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In search of context in the contextless


India_Sri_Lanka_CricketIndia versus Sri Lanka, a contest that is played so often that the days it doesn't happen are more noteworthy. The issue for cricket, especially ODIs, is one of context. With no real prize to fight for there is a danger that bilateral series become glorified friendlies. Some would suggest they already are.

Whether India or Sri Lanka, or any other full member, win or lose their status is assured. They will be at the World Cup, they will get a bigger slice of the money pie. While the ICC rankings are an attempt to have something on these games, few fans really care about where their team is placed.

Test cricket has its history and its storied records to give it something, but if you scratch the surface they are still exhibition games in comparison to international competition in other sports.

This series between India and Sri Lanka has even less intensity about it than others. It was arranged at short notice as the West Indies decided to self-destruct while touring India. As ever, Sri Lanka's board were ready to step in at short notice. Anything for the BCCI.

Kumar Sangakarra made his displeasure at Sri Lanka’s World Cup preparations being interrupted to fulfil the obligations of the West Indies and to placate Indian TV rights holders very clear. He tweeted: “Our 6 weeks of pure fitness work ends abruptly. Have a week to do a months [sic] requirement of skill work before India. Planning ahead anyone?” Sporting success, planning and workload management are all put to one side to make sure the money keeps on rolling in.

This is cricket’s biggest issue. While the cricket mad population in India still stream into stadiums to watch their side, this rollercoaster ride of fixtures is having an impact elsewhere. Australia finished a Test match in Abu Dhabi on Monday and were playing a T20 international on Tuesday, 11,000km away in Adelaide. Most of the first choice side were somewhere over the Indian Ocean as the match took place. Attendances have been poor, it isn’t difficult to imagine why.

While cricket is kept a closed shop in some bizarre obsession with the sanctimony of statistics, the sport’s administrators are happy to serve up low profile series that play out in front of decreasing crowds. If you have got to the point that your fixtures mean that your national team are not all on the same continent it might be time to pull back.

After India expressed their extreme displeasure at the withdrawal of the West Indies from the tour, even they didn’t field a first choice side against Sri Lanka. While this rotation of players may well extend the careers of the carthorses that international cricketers have become, it upsets fans and broadcasters. Both want to see the best possible side on the field, but that just isn’t possible in the current climate.

Even if the team are all in the same country it is not possible to keep all of the players on the park at the same time. They have families that they want to see, and bodies that need to be looked after. In the next year England’s cricketers will be in hotels for over 300 nights. While other people may be in the same situation in other professions it does not make the commitment needed to be an international cricketer any less staggering.

None of this is going to change anytime soon. Instead we will see India play Sri Lanka in games neither side care about, we will watch as diminishing crowds watch second string teams play each other in games with nothing riding on them. While cricket remains a closed shop to expansion and games churned out with ever more regularity this is what we must expect.

There are brilliant performances, and the greatness of cricket is the way it creates battles within battles. A batsman scoring runs, a brilliant bowling spell, a piece of remarkable fielding, but what does it actually mean. How long will people pay money to watch, how long will advertisers want to be associated, how long will people carry on caring?

The quest to make cricket ever more profitable could well bring about its end. People have been prophesising the demise of the sport for almost as long as it has existed. It is a tough old creature that has found a way to live on, but that is in spite of its administrators not because of it.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, India beat Sri Lanka.

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