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The essence of sport

If you asked me to identify the point at which my years of following cricket avidly as a committed fan ended I would probably point to a high note such as the famous ‘Botham’s Ashes’ series of 1981. Thus it was more out of curiosity than anything else – well, apart from the fact that there also seemed to be nothing else on any other channel worthy of my attention – that I tuned in yesterday to watch the last ten overs of England men’s team’s run chase to nail its 7 wicket victory in the T20 World Cup semi-final.

From there it was a short journey to contemplating the modern state of international cricket with all its conflicting factors – let’s list just three of them: a sizable rump of ‘traditionalists’ who love above all else the whole experience of following the twists and turns, including perhaps at times the inertia, of a Test Match played over five days, together with the vagaries and meandering chat of television and radio coverage; those who enjoy the ‘go there, experience it, get a result and go home again’ day out of a 50 overs game; and of course the swathe of ‘new’ fans who are attracted to the ‘instant’ fixes offered by the T20 version, which I regard as the nearest thing so far invented of a baseball version of cricket.

Maybe these different varieties are symptoms of the essential lasting health of the ‘willow and ball’ game – but maybe they’re something more sinister, a mad, disorganised, confused dash to lead the spectating public inexorably towards a broadcasting-packaged, bite-sized, mish-mashed version of a once great game that is gradually selling – or indeed already has sold – its very soul to the devil.

In pursuit of what – a desperate search for some way to remain relevant in this global-village-instant-hit-social-media-driven 21st Century, or just a buck?

To be frank, until yesterday I wasn’t even interested enough to try and come up with a definitive answer.

Then yesterday I came upon a different thought that perhaps helped to explain how, in just a decade or so, a manifestation like T20 (or 20/20 as it used to be called, right?) can go from what I assume was originally some marketing guru’s brilliant or absurd ‘light bulb’ moment sketched out on the back of a fag packet to a modern phenomenon.

It’s all about the most thrilling aspect of what goes to make truly great sporting drama’ [and I’m aware that the degree of ‘bucket chemistry’ licence I’m allowing myself here is breath-taking in its audacity!].

When you think about it, the most compelling type of sporting action is always that in which the participants go ‘all out’ from the beginning … until (effectively) there is just one left standing.

I’m not sufficiently clued up on its related activity UFC (cage-fighting) to have an informed opinion, but let me call first in supporting evidence the sport of professional boxing.

In the heavyweight division, for example, why do ‘knockout specialist’ fighters such as Rocky Marciano, Mike Tyson, Max Baer and Joe Frazier still remain so popular and attractive to fight fans down the ages … as opposed, say, to the likes of Gene Tunney and Ernie Terrell who perhaps epitomised the potential triumph of ‘skill over brute force’, much as the more cerebral boxing fan among us might be interested to see a contest between the one and the other?

I’ll tell you why. Because whenever those first-mentioned group of guys stepped into the ring, you knew exactly what you were in for. A straightforward ‘who survives, wins’ all-out slug-fest of a fight. Tunney was a true scientist, student, even artist of the Noble Art but he wasn’t a killer – Tunney was always going to win by skill and guile, not because it was ever a case of ‘him or me – and it’s not going to be me’.

Hagler versus Hearns

Hagler versus Hearns

Think of those fights featuring Sugar Ray Robinson, Roberto Duran, Carlos Monzon, Thomas Hearns or Marvin Hagler.

They could pack more action into two or three rounds than you’d get in a month of Sundays in any other sport. That’s what used to attract me about the world of pugilism, whether in the flesh or on television or radio, whether terrestrial broadcast or pay-per-view.

It’s the desire to see all-out action – for example when two highly-rated, unbeaten, heavy-handed fighters on the way to the top are matched together by a canny promoter … and you just cannot, for the life of you, pick which might be the winner. That’s the fight you most want to see – and would be prepared to pay for the privilege to do so.

It’s the same in any sport.

When you think about it, that’s what is making this season’s soccer Premier League so special. How are the unheralded Leicester City managing to do what they’re doing? They’re not an ‘expensive’ team, or one that is strangling the life out of their opponents, or boring the world to death.

Somehow, by some means, by perhaps remaining true to the basic values of the game, possibly even because ‘they know not what they do’, they’re just ‘going for it’ … seemingly risking everything in every game … and (though there’s still many a potential slip between cup and lip, of course) they’re somehow pulling it off. Good luck to them.

It’s the same in rugby union, where – irrespective of the pundits’ previews – great games in prospect can become damp squibs, and vice versa. However, what the average (or passing) rugby fan hopes to come across is a match-up in which both sides throw caution to the winds and go for the jugular.

It’s probably the same in every sport, whether they be heavy on physicality or instead major upon accuracy and stealth.

Think Filbert Bayi front-running to win gold the 1974 Commonwealth Games.

Or Jimmy White or Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins speeding around green baize any time they went to the snooker table; or even Bob Beamon leaping out of the sandpit in Mexico in 1968.

It’s all about sport and endeavour in circumstances where ‘the brakes are off’.

So – let’s get back to cricket and the reasons for the tsunami in growth of interest in T20 cricket.

The attraction is just the same as outlined above. It’s the certain knowledge that – when the players get on the pitch, whether this time they happen to be batting or bowling – they’re going to be going ‘all out’ for victory. Because to do anything less is going to mean certain defeat.

You might say it has deliberately discarded the elements of the sport that make it a great one – or at least made it so when it was first invented and developed. And you might be right, to an extent.

You might moan that the subtlety and nuances of the game has been surgically removed, leaving it a travesty of its former self. And you might also be correct in that judgement or, alternatively, you could just be an old fuddy-duddy harking back to a ‘golden age’ which never actually existed and – more important – even if it ever did, is certainly never coming back.

About Tom Hollingworth

Tom Hollingsworth is a former deputy sports editor of the Daily Express. For many years he worked in a sports agency, representing mainly football players and motor racing drivers. Tom holds a private pilot’s licence and flying is his principal recreation. More Posts