Cricket, today, features amongst the top sports of the world and its shimmering luster is getting shinier with each passing day. While not yet in the same league as Soccer, Golf, or Formula One, the sport has managed to carve a niche for itself. Call it globalization or commercialization, but the sport continues to attain new zeniths despite all odds. Even in sports rich countries like Australia, England and South Africa, where plethora of different sports—both indoor as well as outdoor—are available at disposal, Cricket still holds a special place. The English and Aussies still look upon Ashes as the greatest challenge of grit and determination and take a lot of pride in the outcome of the series. Similarly, the people of the sub-continent, most notably India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, adhere to cricket as their religion. Cricket is also followed with almost the same vigor and intensity by the people of Caribbean, who have many great memories of ancestral heroics attached to the decorated sport. With the ICC’s initiative to take Cricket to all the nook and corners of the world, the associate nations have been emerging well as potential hot spots for Cricket in the days to follow. But, as it is with all the great things, they don’t become great overnight, for they need to be fed with years of sweat and blood. Well, Rome wasn’t built in a day! Cricket, too, has run its course from its nigh obscure beginnings as an aristocratic sport in early 16th-century England to becoming the raison d’être for sports maniacs all across the globe. At almost every point of time in its history, the game of Cricket has seen itself undergo a tremendous transformation thanks to the peremptory intervention of the prime movers of the game. Whether for the better or the worse, the impact that these colossal figures have left on the sport has been staggering.
Today, we shall go back in time and try to decipher the role played by all those men whose exploits changed the very face of our most beloved sport: Cricket.
1). William Gilbert Grace
Well, what can be said about the man who single-handedly changed the very face of Cricket as a sport? The more one would try to say the less inappropriate it may become! A father figure in Cricket, WG Grace carried the sport on his shoulders, raising it in status from merely being an instrument of amateurish indulgence to becoming the most popular summer spectacle in England. WG revolutionized the art of bating and made it an object of great cachet in Cricket. WG is widely regarded by many as the greatest player to have embraced the sport and his exploits with both bat and ball are often regarded as superhuman considering he played his cricket in an era of under-prepared pitches. A charismatic all-rounder, WG dominated the sport during his career and enriched the sport with the technical improvisations, the effect of which can be seen even today. Over the course of a career that stretched over 43 years, WG scored 54,896 first-class runs including a whopping 126 centuries, and bagged a staggering 2,876 wickets. The stories of WG hitting yorkers for towering sixes still continue to both amuse and awe the Cricket pundits worldwide.
It is indeed a matter of great pity that WG could only make his Test debut at an age of 32 when he had apparently passed his best. It was indeed a privilege of the Australians to witness WG score a scintillating 152 on debut. A couple of years later, despite top-scoring, the father of cricket was part of England’s first home defeat—an inconsolable loss for the zealous English fans that marked the “death” of English cricket and the birth of the Ashes. WG was also the first English captain to lose the Ashes following the loss in 1891/92 series, which also turned out to be his first and only overseas series. However, these abysmal lows—being completely outweighed by his prolific success—couldn’t tarnish the iconic status that WG enjoyed, which he continued to enjoy even in his later years. Suffice it is to say that no account of Cricket as a sport can ever be deemed complete without the mention of WG Grace and his behemoth achievements, which still continue to encompass the sport. On 12 September 2009, William Gilbert Grace was inducted into the ICC Cricket Hall of Fame at the Mecca of Cricket, Lords.
2). Sir Donald George Bradman
A famous Hindi movie dialogue translates to: “it is not only difficult to get hold of the Don but also impossible”. Coincidently, the cheeky dialogue perfectly describes the unparalleled exploits of the great batsman. Bestowed with the sobriquet of “The Don”, Bradman is widely regarded as the greatest cricketer of the 20th century. Only WG Grace came close to matching Bradman’s towering stature as a sportsman. Bradman’s Test average of 99.94 has been claimed to be statistically the greatest achievement in any major sport. During a career that stretched over 20 years, Bradman scored at a rate that made him, in the words of former Australia captain Bill Woodfull, “worth three batsmen”. It is indeed a testament to Bradman’s dominance as a batsman that an entirely new form of game play, termed as “Bodyline”, was devised by the English to curb Bradman’s prodigious stroke play. Former Australian cricketer and journalist Jack Fingleton said, “Bodyline was specially prepared, nurtured for and expended on him and, in consequence, his technique underwent a change quicker than might have been the case with the passage of time. Bodyline plucked something vibrant from his art”. While Bodyline did manage to put some hold on Don’s frenzied batting, allowing the English to regain the Ashes, it couldn’t deter him from finding new ways to score as he managed a total of 396 runs at an average of 56.57—almost half his career average at that time—an average that any contemporary batsman would be proud of.
