A sport going the way of all flesh
It is a fact of life that everything keeps evolving. In sport the elite sporting participants constantly get fitter and their core skills better, time-honoured strategic and tactical shibboleths get shredded and replaced with new ones, the global balance of power shifts.
Sometimes these changes come along gradually, over years or even decades, and sometimes it feels as though a sport that hitherto has been a steady mainstay of your viewing life has suddenly been turned upside down in a trice.
When you’re semi-disconnected from cricket, as I am, it all gets a bit bewildering.
In my dim and distant youth of fifty years ago and more I was a fanatic. Winter for football and/or rugby, summer for cricket, which in those days basically meant the county and Test cricket varieties, and there seemed to be either one or the other happening (and being reported) daily. Tours to the UK by Test-playing nations were well spread out – usually no more than once a decade – which (to small boys like me) made their squads appear like supermen from outer space and their Test match series more important than ever.
When the Gillette Cup one-day tournament arrived in 1963 it was generally regarded as a bit of harmless entertainment – the first time that the ‘hit and giggle’ (low-key, informal, who cares who wins’) approach to social or exhibition tennis had been applied to a team sport/game. It was a novelty, a bit of fluff. It certainly wasn’t seen as anything to compare with serious (county and Test match) cricket which naturally were going to continue exactly as they had until at least 2099.
Well, hello world! These days cricket’s tectonic plates have shifted not just halfway around the globe but all over the place. In 2015 I tuned in to the Ashes Test series because firstly, it was after all the Ashes Test series and secondly, since the early 2000’s they had always been pretty feisty, exciting and quality affairs – and was not disappointed. But otherwise, faced with the confusing array of Test matches, 50 over games, 20/20 games … county matches, franchised ‘City’ tournaments … and all the rest, I mentally gave up and switched off.
It has almost gone full circle now. These days the sense of occasion and awe that almost overwhelmed me when watching Test matches in 1960s have all but disappeared. Back then my school days were dominated by breathless dashes from one classroom – via to wherever our tiny box-radios were hidden (in order to get the latest score updates) of course – to the next.
Most times of the year, somewhere around the world, it feels – if I wish – as if I can catch live or ‘as live’ coverage of Test cricket or international one-day cricket happening somewhere – maybe Pakistan v Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe v West Indies, or South Africa v India – on one of the Sky Sports or BT Sport channels available via my cable TV service.
Sadly, as a potential source of excitement and enjoyment this has become has become no more attractive to me than the latest women’s Super League netball game, show jumping, darts, or even snooker or croquet – and let’s not get bogged down in discussions as to whether the last two of these even qualify as sports.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not just being dog-in-the-manger nostalgic for the past, I’m alert to the possibility that evolution can mean progress and often does. These days cricketing skills, particularly in the field, are light years ahead of where they were in 1963.
Plus one-day tactics have been completely revolutionised.
Way back when, everything in cricket unfolded slowly and gradually. Bowlers and batsmen were apparently as acutely aware of their averages and potential upcoming career milestones as the spectators, most of whom tended to spend a lot of their time with their heads buried in copies of Wisden, trying to establish when the current action on view might (or might not) match the ‘best fourth wicket stand in a second innings in a Test between England and New Zealand at Trent Bridge since WW2’ record. It was all part – along with copious amounts of food and alcohol, chatting with your neighbours and snoozing for 45 minutes at some point during the ‘after lunch’ session – of the passage of another long day at a home Test Match.
In comparison these days it seems as if one-day batsmen don’t give a row of beans about such things. If two of them can lash out and slog an early 40 or 50 partnership in double-quick time, this can count far more (not least as regards winning the match) than their individual batting stats. And yes, it’s simultaneously possible to feel a little regretful about this but also unconcerned. After all, that was then – this is now – and very little in life goes backwards.
All that said, the way things are going, I do worry about the future of Test cricket.
A couple of weeks ago there was a media story doing the rounds acknowledging that Test matches were under threat in the women’s version of the game. This was on the back of the distinctly low-quality of the Test action in this summer’s women’s Ashes series (which is currently decided on a system in which the various forms of one-day cricket and a single Test match prompt the award of differing numbers of points that are then totalled up). To be frank – and I dutifully watched some – the Test match action had indeed been pitiful. The consensus seemed to be that one-day cricket would be the cornerstone of women’s cricket going forward but that, simply out of tradition and a sense of history and sporting relevance, they would also always play at least the occasional Test match even though (as happened this summer) its quality might be embarrassing in sporting terms.
I ‘clocked’ a report on the website of the Daily Telegraph this morning in which it was noted that the crowd at the Sheik Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi for the first day of the current men’s first Test between England and Pakistan had been less than 1,000. Even allowing for the practical circumstances (viz. the current security situation in Pakistan) that have caused this match to be played in a ‘neutral’ country/venue, this doesn’t bode well for the Test match form of cricket from any angle.
I repeat that I’m not nostalgic for the good old, bad old, days of anything (let alone sport), but I do think that there is too much Test cricket played these days, which may seem an odd way to advance an argument.
However, my point is, there is just too much Test cricket taking place. If they went back to making one overseas (Test match) tour per decade, I feel it would restore the ‘sense of occasion’ that makes Test cricket so special.
As things are, elite cricketers these days are constantly zig-zagging around the world in what is rapidly becoming a 12 month season, with all the potential health and other dangers that this entails.
There’s no escaping the fact that one-day games are driving the future of cricket generally. These bite-sized versions of the game make greater practical sense both for spectators at the grounds and the millions watching around the globe (especially those of the betting fraternity).
It’s just that I’m not interested in it – or so it seems these days, unless I come across it when channel-hopping at home and find time in my busy day to stop off and take in twenty minutes to half an hour of it if things look like they’re hotting up.