Yesterday, the most anticipated Test cricket series of the year began in Bangalore, between India and Australia. For the next few weeks, all the action will converge, all the attention will focus, and even begrudging observers will be forced to take a peek now and then. (I use my dad as the barometer of public interest in cricket in Australia. He's not much a fan of the game -- though he does love to walk around the house loudly baritoning the word "Tendulkar" over and over like a mantra -- so I know that when he starts mentioning cricket in casual conversation, it has caught the grip of the masses.)
So why is all this attention placed on this series? What is riding on it? Is it actually important, objectively significant in some way, or is it just noteworthy because the only alternative at the moment is an ODI
contractual obligation series between New Zealand and Bangladesh. There might be plenty reasons to watch the Border-Gavaskar trophy, but are there reasons to care?
To answer that question, we need to divide it into smaller sub-questions:
Why do we care?
1st-placed team in the world vs. 3rd-placed team... economic hegemon vs. on-field hegemon... white vs. brown... spin vs. pace... weeds vs. monkeys, etc. The storylines may be a little hackneyed and blunt, but they work. It's easy to sell them and put them into kinetic, bite-sized snippets for cable TV promos.
The Ashes, as a contrast, survives as an institution and a product because it stands on the massively inflated foundation of tradition. It doesn't have to sell itself because it's already so enmeshed into the identity of cricket. Without the Ashes, there's no cricket. Simple as that.
The India v Australia bilateral is different. It needs characters and narratives. It needs farewell tours, career reversals, and on-field controversy. A few of those factors are around this time, but not all. (To any series, for example you can simply add "Shane Warne" as a subplot and it would, by rule, become more interesting.)
Why should we care?
This is a harder question to answer. There is no finality to either result -- neither an Indian nor an Australian victory would prove much about the future. The balance of power won't really be affected since it is, after all, on the balance. It could go either way. But we won't know in which direction it's headed, and this series isn't going to illuminate it. India have chosen a nostalgia squad, and we won't learn much from whatever they achieve in the next few weeks.
What this series will probably measure, however, is the chance Test cricket as a while has of surviving (and thriving) in the future.
It's no secret that, in international cricket, as India goes, so does the world. (Allen Stanford may slingshot away his millions from his Caribbean lair, but he will never be able to compete with the burgeoning economy of an entire country.) Therefore, if Test cricket wants to prosper in the age of Twenty20, it needs to be driven by its popularity in India. And there's no single way to make a sport more popular in a country than by having that country win consistently at the highest level.
This series will show us how serious India can be about the Test game. They have a great chance to really hurt Australia this time, and knock them down yet another peg in the post-Evil Empire era. It's not a good sign, however, that even if they do win, it will be with yesterday's players, not tomorrow's. (More on that later.)
Will Australia care?
We know that the Australian players will, and we know the management probably will, but what about the fans? After the mass exodus of the Warne generation, it's hard to predict how much the Australian public will care about cricket for a while.
The national team has lost a few of its stalwarts -- the Gillys, McGraths and Warnes -- and the ones that are left -- the Pontings, Haydens, etc. -- are not really types to capture the public imagination. They're efficient, and admired, but they're not iconic. All we're left with is a bunch of very disciplined professionals with boring-as-batshit personalities. A team full of cricketing Jack Johnsons, if you will. (One of them ain't even trying to hide it.)
Will Australians tune in for that? Is there any point for them? After winning big for two decades, will anyone care about an Australian XI losing with dignity, or winning ugly, half a world away? I get the feeling that the Aussie fans may have gotten spoiled by too much dominance. There are plenty of other things to watch on Foxtel between 2 and 9 PM in the afternoon, after all.
Will India care?
Now here's the vital question. Will the local fans show up? And will they do so consistently, to watch the cricket, and not just to celebrate inspirational milestones from over-the-hill legends?
The crowd on the first two days at Bangalore looked incredibly sparse. And while that's somewhat understandable given that the Australians won the toss and batted (on a pair of weekdays) it's hard not to compare the scenario with, say, the first night of the IPL. On that occasion, we saw packed stands, fireworks, Bollywood starlets dropping down from helicopters, etc. As far as pure spectacle goes, Test cricket in India still seems to be far down on the totem pole. And we really can't afford it to be.
There is no way to stress this enough: if Test cricket wants to stay afloat, it needs to bring India (and the Indian public) onboard fully. There is a vested interest for just about all concerned in seeing India at, or at least near, the top of the Test ladder.
The problem is that the Indian leadership is not really building for an extended period of dominance. Take a look at the squad they pettled out for this series... you might be wondering if you had stepped back into 2003. I know that the symbolic attachment to the old-timers is too strong to let go, but the country will never get beyond where they are right now while riding a dying generation. The Big 4 have done an immeasurable service to Indian cricket, no doubt, but let's not pretend they're even a Big 4 anymore -- more like a Moderately-Sized 2.5.
I mean, Sourav Ganguly? That's what they're giving us, in 2008? Are you fucking kidding me?
You know what the sad thing is? We've already seen the future of Indian cricket, and it's bright.
Unfortunately, the future was a week ago, and no one was watching.
The Indian Board President's XI faced the Australians in Hyderabad and outplayed them comprehensively in a 4-day draw. This was virtually a full Australian XI, and they got spanked by a bunch of barely-capped young'uns with a lot of hunger and little experience.
Sadly, we're not getting to see any of that. All we'll get is another exhibition of the fading skills of yesterday's heroes.. (I can't say I really fault them completely. I too would love to see Tendulkar get those 77 runs, and to watch Kumble claim another match-winning bag after everyone doubted/ignored him, and maybe even to catch the magic of another Laxman-Dravid special, just for old time's sake.)
But surely, the party must end at some point. No one this side of Celine Dion has extended a farewell tour for longer than the Indian Test team.
Until it ends, it becomes awfully hard to care. Even for those of use who really do.