Bradman needed to score 4 runs in his final innings to maintain a career average of 100, but a googly from wrist spinner Eric Hollies undid him for a duck leaving his average at a staggering 99.94. The Australian team, however, won the Ashes 4–0, completing the tour unbeaten, and entering the history as “The Invincibles”. Bradman had an enormous fan following in England as well, where people used to come to the stadiums just to watch him bat. Former English cricketer RC Robertson wrote of the English reaction on Bradman’s retirement: “A miracle has been removed from among us. So must ancient Italy would have felt when she heard of the death of Hannibal”. Bradman’s role was not limited to a mere player; he excelled as an administrator, selector, advisor, sportswriter and cricketing statesman. It wouldn’t be a hyperbole to say that Australia’s transcendence as an independent nation, beyond the umbrage of its so called “mother country” Great Britain, owes a colossal debt to the remarkable feats of “The Don” of Cricket. On 19 November 2009, Sir Donald Bradman was inducted into the ICC Cricket Hall of Fame.
3). Douglas Robert Jardine
Well every coin has that other side that completes the picture. While every story has its hero or a protagonist, it must also have its villain or an antagonist to bring about a much needed balance. As far as the sordid tale of “Bodyline” is concerned, if Sir Donald Bradman was both its victim and hero, then Douglas Jardine surely has to be its villain, or to be more precise, its perpetrator. The venomous tactics that comprised Bodyline came into being during the never-to-be-allowed-to-be-forgotten Ashes series of 1932-33, which for this very reason is also regarded as the ugliest in the history of Cricket as the gentlemen’s game touched a new nadir. Few sporting events have caused such an international furor as the 1932-33 series which threatened not only the tour but also political relations between Australia and England. The scars that the abysmal events of the series left lingered on for generations. The series gave rise to a new tactic called Bodyline, which was devised primarily to negate the genius of the young Bradman. Bodyline capitalized on the fact that the rules of Cricket then offered no restrictions on the number fielders allowed behind square on the leg side. The basic idea was to pepper the batsmen with short pitched deliveries aimed at the ribcage, terrorizing them in the absence of any body protection while also cramming them for room, with the aim of getting them caught on the leg side. The word has it that some players had noticed Bradman get frightened and jittery while being stuck on the body facing the short-pitched deliveries in 1931. England’s glacial, supercilious and opportunist skipper and middle order batsman Douglas Jardine looked upon this revelatory information as an opportunity to actualize the English dream of reclaiming the Ashes. Jardine seized on this framework of fear and leveraged it to devise the infamous Bodyline. He handpicked a battery of pace bowlers to suit his new set of tactics for the 1932-33 Ashes series that was to take place in Australia. What ensued was an ugly tradition that would continue to haunt Cricket for some more years to come. The entire series was played in an extremely hostile environment with situation becoming really during the third match with series already tied at 1-1.
During the Australian first innings Aussie skipper Bill Woodfull was struck on the chest by a Larwood delivery to the rapture of Jardine while Bradman was at the non-striking end. For the next delivery, Jardine moved his fielders into the Bodyline fielding positions as a result of which the crowd became noisily angry. There was further anger later in the innings when Bert Oldfield suffered a fractured skull. The situation became so tense that it was feared that there may be a riot and that the crowd would jump onto the field to attack them; mounted police were deployed as a precaution. Despite England’s win, Wisden believed that it was probably the most unpleasant match ever played in the history of the game. However, it commended Jardine’s courage, claiming that the praise of his leadership was unanimous, and that he captained his team the match like a true genius. The English may have eventually won the series 4-1, but the kind of flak that they earned was too overwhelming to bear even for a nation like the Great Briton. The thing that worked in England’s favor during this infamous series was that they possessed a battery of good, accurate fast bowlers spearheaded by Nottinghamshire’s Harold Larwood, who ended with 33 wickets at an average of 19.51. Ironically, the talented quickie could never play for England again, paying the price for poisoning the sport with Bodyline, while the real architect Douglas Jardine escaped without a penalty. Jardine led England in India a year later, while declaring his will not to play against Australia again. Despite being widely dubbed as the quintessential Ashes villain, one would be remiss to downplay the role played by Douglas Jardine in reinvigorating the sport with the nigh forgotten art of short-pitched bowling.
4). James “Jim” Charles Laker
Cricket, like life, is a great leveler. The game of Cricket professes the perpetual battle between bat and ball and it is the delicate balance between bat and ball that adorns the game with its unmatched diversity. While we talk of batsmen, who have had lasting impact on the game, it would be utterly obtuse to overlook the mammoth contributions made by the legendary bowlers of the game. When one thinks of bowlers, the first name that one is most likely to encounter is that of James Charles Laker, the legendary English off spinner whose feats were such that they got an entire Test match to be named after him. Yes, we are talking of the famous “Laker’s match” in 1956 at Old Trafford, when Jim Laker took nineteen wickets in England’s victory against Australia. Over the years the Aussies have earned the reputation of being bad players of off spin bowling; be it Lance Gibbs, Erapalli Prasanna, Harbhajan Singh, or Graeme Swan, every class off spinner has got them to squirm. It was indeed Jim Laker who had planted the seed of terror in the minds of the Australian batsmen, an inescapable fear that continues to linger till this date.
