Members of the crowd attempt to catch a six

There's a lot of cricket on - much of it very good. Maybe we should enjoy the ride rather than worry about the destination

Dan Mullen / © Getty Images


Cricket will go where the fans take it, and that's all right

We're often alarmed at changes in the sport and the direction it seems to be headed in, but maybe the fear is unfounded

Sambit Bal  |  

Like the world we inhabit, cricket, a sport designed as a leisurely pursuit, feels frantic and fleeting these days, forever breathless, forever bursting forward, with barely a pause to reflect or rejoice.

Barely three days after turning in an innings of a lifetime in the World Cup final, on the world's largest cricket ground, Travis Head was on his way to Visakhapatnam to play in a five-match T20I series against the same opponents. It was played a little over a month ago now, but that final already feels like a distant memory: India and India A have finished playing series in South Africa, Australia have scored massive Test wins over Pakistan, the WBBL is over and the BBL is well underway, India Women are into their second home series to be played since then, and England took their white-ball rut to the Caribbean.

Rohit Sharma is no longer the Mumbai Indians captain, and Pat Cummins, the man who trumped him in that World Cup final, became, exactly a month on from that day, the IPL's most expensive buy, a record that was snatched from him within the hour by his partner in the World Cup ambush, Mitchell Starc. The IPL itself will be the perfect scene-setter for another men's World Cup, the T20 kind, in about six months from now.

Where, then, is the space to feel the recurring and familiar angst about the future of the game? The further shrinking of Test cricket; the growing irrelevance of ODIs outside of the World Cup; the rampant and unregulated mushrooming of T20 leagues; player fatigue; spectator fatigue; familiarity breeding boredom; surfeit leading to saturation. Should we really care or worry, or just stay in the moment and run with the flow? Is it not futile now to expect administrators to look beyond money and power?

Why not just submit to the belief that the game will ultimately go where the fans take it? In its exhibition of skill and revelation of character, sport can advance its claim to being an art form, but its essence lies in capturing the mass imagination, so what can be wrong in serving up more of what most fans want?

The World Cup might have suffered from organisational dysfunction, but the cricket was generally top-notch

The World Cup might have suffered from organisational dysfunction, but the cricket was generally top-notch © AFP/Getty Images

The World Cup: a good match-up of bat vs ball
What about the World Cup, a gigantic event that comes every four years, designed to create lasting memories when everything else seems to be transient? Apart from Australia vanquishing the seemingly invincible home team, what else will the 2023 edition be remembered for?

Let's be done with the forgettable stuff first. It felt interminable at times - even after five losses in six matches, England were somehow in the reckoning - but that was down to the format. Close finishes were rare, but who can you blame for that? And the organisation was shambolic: the scheduling, the ticketing, the opening ceremony, the overall fan experience at the grounds, everything felt like a manual in how not to organise a global event.

But the cricket itself, despite not consistently setting pulses on fire, was fulfilling, and the main reason was that bowlers were not belted out of sight. Apart from the Wankhede, which produced several high scores for teams batting first, and consequently massive defeats for the chasing teams, the contest between bat and ball felt even, thus bringing cricket's traditional skills centre stage. In that, it felt oddly affirming: if we didn't know this already, this World Cup showed that despite T20-inspired shot-making and turbo starts, ODIs were more like Test cricket than like their cool white-ball sibling.

There was space for bowlers to stitch together spells and challenge batters' technique, there was scope to build innings and to play in different tempos. There was more texture, more nuance, and more variety. It was no surprise that the playing XIs bore far more resemblance to Test teams than to T20 ones. And after a tepid start, crowds turned up at the grounds despite the ticketing troubles, and TV and digital viewership combined, this ended up as the most-watched cricket World Cup ever.

