13 January 2010.
Kohli, Roach, Parnell and 10 other youngsters to look forward to in the years ahead.
If cricket changes half as much in the next decade as it did in the last, followers of the game had better fasten their seatbelts. Of course the game itself has not actually changed all that much. Steady offspinners are taking wickets, batsmen with sound techniques are scoring runs, frustrated bowlers are developing cunning ruses to take wickets, umpires are making mistakes; batsmen, bowlers, groundsmen and reporters are making mistakes; and the endless battle between bat and ball continues.
Progress has been made in some areas. Towards the end of the decade the umpire review system was introduced, and already it is helping take the sting out of umpiring blunders. Twenty-over cricket has arrived, bringing laughter and colour to the game, attracting the attention of sports enthusiasts hitherto unfamiliar with cricketing language. Admittedly it has its downsides. Popular entertainments aimed at the mass market and driven by television revenues are not as easily marshalled as serious recreations pursued by devotees.
Cricket has also attempted to widen its scope by promoting the game in previously unsuspecting areas. It is a far-sighted investment. Anything to get away from the narrowness of the colonial and post-colonial debate. For years the colonialists were at liberty to impose their way of thinking. Now the post-colonialists justify dubious conduct on the grounds that past distortions need to be rectified. And so the dialectic goes back and forth in search of enlightenment.
Ever more, too, cricket is affected by forces far beyond its control. The idea that any game can remain untouched by wider influences is mere folly. Amongst the game’s top countries, two are fighting in Afghanistan, one is emerging from a civil war, several have endured terrorist bombs in their main cities, two suffer from deeply felt border tensions, one does not exist, another is emerging from the distortions of apartheid, another thinks mostly about rugby, another is struggling to survive poverty, and another was been almost destroyed by torture, rape and pillage. Its a wonder that cricket survives, let alone flourishes.
Meanwhile the global financial crisis took its bite as greed and folly in high places imperilled the financial system. Amid all this mayhem, Test cricket has offered a curiously sane sanctuary. Five-day matches do not seem as absurd in a world driven by hatred, suspicions and rivalry. A bold Pakistan team has offered hope in a bleak period. The sight of Virender Sehwag making merry at the start of a grave match has been a happy antidote. The Ashes rivalry is alive again as England rallies and Australia is on the verge of losing the last of its great men. South Africa has a diverse team, a thought inconceivable 20 years ago. Did anyone suppose the Berlin Wall might fall and that an Indian, two coloureds and a Xhosa might become regulars in the South African cricket team? West Indies is starting to produce some players again and has even found a capable CEO (though not yet an impressive President). Throwing, an issue that cases agitation far beyond its importance, has mostly settled down.
Of course it has not all been uplifting. But these things ought to be acknowledged, not least by the clever clogs and the ancients with their disapproving frowns. However, it is idle to pretend everything has gone well. Players from Uganda and Afghanistan have absconded on overseas trips – boys seeking better lives for their families but betraying their comrades. The next betting scandal lurks around the corner. Governance is more honoured in the breach than the observance, and those eager to promote it swiftly find powerful forces arrayed against them. The CEO of the ICC needs to watch his back. Silver-tongued manipulators, not all of them from Zimbabwe, are still playing their little games and impressing those burdened with little minds.
Against formidable odds, though, the game has held together and all concerned ought to be congratulated. But then, it is a very good game, one blessed with many faces, paces, colours, faiths, backgrounds, interpretations. Happily, too, brazen and bristling youngsters keep brightening the scene. Indeed the game seems to get younger even as its observers age. Perhaps Twenty20 has helped to strip it of its mystique, opening the mind to its possibilities, releasing youth before it has been taught and tamed. Amid all the regret of too little money spent on development, millions wasted by boards, missed opportunities to reduce the hysteria that can grip nations, amid all these things, youth keeps stepping forwards and taking wickets and cracking sixes and winning matches and surprising with its understanding and maturity. In case any reader remains depressed about the next decade, let’s offer a rough-and-ready list of players likely to be worth watching as the years unfold.
