I remember a sunny, breezy afternoon at the Brabourne Stadium 25 years ago in what was then Bombay, when one of cricket's venerated commentators, AFS "Bobby" Talyarkhan held forth to me about the decline of the game. Then in his 80s, double-stooped, but with his mind still sharp, he spoke about how loud, noisy five-day tests had spoiled the game, which, he said, used to be played in the maidans during British colonial rule.
Colour TV was still to arrive, but Test matches in India already had a business orientation. This was a few months before India's famous World Cup triumph, which made one-day cricket a hot prospect for fame, victory and money.
I now look back after India's Twenty20 world triumph this week with a feeling very similar to Talyarkhan's nostalgia. Five-day tests seem now like maidan games did then. Even one-day matches have got really shrunk in size.
One-day matches themselves have their origins in cigarette brands. John Player, now marketed as a shirt brand in India by ITC, was in my schooldays the name of the 40-over one-day league played in English counties. British marketers found a nice way to circumvent an old Sunday church routine by inventing afternoon games that boosted a cigarette brand. Now, the series has changed into the National League, and counties have re-branded themselves with team names such as 'Essex Eagles' and 'Hampshire Hawks'. British foreign policy now toes Washington, and cricket has gone the baseball way. Follow the money.
Money, and therefore, business, is what drives cricket as well. The Gillette Cup and the Benson & Hedges Cup were among leading sponsored one-day cricket tournaments in the 1970s. Talyarkhan insisted that the 1976 World Cup was actually the Prudential Cup, named after the insurance company that sponsored it.
Exactly two decades later in Kolkata, I had sat at the Virginia House office of Kurush Grant, ITC's marketing wizard, arguing whether the 1996 World Cup should be called the Wills World Cup or not. ITC had put in a lot of money and was peeved that some journalists called it the World Cup. But then, we said we covered it because it was the World Cup, not because someone sponsored it.
But it is clear that he who pays the piper calls the tunes. This year, after India lost the real big World Cup, advertisers had nearly dumped cricket. The commercially inspired breakaway Indian Cricket League was looming its head as an alternative to establishment cricket, when Twenty20 happened in South Africa.
The Twenty20 format is excellent to revive the game's advertising fortunes, as it seems to fit the prime-time slot on television so well, because the matches are shorter. Also, live telecasts are possible in three continents in decent viewing hours, enabling more bang for the global advertising buck.
From the colonial maidans to five-day Tests and then from the John Player League to Twenty20, money has changed the face of cricket.
So, I ask myself, what next?
I am taking my clue from music shows on TV. Time was when 'Saregama' on Zee was a talent show in which critics and judges alone mattered. Now, Saregama (Zee), Voice of India (Star Plus) and Indian Idol (Sony) all rely on paid-for text message votes from mobile phones to decide who is the finest singer of them all.
I think, tongue firmly in cheek, that it is only a question of time before sponsors think of "reality cricket". Imagine, you could vote out a player because he dropped a catch, or shift in a batsman because he is from your town or region. I hope I am joking. You can never tell with corporate sponsors.