Which, of course, doesn't mean that all is well with ODI cricket. There always are rumblings about matches being too long and bilateral engagements carrying no relevance and little interest - demonstrated when India and England engaged in overseas ODI series immediately after the World Cup. But the solution lies in not crunching the ODI down to 40 overs - which may well happen - or scrapping bilaterals, but in careful scheduling, and like in the case of the Test championship, giving every ODI some meaning.

It's close between these two for Person of the Year

It's close between these two for Person of the Year © ICC/Getty Images

The primacy of T20 cricket is unquestionable, but the ODI needs to shrink not in size but in quantity, to remain attractive.

Australia and the art of winning
Are there such things as "winning DNA" or "a clutch team"?

Some will argue that cricket is a game of multiple deliveries and each delivery is agnostic of the event within which the contest between bat and ball occurs, and so that cricket is set up for batters and bowlers to treat each ball as isolated occurrences, which keeps them in the moment, executing their skills unaffected by context or situation. In other words, every ball starts as being equal in cricket.

If that is so, what can explain the outrageous dominance of Australian teams, both men's and women's, in World Cups? Between them, they have 20 of 41 possible World Cup wins (across 50-over and T20I cricket). The simple explanation for this, of course, is that they have simply been the best team in all these tournaments.

But who can argue unequivocally that Cummins' team was the best at the 2023 ODI World Cup? Or for that matter, that the Australia team that won the T20 World Cup in 2021 was? Two games into this World Cup, it was being asked whether they were good enough to make it to the semi-finals. And in 2021, they entered the tournament as outsiders with a mediocre T20 record leading in.

The hypothesis that every ball is equal in cricket fails to take into account one of the most fundamental aspects of execution of a skill: emotions, or control over them. Decision-making in sport is not based on algorithms; instead, state of mind matters - the ability to summon calmness, to control the nerves, which have a real physical impact on people. Confidence is part of the trick, but there is no magic potion for it. Most players at international level can play a great stroke or bowl a great ball, but what separates great players from the rest is that they can do it more often. It starts with skill but it is perfected with practice and becomes a habit. Winning is a habit: it builds belief and confidence, and it removes doubt.

Australia go into finals knowing they can win. Or rather that they will win. It's a self-perpetuating spiral. Between the men's and women's teams, Australia have lost only four world tournament finals since after the first men's World Cup, in 1975. It's mainly because they have had outstanding cricketers, but it's also because they manage to produce their best when it matters the most. And because they invariably have players who have done it before.

Cummins turned in his best performance of this year's tournament in the final. Head was the Player of the Match in both the semi-final and the final. That's the essence of a clutch team. And that's winning DNA right there.

Lanning's legacy
Who else embodies this quality better than Meg Lanning, Australia's Captain Invincible? She captained for so long that it felt remarkable she was only 31 when she decided to step away from international cricket. No other Australia captain won more World Cup titles (four T20 World Cups and a 50-over one) than her, but far more significantly, she was a true leader in the women's game as it stepped into the spotlight from the margins.

Meg Lanning: Australia's winningest World Cup captain

Meg Lanning: Australia's winningest World Cup captain © Getty Images

She hadn't even led her local club when she was, at the age of 21, handed Australia's captaincy, and she led with uncommon poise, her competitiveness shining as much as her cut shots did. Ten ODI hundreds in chases spoke as much about her skills as about her will to win and the knowhow with which to accomplish it.

Almost as significant was her display of humanity. She had the strength to reveal her frailties and stepped away from the game when it got a bit too much. During one such break she worked at a café, which she said helped her connect with different people and find new perspectives.

Next-gen batters: belt up for the ride
When India chose to look beyond Cheteshwar Pujara, their long-serving Test No. 3, and as orthodox a practitioner of Test-match batting as anyone can be, they went for Yashasvi Jaiswal, whose batting approach is as distant from Pujara's as can be. It's another matter that Jaiswal went on to open because Shubman Gill, the incumbent, sought a swap, but the selection pointed to two things.

