Imagine a movie set.
What do you see? Bright lights? Grand sets? A crew with cameras, hi-tech sound equipment, the works? Maybe Shah Rukh Khan on the sets?
Minus Shah Rukh, the set of ‘The Death of a Gentleman’ has all of that – after a fashion. The bright light is provided by the sun, and the grand set is a green maidan in Kolkata, currently witnessing a cricket match between school kids. One boom mike and one video camera form the bulk of the equipment. The crew doesn’t have enough members to make a cricket team.
And yet, the movie being filmed deals with a question whose answer could undo more than a century of tradition – Is Test cricket dying?
As Jarrod Kimber, one of the creators of the movie along with Sam Collins, tells me, “There are three main questions everyone in cricket asks right now – Is this game fixed? Is Test cricket dying? And of course, is the Indian Premier League (or Twenty20) good or bad?”
He later adds, “No sport has been as good at predicting its own death as cricket.” In spite of that, dealing with one of the three main questions that face a global sport seems like an ambitious idea for two men with no backing or budgets to speak of.
On the other hand, Apple, Amazon, Google and Harley Davidson, among others, started out in garages.
What started as an idea for a movie that would use India’s tour of Australia in 2011-12 as a backdrop for exploring cricket in the two countries changed quickly into a movie that dealt with a simple question that had no straightforward answers.
In Christopher Nolan’s 2006 classic, The Prestige, he broke down a magic trick into three acts. The first is the Pledge, where the magician shows you something ordinary. The second is the Turn, where the ordinary is turned into the extraordinary. But it’s not enough to do just that – to get the audience clapping, you have to do something more. If you’ve made something disappear, you have to bring it back, and that’s the third act: the Prestige.
It’s a format that ‘The Death of a Gentleman’ follows to a nicety. The question of the future of Test cricket is the Pledge. Once you interest yourself in the movie, you know what it is going to be about.
Most of the movie though, is likely to be a Turn, where the makers explore the bylanes and labyrinthine corridors of cricket’s administration to answer the question.
Scene 1: The star-cast
The makers of the movie have assembled a star-cast that would put any Hollywood or Bollywood blockbuster to shame. From James Sutherland to Giles Clarke, from Dave Richardson to Haroon Lorgat, and even the man now considered to be the most powerful in cricket – N Srinivasan. The player firepower is led by Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, Steve Waugh, Ravi Shastri and Ed Cowan, among others.
Scene 2: Cue Drama
“No one’s job is to look after cricket in the world,” says Kimber. When I ask him if he’s forgetting the International Cricket Council (ICC), he says, “It’s not the ICC’s job. The ICC’s job essentially is to run their own tournaments and make sure that international cricket has a watchdog. They are not actually overlooking world cricket. World cricket relies on bilateral agreements.”
When you stop to think about it, he’s not that far off the mark.
Scene 3: Cue Action
“The more we learnt about all these different facets of cricket, the more we learnt that the problem was not whether Test cricket was dying was not. It was that if it was – how can you stop it from dying?” said Kimber, while detailing the breadth of people whose opinions were sought. And television emerged as among the key variables in the equation.
The makers wanted to show footage of recent Test matches in the movie. They approached Cricket Australia and Channel 9, both of whom said they could show footage of the India-Australia series in 2011-12, but the International Management Group made the final decision. Cricket Australia couldn’t give them the final okay to get footage of a series that fell under their own purview.
Television rights have already caused one of the key revolutions in cricket via Kerry Packer, and Kimber is convinced that if Test cricket were marketed better to more television audiences, it would be in much better health.
“I don’t think anyone can realistically say it’s not in trouble,” he said.
Scene 4: Cue Warmth
It wasn’t all doom and gloom during the making of the movie. Test cricket – as it has always done – threw up human stories that told of its resilience. It might not enjoy the crowds it once did, its television ratings might not draw in the numbers of an IPL, but there’s something about the fans it makes that warms the cockles of the heart. Jarrod and Sam are making this movie partly from public funding, with willing contributors free to donate. A disclosure here: I have also donated my mite to the movie. But I could, after a fashion, afford to. And certainly afford it far more than a student on a far-from-lavish weekly salary in Dubai or a taxi driver in London – both of which have donated what amounts to sizeable chunks of their disposable income.
“There are people who’ve donated $US5 to those who’ve given $US 1000… but you know if someone’s donating five dollars, they’re probably doing it because that’s all they have,” said Kimber.
Scene 5: Cue Mystery
The movie is slated for an Ashes 2013 release, and Kimber is understandably reluctant to reveal information that would compromise its impact on screen, but like a good trailer should, he whets the appetite with nuggets of what to expect.
There’s the brief detour into conflicts of interest in cricket, with nearly every board having it in some form or the other – “It’s very hard to tell where Channel 9 and Cricket Australia end, where ECB and Sky end.” There’s the question of why Sri Lanka has so little money – “They can only make money when they play India and they seem to play India every five minutes and they still don’t have any money! It’s almost like they’re on permanent tour – and Sri Lanka still doesn’t have any money!” There’s a conversation about Mark Taylor and the many hats he wears – Channel 9 commentator, Cricket Australia board member, Cricket New South Wales board member, and member of the ICC World Committee.
“I asked Mark Taylor about it, and the answer I got was hilarious,” said Kimber. “I can’t tell you because it’s going to make the film.”
The answer to the question the movie asks is a straightforward one for its makers – Yes, Test cricket is in trouble. But the process of discovering how to deal with it, how the administrative elite see it and what the players feel about it, is what makes the journey fascinating.
At a time when five-Test series are rare, and a contest that will determine the top-ranked team in the world consists of just three Tests, it’s a journey worth exploring.
It all sounds like a good movie, but to make it one that people will definitely watch, it needs something more. That comes in the form of someone Kimber described as a man who “spent the first 20 minutes not talking and the next 40 minutes not stopping.” Among the unlikeliest figures you’d associate with the health of Test cricket – and one who is currently outside the system. And yet, he’s probably created more controversies than everyone else interviewed put together.
Step forward, Lalit Modi.
Roll end credits.