and football attracting the true athletes. Third, if you have only greats in your team, and you have only 11 players in one team, then an entire slew of other more-than-qualified players has to wait on the sidelines, leaving a generation completely off the field (Brad Hogg and Stu MacGill are excellent sufferers in this regard).
There is, however, another possible trend: winners attract imitation. The Australians did not necessarily innovate their way to the top — it was Sri Lanka, I think, that truly perfected the ODI 15-over strategy — but they did do things differently, especially with fielding (taking a cap from baseball) and with their aggressive tactics (verbal and otherwise). There’s no copyright on these things, alas, and other teams — not coincidentally, South Africa and India — have taken to doing the same things. And once the general level has been raised, you find that you’re not on the top of a mountain anymore, but one of several on the same plateau.
Could this happen to India? I’m optimstic. Even once the golden generation (Dravid, Laxman, Tendulkar, Ganguly) fully potters off, India has time on its side for two reasons: first, the team has matured at different times. For a long time, batting and spin was India’s core strength. Later generations have now produced fine fast bowlers (latter-day Zaheer, Ishant, Munaf, Balaji, Sreesanth, Praveen), who are generally younger and leaner. As more training goes to the bowling, we’ll find more athletes who otherwise would have preferred to all compete in batting.
Secondly, India has a huge, cricket-obsessed population. Unlike Australia and the West Indies, whose demographics are tiny in comparison, and who have multiple sports to tug attention away, India — for now at least — is all in for cricket. (Tennis, despite Mirza’s sucess, still remains an upper-class preoccupation, and hockey will never recover until they figure out which surface to use.) And here too, India has copied the Australians: all these cricket “academies,” with their foreign coaches; all the high-tech technologies and the reliance on video replays and phsyios for fitness — these are not Indian creations.
That’s my take. It leaves a lot to be desired — India clearly does not have the management structure that Australia does — but that’s for another day. Of course, I’d be most happy in a multi-polar cricketing world, with South Africa, India, and England all competing for the top post.