The first is about direction. The grammar and pace of Test cricket have been changing, and in choosing an enforcer over a stonewaller - a match-winning one at that - the team management was making an emphatic nod towards a style of play.

Harry Brook: the future of all-format batting?

Harry Brook: the future of all-format batting? © ICC/Getty Images

Two, Jaiswal's palpable talent was too compelling to ignore, and that he found immediate success - making a stroke-filled near double-hundred on debut - was part of the growing body of evidence that the fear about all-format batters going extinct, or becoming rare, was unfounded. In India, when Gill was first marked out as one, it was being seen as an exception. But look around now and it feels like a trend.

For a couple of years now, Devon Conway has proved his remarkable adaptability across formats, not by adopting different styles of play for each but by making subtle shifts in gear between them. So has his team-mate Daryl Mitchell done, for whom Chennai Super Kings forked out an eye-popping Rs 14 crore (about US$1.68 million) at the IPL auction. Mitchell has been one of New Zealand's most prolific Test batters over the last four years, with an average north of 50 and five Test hundreds. For Australia, Head and Cameron Green are batters of this type.

The most remarkable phenomenon among these players is perhaps Harry Brook, whose journey has been in reverse to the conventional direction: he forced himself into England's white-ball teams with his T20-style batting in Test cricket. Given the licence to go all out, Brook has demonstrated what can be achieved in the format where wickets are at the highest premium by simply not caring about that value.

There will be places and occasions where Bazball will come a cropper - Australia won two Ashes Tests last year by being steadfastly traditional - and Test cricket will remain the richer when it straddles the spectrum of playing styles. England's five-Test tour to India in 2024 is a lip-smacking prospect for this very reason, but there is no doubt about the make-up of the new-generation of all-format batters.

The toss: what is it good for?
For a sport ostensibly rooted in tradition, cricket's evolution is remarkable. From new forms and formats to new rules of engagement, cricket has always been in flux, and tinkering with playing regulations has been part of the deal. And yet, some traditions, however idiosyncratic, have been seen as so sacrosanct that the law-makers wouldn't even consider a change to them.

It may be time to get rid of this ritual in cricket, or at least change its outcome

It may be time to get rid of this ritual in cricket, or at least change its outcome © ICC via Getty Images

Of all things random in sport, or in life, the toss in cricket might be the most extreme. Other sports have it too. In football, winning the toss gives you the right to kick the ball first; in tennis, to decide whether to serve or receive. But nowhere is the impact of the toss so profound as in cricket, because in other sports, changing playing conditions, the pitch, and even the outfield, do not influence the game as deeply as they do in cricket. And the toss, which can bestow a game-changing advantage, is nothing like "making your own luck". It often results in the random granting of an advantage. This has, throughout cricket's existence, been accepted as a vagary of the game. Should a way be found to reduce or rationalise this advantage?

With home advantage becoming more and more pronounced in Test cricket, as curators bend to the pressure of creating pitches to suit the home team, it has been suggested the toss be done away with and the visiting team be given the right to choose whether to bat or bowl first, but that could lead to more severe pitch-doctoring still, and in any case, in white-ball cricket the dew discriminates only against the team bowling second. Having the teams alternately pick the right to choose could be considered too, but what happens in the deciding third or fifth match of a series?

A start could be made by effecting a simple tweak: allow the teams to choose the playing XIs after the toss. It will not eliminate the advantage winning the toss confers, but in allowing the teams to pick an XI best suited to cope with the conditions as the match goes the distance, seems a tad more fair.

Person of the year
I gave a thought to Head, the Player of the Match in every knockout game for Australia this year, but it is tough to look past his captain. Cummins, as un-Australian as an Australia captain can be, won the World Test Championship, the Ashes and the World Cup, by being a comrade to his team-mates as their leader, by winning the respect of his fellow players and the cricket world with loyalty and grace, and winning with a smile.

More in our look back at 2023

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo @sambitbal