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The role of uncertainty in great sport

Over the weekend just passed I had originally planned to devote the bulk of my free time to transcribing my library notes on a current project – well, that is to say, transferring them (denuded of the ‘shorthand’ squiggles and anagrams that I use in order to save time and effort) into the structured grid system in a Word document that I have devised to record my research for posterity.

In the event, however, I doubt I managed more than 90 minutes in total at this task. For the average armchair sports fan – as I prove at times like this – it’s surprising just how much sports coverage can attract your eye (on one television channel or another) when you’re just looking to choose something playing in the background as you flick through your Sunday newspapers or tap away at your computer. I’ve thought long and hard about this over the decades and the best half-excuse I have come up with so far is that, since I only ever visit about 10% of the 300-plus channels included in my cable TV package, I’m damned if I’m going to feel guilty about how many hours I spend watching those that I do gorge upon.

Yesterday Leicester v Southampton and Manchester United v Everton were available in soccer’s Premier League; in India the Women’s and Men’s T20 World Cup Finals were being played, one after the other; on Sky Sports the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix was getting blanket coverage; and in rugby’s Aviva Premiership Wasps were hosting Northampton Saints mid-afternoon at Coventry’s Ricoh Stadium. If memory serves, there was also a (Miami?) tennis and/or golf tournaments on offer, albeit these were of no interest to me personally.

In the event, partly because of England’s involvement in the Men’s T20 World Cup Final, I opted to build my day around the cricket.

(Here I need to add a confession that previously, after a childhood immersed in following both county and Test match versions of the game, a symptom of which was my working near-encyclopedic familiarity with the pages of both Wisden and the Playfair Cricket Annual, I gradually became estranged from the sport in the mid-1980s and – with honourable exceptions such as the 2005 and 2014 Ashes series – have been largely immune to its charms ever since.)

However, yesterday – as a television viewer – I found Sky’s coverage of both T20 World Cup Finals compelling stuff.

It seems to me that the shortest version of the game of all probably emerged, blinking into the sunlight, after first being sketched out as an idea on the back of a fag packet by some greasy, spiv marketing guru who was then roundly condemned and derided by cricket’s governing bodies from the moment he first ‘pitched’ it to them.

You can imagine the thrust of the naysayers’ arguments – I’ve used them myself and also set them out often enough from a supposedly-impartial viewpoint.

One day (50 over) cricket was bad enough, but this really is a step too far. It will never catch on. It’s little more than tip and run, or (if you prefer) glorified baseball. There’s no light and shade in it. The death of the art of spin bowling will be accelerated. And so on …

Yet the key plusses about it were simultaneously obvious for all to see. As a television schedule package, a three-or-four-hour cricket helping (from start to finish) has its undoubted attractions for broadcasters – if you think about it, the alternative – i.e. tying up maybe 20 or 30 cameras and all their required back-up paraphernalia (including commentators and pundits to waffle on and fill in the meal and/or weather breaks) for eight or hours at a time – is a far less cost-effective proposition. With the right marketing, grounds would be intensively used and full – spectators could come along after work or school and still be home by bedtime. Lights, fireworks, explosions, loud music, action: what’s not to like?

My hunch is that – from the ICC downwards – the cricket authorities were obliged to adopt a ‘join them or lose them’ attitude. T20, or something very like it, was probably going to happen anyway, courtesy of the swing in cricket political power away from the ‘Old Order’ [the Anglo-Saxon cabal] towards the Sub-Continent. As the English Football Association had (fortuitously) done when faced with the prospect of a breakaway Premier League, cricket’s authorities took the pragmatic line that bending the knee towards what was going to be inevitable anyway was marginally preferable to their enforced obliteration and/or obsolescence.

Money talks, of course.

stokesAnd what a success T20 has been. Instead of spending every waking hour wondering how cricket (as in Test match and four, or even three-day, county or provincial cricket) was ever going to survive in the 21st Century, those in charge of the game are currently riding not just a bonanza of public and commercial interest but the real possibility of enormous further development around the world.

The other aspect that has hit me between the eyes is the vast leap forward – I’d initially hesitated to say ‘improvement’ but have no qualms about doing so after what I witnessed yesterday – in tactics and straightforward fitness and sheer technical skills that T20 has brought to the sport in its short life.

Fielding – well, where do you start? The aerobic fitness levels of the players has soared. They all seem to be able to sprint like 100 metre runners and then slide along the grass to ‘edge back’ what a decade ago would have been balls going for certain fours. They work in pairs, one flicking back the ball to the other in as better position to throw it back to the stumps. The captain’s art of setting a field to put pressure upon a certain batsman in a certain way had gone up several notches.

The art of bowling has also progressed in leaps and bounds. Far from prompting its disappearance, T20 has given a new dimension to slow bowling as it is used in the cause of restricting runs and/or prising out big hitters by tempting them to swing against a field of specially-set catching ‘receivers’. For the quicker bowlers, it seems that ‘yorkers’ – and even full tosses –  have become cherished stock balls.

And then there’s the ‘speed and intensity’. T20 brings near-constant interest and excitement to the game of cricket. There is barely an over bowled which does not bring its little ‘victories’ and ‘defeats’ – even a ‘dot’ ball becomes a minor triumph. From the first ball delivered, the metaphorical ‘clock’ is ticking down on the final total that the batting team can post. Every mis-field is a run given away, every dropped catch a potential match-defining moment.

Cricket’s heritage of statistical detail has been plundered and developed in an entirely positive manner. Boxes of data showing where the teams were at a similar stage of their innings, or in previous matches – or how the bowlers are performing, even the batters and fielders – all add immeasurably to the viewing experience.

Yes, I’m now a committed T20 fan. And “hats off” to everyone in cricket who has had anything to bring it about. The fact is – back in the 1980s when the game and I ‘parted’ – a good deal of my waning interest was caused by my growing conviction that, if it was not careful, cricket was a dying pastime and on a one-way road to oblivion.

I’m more than happy now to admit my error of judgement then.