I sense this one is going to divide opinion like a John Bercow intervention. But unlike the political machinations at Westminster, The Full Toss is here to discuss matters that really, erm, matter. So let’s debate the big issues of the day; the issues that really define nations and affect lives.
I’m talking, of course, about whether players should have names and numbers on their shirts in test cricket? I can already feel petitions being drawn up, legal challenges being drafted, and protest marches being organised. Personally I’d suggest a referendum on the issue but fear it might be too divisive.
Joking aside I do think this ICC proposal, which they’re introducing for the World Test Championship (which includes this year’s Ashes), does have some significance. It’s not that big a deal – it’s just names and numbers on shirts for Pete’s sake – but it’s still representative of a slightly worrying trend.
What concerns me is that the move is based on two recurring and flawed assumptions: (a) that test cricket as it is isn’t good enough and must change, and (b) that the Americanisation of the sport, for want of a better expression, is the answer. In other words, the authorities think that test cricket should be more like ODIs to survive. Daft, isn’t it.
I’ve heard the specific arguments in favour of adding names and numbers to shirts and I’m not convinced. They claim adding names / numbers makes player identification easier and therefore enhances a player’s brand. If kids and casual cricket watchers can more easily identify players, or so the argument goes, then they’ll be more engaged in the action.
My gut tells me this is either completely wrong or only partially true. And if it’s only partially true then the supposed benefits will be insignificant. Let me explain …
Who are the main protagonists in cricket i.e. the players under the spotlight every ball? It’s obviously the batsman and the bowler. First let’s deal with batsmen.
If you’re at a cricket match, and you don’t know who is on strike, then you simply haven’t been paying attention at all. Their names are announced as they stride to the wicket, and the scoreboard has their name displayed permanently. It’s easy to tell who is at the crease.
Next we come to the bowlers. Once again the tannoy announces his or her name at the beginning of a spell, and yes, the relevant name is on the scoreboard too. And this scoreboard is far easier to see (there are often two of them at grounds) than a number not much more than a foot wide etched onto one side of a player’s body.
What’s more, there are normally just 4 or 5 bowlers in a team. If you can’t keep track of who these guys are, and you can’t tell the difference between Moeen Ali and Stuart Broad, then I politely suggest you should’ve gone to Specsavers. Other optometrists are available of course.
It seems to me, therefore, that the only time names / numbers on the back of shirts will actually help is when identifying fielders. And a fielder might only touch the ball once every fifteen minutes. So who really cares?
Do crowds come to see Virat Kohli or Joe Root field? Of course not. The most famous players in the world i.e. the ones that need to worry about their personal brands are first and foremost batsmen or bowlers. And we’ve already explained why identifying batsmen and bowlers is even easier picking holes in Harrison’s Harebrained Hundred.
Another thing to consider is this. A recent survey by the MCC revealed that 86% of over 10,000 respondents said that test cricket was their favourite form of the game. So why is test cricket taking its lead from white ball cricket?
If test cricket is overwhelmingly the most popular form of the game (and TV audiences back this up) then shouldn’t ODIs be taking their lead from the longest form of the game rather than the other way around? Perhaps they should be taking names and numbers off Eoin Morgan’s red / blue (or whatever colour it is this week) pyjamas rather than adding names and numbers to Jimmy Anderson’s pristine test shirt?
At this point you may wonder why I’m hot under the collar about this subject? Trust me I’m not. At the end of the day this latest ‘innovation’ probably won’t make a rat’s arse of a difference to test cricket. But what does slightly concern me is that it’s another cricketing tradition thrown away. And if you’re going to break with tradition then please break it for a reason that actually adds up.
Although I’ve always been something of a purist, I’m not opposed to modernisation when it serves a purpose. Did I object to them introducing helmets in cricket for example? Hell no. Helmets save lives. This was necessary progress even if it did break with tradition.
And am I opposed to seeing ramp shots and reverse sweeps in cricket? Of course not. These high risk shots add a bit of excitement and intrigue. Sports inevitably evolve over time. I accept that.
However, I’m not convinced that adding names and numbers to shirts in the test arena does any of these things. It’s just change for change’s sake. Is there actually any evidence that adding names and numbers to shirts is going to help kids engage with test cricket? It seems like a bit of a stretch to me. It’s only really helps a person standing 40 metres away to identify specific fielders (and only then if they really squint). And the closest thing to a specialist fielder I can think of is Jonty Rhodes – the South African who last played a test match 18 years ago.
Yes there are certain instances when knowing who the fielder is might add to the entertainment – for example after a run out or a catch. But once again the scoreboard and the tannoy tells everyone who the fielder was anyway.
The only thing the announcer doesn’t do is tell us which individual fielder is casually trotting around to long leg, picking up the ball at a leisurely pace, and casually flinging it back to the keeper as the batsmen complete an easy single. And nobody cares who that guy is anyway. He’s not doing anything that will build his personal brand or help kids engage with the game.
What’s more, part of test cricket’s appeal is its purity and its tradition. It’s a bit like the white clothes rule at Wimbledon. They keep the rule in place because the organisers judge that keeping with tradition, and keeping the tournament unique, does more good than letting players wear funkier outfits that might appeal more to (some) kids. Is test cricket not the perfect comparison? Why would Wimbledon need to learn any lessons from the colourful US Open?
Yes test cricket shouldn’t be immune from modernisation. All sports need it. But it seems to me that the only concrete benefit of adding names / numbers to shirts in test cricket is the opportunity to flog more replica shirts.
And there is is. Finally. A solid reason for actually introducing the new shirts. We certainly took our time getting to that one!
I’ll let you determine whether raising what will probably be a pretty meagre amount of money is sufficient reason to undermine tradition and make test cricket less special and unique – especially as differentiation is the key to a successful marketing strategy. It sure beats me-too products.
The other problem, of course, is that if you keep making slight changes that undermine something’s character then eventually they all add up to a big change. I won’t go as far as to apply the phrase ‘death by a thousand cuts’ to test cricket at this point. That would seem like an overreaction to fairly innocuous news. However, it’s something to ponder moving forward.