Drawing parallels between sports can be something of a fantasy pastime, especially in the 21st Century when the commercial demands of globalisation, social media and ‘instant gratification’ can seemingly send previous time-honoured cultures, folklore and traditions askew.
In the UK the 1963 Gillette Cup is generally regarded as heralding the advent of elite one-day limited overs cricket. At the time it was probably regarded as a bit of a novelty, if not a joke form of cricket, by both the authorities and the wider spectating public – that is, in comparison to the grind and traditions of (five-day) Test and the staple first class (three, or four day) county versions of the game.
However, when you think about it, it wasn’t quite such a leap forward into the land of aliens and science fiction.
Ever since the 18th Century, never mind the halcyon days of accompanying tea and cucumber and jam sandwiches, warm beer, blues skies and sunshine, cricket as played upon tens of thousands of village greens in this lush and pleasant land was always a convenient one day (mostly one innings apiece) thing.
Two centuries and more later, although major Test matches currently (and some might argue always will) retain their enduring allure for the paying public, a whole new – no doubt younger and more impatient – spectator base is propelling the elite world of one-day and T20 tournaments into the commercial stratosphere.
Bite-size versions of cricket are the coming concept. Instead of having to make a whole day – or even a whole week – of following in person the fortunes of the international team of your choice, in the 21st Century the consumer is king or queen.
The concept of a (start to finish) three-to-four hour maximum bing-bang-bosh version of cricket wrapped up in floodlights, fireworks, loud music, cheerleaders, multi-coloured costumes, miked-up fielders and even hyped-up TMO decisions played back for all to see on the big screens at the ground now – if not with the benefit of hindsight looking back only a decade or so – seem so obvious and commercially attractive that it’s almost a wonder that the days of Hutton, Hammond, Cowdrey, Dexter, Trueman and Statham, let alone Botham and Willis, ever happened at all.
And all of the above is without taking into account the impact of live television coverage upon elite sport. Some traditionalists might snipe that it’s a case of the tail wagging the dog, but the practice of sports packaging themselves to fit global prime-time viewing hours and/or evolving their rules and formats to suit their broadcasters of choice (i.e. those who can either pay the biggest bucks and/or provide the biggest audiences) was only ever going to be a matter of time and timing.
In several key respects the game of rugby union is facing the same pressures as cricket, albeit with slightly different factors to be taken into account.
The fifteen-a-side game has been the bedrock of male rugby ever since the 1870s when the number of each team dropped by five from twenty. The rugby culture (as with cricket, built around a strong team ethos) developed down its ‘boys on tour, drinking games, play hard on the pitch/party hard afterwards’ road and stood unchallenged for 130 years until the advent of professionalism in 1995, even though the first Rugby World Cup had taken place eight years earlier.
The game of rugby, of course, imposes different physical demands to that of cricket upon its participants. When it comes to shortened versions of cricket, players can undertake two, three or potentially even four games per week at a push.
In the fifteen-a-side version of rugby, such are the physical demands, more than one game per week is not normally to be encouraged in terms of player welfare.
However, when it comes to the shortened (7-a-side) version, which tends to last only fifteen minutes – two halves of 7 with a minutes’ rest at the turn-round – three or four games can be played in a day.
Popular festival-style tournaments such as the Melrose Sevens in Scotland and the Middlesex Sevens in London were mounted as light-hearted (hit-and-giggle, to adopt a tennis term) bits of fun with which to round off a heavy season.
Now, of course, 7s rugby is – to coin a phrase – ‘a whole new ball game’. Rugby may like to think of itself having the potential to break out and become a global sport but is worried as to how this might happen. 7s rugby is so easy to play, set up and administer – aping as it does the bite-sized ‘bing-bang-bosh’ versions of cricket. Easy to understand and admire, easy to organise, easily made television-audience friendly … even easy to get adopted by (and impress at) the Olympics.
Might 7s rugby supplant the fifteen-a-side version of the game altogether as and if rugby manages to expand its global reach?
It’s a tough one.
As the fairer sex’s version of the Rugby World Cup tournament cranks into gear over in Ireland this week, some of these issues become highlighted. At this stage in its development there is still a significant disparity between the quality and professionalism of the top tier teams in the tournament and the minnows.
It seems to me that women’s fifteen-a-side rugby suffers from some of the same issues as women’s Test cricket.
I do not seek to decry female sport here in a general sense, but by its very nature female fifteen-a-side rugby tends to present to the public as not much more than a somewhat inferior imitation of its male counterpart. I put my thrust no higher than to say that – if women’s 7s did not exist and was never to be invented – women’s rugby would have little chance of becoming a commercially-successful global sport.
Contrast this with women’s 7s, which – with its wider spaces and shorter matches – is far more attractive to watch and therefore (it would seem) possesses far greater commercial potential.
What’s an ambitious sport to do in the modern world?
For traditionalist fans of rugby and cricket – and I’d include myself one of both – the prospect of a ‘Brave New World’ in say 2050 consisting of a massive global audience and highly-paid stars of both genders based around one-day and/or T20 games of cricket (on the one hand) and just 7s rugby (on the other) would be a crying shame.
But then I’m only a fuddy-duddy oldie and I would say that, wouldn’t I?