Laker was known as an elegant off-spin bowler, who consistently bowled well with his best performances coming against the arch-nemesis Australia. When he took 19 Australian wickets for 90, he had figures of 9 for 37 in the first innings and 10 for 53 in the second. No other bowler has managed more than 17 scalps in a first-class match, let alone in a Test match. Laker hunted in pair with left-arm orthodox spinner Tony Lock, who also coincidently took “the other wicket” in Laker’s match. Remarkably, Laker had also taken all 10 wickets in an innings for Surrey against the same Australian lineup earlier in the season. The only other bowler to have taken all 10 wickets in a Test match innings is India’s leggie Anil Kumble, who accomplished the feat in 1999 against a fiery Pakistan lineup at Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi. Since the late nineteenth century, Australian wickets had become so unresponsive to finger-spin that the off-break had virtually disappeared and sides relied on pace and wrist-spin. Batsmen accustomed to playing the two varieties of bowling could help themselves from playing Laker’s vicious off-spin on the same lines, getting bamboozled in the process. Moreover, Laker’s accuracy as a bowler was such that the close-in fielders—primarily bat-pad fielders like silly point, short leg, slip and leg slip—could afford the luxury of standing very close indeed. In all first-class matches Jim Laker took 1,944 wickets at an incredible average of 18.41, and scored 7,304 runs with an average of 16.60. In a total of 46 Test matches that Laker played in his career, he took 193 wickets at a healthy average of 21.24. Laker was also a gifted close-fielder. Despite Laker’s larger than life persona, his staunch critics often snub his remarkable feats, deeming the opposition sides he bowled against weak and ill equipped against spin, but his stature as a legendary spinner and as a great servant of the sport continues to rise as aspiring cricketers continue to revere him not only as a role model but also as an institution of spin bowling. The game’s governing body ICC paid a tribute to the legendary spinner by inducting him into the ICC Cricket Hall of Fame on 23 August 2009.
5). Kerry Francis Bullmore Packer
It may appear a bit odd to many to see a non-cricketer appearing on my list of men who changed the face of Cricket, but all those who keep a great insight into the sport would agree with me that the if ever the cricketing history were to be written, it would be divided into two eras: the era before the World Series Cricket and the era post World Series Cricket. So much changed in the world of Cricket, thanks to Kerry Packer’s brainchild! His intervention indeed left an unforgettable impression on the game, as its fate took a volte face. Cricket no longer remained an object of the elite and as the moolah got poured into the game, folks started looking at Cricket not just as a competitive sport but also as a lucrative profession. Cricket no longer remained a mere mode of entertainment for the ruck or a mere means of indulgence for the aristocrats. Kerry Francis Bullmore Packer was the son of Australian media tycoon Sir Frank Packer—the owner of the Nine television network and leading Australian publishing company Australian Consolidated Press. After the death of his father Sir Frank in 1974, Kerry Packer assumed control of his legacy. Packer did everything that was in his reach to resuscitate the moribund Nine network, but his efforts seem to go in vain. The situation worsened when he failed to get the contract renewed for the television rights of Australia’s home Test matches. He had had approached the Australian Cricket Board with an offer of A$1.5 million for three years—a sum eight times the previous contract—yet he was shown the door. The contract was given to national broadcaster Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Packer was clearly perplexed by ACB’s partiality and pledged to turn the tables on the Cricket Board. Packer started looking for alternatives in order to feed his Nine Television Network with a much needed doze of Cricket. After some contemplation, Packer masterminded the World Series Cricket, a break away cricket competition comprising renowned players from Australia, England, Pakistan, South Africa and West Indies. World Series Cricket—disowned by the Cricket’s governing body—turned out to be an instant success.
|The World Series Cricket “super team” in 1977|
The tournament’s success ensured that cricketers no longer remained underpaid as the sport attained a commercial status. WSC made cricket and cricketers much more competitive as much higher levels of fitness and commitment was required from them considering the taxing nature of the tournament. The unparalleled exploits of the West Indies cricket team leading to the global domination in the 1980s are widely attributed to the stint of West Indian players in the World Series Cricket. WSC drastically shifted the game’s balance to the entertainment side forcing the technicalities to take the back seat vis-a-vis the razzmatazz. World Series Cricket drastically changed the nature of the sport, completely rewriting its tenets, such that its influence continues to be felt even today as Packer’s spirit continues to reverberate through Cricket in form of novel concepts like the ICL, IPL and the Big Bash.