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Presenting BBC’s best player of 2019 – Ben Stokes

England’s success and star appeal of its players is a welcome change from the cloying subcontinent fixation that world cricket has run into

A day before the final of the cricket World Cup this year, I was asked during a panel discussion to pick the team that I would like to win the coveted quadrennial tournament. Fighting the feeling that I was being a bit unfair to New Zealand, I chose England.

The match added to the guilt as the Kiwis were at the receiving end of some bizarre rules and seemingly shoddy umpiring. Still, the English win was important for world cricket in more ways than we realise. In that context, the news of England all-rounder Ben stokes winning the popular vote for BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2019 for his World Cup performance as well as Ashes test series heroics is no less significant. The award is based on voting for the shortlisted outstanding British sportspersons of the year. It’s 14 years since a cricketer – Andrew Flintoff – won the award for his Ashes performance, not a mean feat in a country where cricket has to compete with other popular sports for eyeballs.

First, at the cost of sounding reverential to the colonial legacy of the sport, world cricket needs a first-world country in Europe doing well enough to engage a generation beyond their sentimental connect of Britishness. In ways that people would find hard to admit, England remains the only major cricket-playing country with an aspirational global reach. One may like to club, to an extent, Australia in that bracket, but it does not have the same degree of sway as England.

It’s not only as the spiritual home of cricketing traditions that England needs far greater following of the sport in the country, it also needs it for the power of its example, for what it can mean to countries surveying British sporting scene. Being confined to the connoisseurs of a very sophisticated and complex sport in various English counties and the campuses of elite British universities has been a potent threat, especially when the conventional formats haven’t found their way to free-to-air time slot on British television channels. While Test cricket evokes interest and following among a small group of knowledgeable cricket followers in the country, the need to counter the short attention span (too short to even watch a 50 overs a side One Day game) of those who aren’t converts to the sport birthed concepts like T20.

What, however, is taking that even further is the England and Wales Cricket Board showing urgency to introduce the fourth format – the Hundred. It tries to make a family friendly package by compressing the game to 100 balls a side contest – something that an eminent English cricket pundit called “decimalisation of cricket’’ in a podcast for The Cricketer magazine. If not conviction, the sheer desperation for more footfall in stadiums and more eyeballs on television screens might be driving such experiments which many believe to be the next revolution in slam-bang cricket.

Seen in the context of such experiments to retrieve, if not augment, cricket’s turf in sports viewership in England, the importance of a cricketer being voted the most admired British sports personality for his performances in the most conventional format (Test cricket) and a relatively sedate format vis-a-vis later innovations (50-over World Cup) gets magnified. More than any other format, the world cricket still looks up to England for its adherence to the conservative core of the sport as seen in Test cricket. It’s reassuring that Stokes has earned British sporting affection for excelling in formats that are more evocative of the British idea of the sport. In fact, in a country that gave birth to the industrial revolution, it’s interesting to see how it also nourished its artful counter in sports. It’s this aspect that thinkers, including Indian social scientist Ashish Nandy, have in mind when they see Test cricket as a surviving critique of industrial society.

Second, England’s success and star appeal of its leading cricketers like Stokes can also be seen as a welcome change from the cloying Indian subcontinent fixation – Indian team in particular – that world cricket has run into. A case in point is how the pre-match analysis shows before the World Cup final were focused more on discussing the reasons for India’s defeat in the semi-final rather than the title match of the tournament that was going to start within minutes.

For a generation that grew up complaining about the grip of London-based Marylebone Cricket Club and England-Australia diarchy in international cricket – a pet grievance of Indian greats like Sunil Gavasakar – this dominance in international cricket finance, viewership and administration may offer retributive glee but at the cost of creeping ennui. There has also been a backlash against such dominance from not only the established Test playing countries but also new countries trying to join the international circuit. In fact, the seething resentment has reached the point of accusing India of subverting cricket’s growth across the globe. A case in point is what an opinion piece in the South China Morning Post last year alleged with a rather suggestive headline, “India is holding back world cricket – it’s time to kick them out of the ICC and start again”. The strap elaborated, “The BCCI is doing its best to hinder development; the world should cut India loose, create a new governing body and truly globalise the game.”

Third, at the risk of being dubbed an Anglophile, a cricket lover has to rejoice at any sign of the sport being celebrated in English public life, more so on the sporting platform offered by its public broadcaster. A generation in the Indian subcontinent, the one preceding the advent of satellite television, honed its cricket aesthetics by reading British cricket writers and publications such as The Wisden (the older version), and listening to legendary BBC commentators relaying a Test match being played at Lord’s, Headingley or Oval. In a way, the English cricket scene, including the appeal of counties, became a window to see cricket being far closer on Indian grounds.

In rekindling the appeal of a cricketing performance in English sporting imagination, the BBC recognition for Stokes is a good sign for widening cricket’s reach in the land of its origin. What, however, is more important is that it augurs well for world cricket too, as it needs to extricate itself from the hegemonic hold of the subcontinent.

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