Craving the indulgence of non-English readers, who will be bored or baffled by what follows, I’m going to lament the imminent decline and fall of this most English of summer pastimes, at least in its most recognisable forms.
I am referring, for the elimination of doubt, to cricket. This is a sport that has long evinced a tendency to gaze misty-eyed into an elegiac past that can never be recreated. It will soon, I fear, barring a sudden Damascene revelation, be gazing into a past that will be all but forgotten and so unlamented – joining penny-farthing bicycles, corsets, hedgehogs and the rhinoceros.
The fault may be laid squarely with the authorities that run the game, both globally and locally, respectively the International Cricket Council (ICC) and the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB). Both bodies have been taken over by men (women are rarely in evidence) whose impulses and actions are driven almost exclusively by a desire to generate ever-rising amounts of cash. Their coffers already overflow with wealth amassed from television rights and marketable products.
The ICC is dominated by India, which has by far the biggest population of paying customers and is therefore the richest of all the countries represented on its board. Indian fans like their cricket as they prefer their food – hot, spicy and easily digested. They like short games that are all-action and filled with faux drama, mostly in the form of big blows – that is, hits which sail into the spectator stands and are worth six runs, cricket’s equivalent of baseball’s home run. In culinary terms, these matches, in India and elsewhere, are a sporting version of fast-food: cheap, tawdry and available everywhere.
Such so-called spectaculars are steadily eroding traditional forms of the game. These are exemplified and maintained by Test cricket, international contests that can last up to five days – although they now rarely go beyond four days and often end in three. Today’s younger fans, in particular those on the sub-continent, no longer have the patience to sit through a whole day, let alone three or four days, of greensward attrition, with its spells of apparent inaction. Quite understandably, you may be thinking, especially if you are not well versed in the subtleties of the game. But this lack of concentration, this impatience with cricket’s more subtle iterations, is irrevocably changing the sport into something that it has never been.
Cricket is rapidly turning into a form of baseball.
First, matches of five days have given way in every country’s cricket schedule to one-day contests, which comprise fifty overs (six consecutive deliveries by one bowler) for each side, or 300 balls. After that came 20-over (120 balls) cricket, games that last two or three hours at most, and are often over quicker than that. Now, the ECB, its coffers already overflowing with gold, is considering a 100-ball format. If that fails to attract a following, expect the introduction of 50-ball cricket.
Cricket must move with the times, the authorities insist, and there can be no room for what it doubtless sees as a sentimental attachment to the game as it was first contrived. That, sadly, may be true, but surely change at the expense of altering the game beyond recognition is not inherently good and certainly not if it is merely designed to satisfy attention spans eroded by the need for instant satisfaction brought about by access to mindless communications and entertainment media.
The ICC and the ECB are guilty of sabotaging the game. They care not a jot for its traditions, or by extension its paying customers. If they did, they would act as its guardians as well as its money raisers.
It is all very well for the ECB to ignore the lamentations of so-called fuddy-duddies, like this writer, but not if it also bewails the declining interest in cricket among young people in England, the sport’s ancestral home. How has it responded to this existential threat?
By selling the television rights to the likes of Rupert Murdoch, that is how, thereby – at the stroke of a pen on a very lucrative contract – depriving that lost generation of the ability to watch the sport, other than those whose parents are affluent enough to be able to afford the ever-rising subscriptions charged by Murdoch’s Sky service, or other competing sports channels.
It may be, as the ECB claims, that all this cash can be ploughed back into the sport at local levels. But if cricket is beyond the visibility of that lost generation what is the point of that exercise?
Ironically, these comments appear the day after one of the most exciting Test matches in living memory, a game in which England and India battled for supremacy over three-and-a-half days, the likely outcome swinging back and forth every hour, including the last one. It was absorbing and exciting, with batters and bowlers evenly matched both in competence, and at times incompetence. In short, everything a cricket match should be, and one that will linger in the memory. (England won by 31 runs.)
The ECB doesn’t care. I would be surprised to learn that its executives even bothered to watch the game. They had better things to do, like counting the receipts from a recent one-day series, the highlight of which most spectators would be unable to recall if you paid them to.
That, apparently, is what the ECB thinks of as progress – putting on lucrative spectacles that few who watched them will remember the next morning.
“There’s magic in the names I used to know,
And magic when I heard them long ago.”
(Thomas Moult: ‘The Names’)