And, just for a change let’s start with the unfashionable nations, though not before begging forgiveness for omitting any players from Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. Talent abides in both nations but little is seen of them and it’s hard to pick anyone out with any confidence. Only players 24 and under have been considered – a qualification that eliminates Hashim Amla and JP Duminy amongst others.
Kemar Roach (21). His thunderbolts impressed observers in the Champions Trophy and shook the Australians on the recent tour Down Under. Between them helmets and slow pitches had reduced the impact of fast bowling. After dominating from 1972 to about 1995, it had fallen back. Roach’s raw speed raised eyebrows. He forced Ricky Ponting to retire hurt for the first time in his career.
Adrian Barath (19). Any teenager capable of scoring a hundred as an opener at the Gabba in his first Test, and against an otherwise rampant Australian outfit, has much to offer. Small, and spirited, Barath is a gusty and gutsy opener and a fine fieldsman. His rise confirms the ever-increasing part played by the Indian community in Caribbean cricket.
Stuart Broad (23). Lively allrounder capable of changing matches with bat or ball. Judging from performances at critical moments in the Ashes series, he cannot be cramped by opponents or pressure. Can swing the ball from a lofty place and can counter-attack from the lower orders. Not always the most discreet of competitors. Sons of referees have much in common with the sons of bishops.
Adil Rashid (21). Bradford born legspinner and handy batsman. Already has made his mark in ODIs and can be expected to play Test cricket sooner rather than later. His rise confirms the part played in England by those raised in cultures outside the slow-flowing mainstream.
Martin Guptill (23). An upright batsman with a fine technique and superb drive, he is the likeliest of the emerging Kiwis to make his mark. Like most of his fellow countrymen, has been thrown into the deep end at an early age and his figures have suffered. However his class cannot be missed. Already amongst his country’s leading ODI batsmen.
Angelo Mathews (22). A sturdy and capable allrounder with proven skills in both departments. Has prospered in all forms of the game. A fine batsman, he reached 99 in a Test match against India only to run himself out. His medium-pacers combine accuracy and variety. Sri Lanka can depend on his skills and fortitude.
Mohammad Aamer (17). A slip of a lad from the backwaters, he impressed the Kiwis and Australians with his stamina, pace and ability to swing the ball in both directions from either side of the wicket. Often surpassed 150kph and did not flag in a long spell in Melbourne. With the ball he is Wasim Akram reincarnate.
Umar Akmal (19). From a strong cricketing family that used to practise in a gully, he has already been acclaimed by sage and mostly sober observers as Pakistan’s next great batsman. He has a correct technique, a wider range of shot and an abundance of spirit. Impetuosity is the only thing holding him back.
Wayne Parnell (20). Tall left-armer with plenty of pace and swing in his armoury. Provided he stays fit he will bring penetration, variety and colour to the South African team, thereby filling several holes. Comes from the townships in the Eastern Cape, long a stronghold and nowadays the most productive cricketing location in the country.
Virat Kohli (21). The Delhi-ite seems the most composed and correct of India’s emerging batsmen. So far he has taken the trip from successful Under-19 captain to international honours, wealth and acclaim in his stride. Many perils await, but his character can survive temptation and his technique scrutiny.
Ishant Sharma (21). Already has had more ups and downs than most boys of his age. His inexperience tends to be forgotten as he strives to recapture the excellence shown in his early days in Indian colours. Can be strengthened by these confusions and return as a fully fledged bowler blessed with height, pace and durability of body and mind.
Steven Smith (20). Dashing batsman and handy legspinner, a combination warmly appreciated but in short supply Down Under. Bound to get his chance soon but more likely to play as an allrounder than as a specialist spinner. Has a sound father and a strong club and so can survive the hype.
Mitchell Marsh (18). Powerfully built and hard-hitting middle-order batsman. Also bowls a heavy ball. Currently at the Under-19 World Cup but his progress will be closely followed when he returns. Australia is looking towards youth as it tries to restore vitality in the age of professionalism.