Back in those hard hitting and intoxicated days before Christmas and the New Year – a mere stitch back in time when the elastic on my trousers was relaxed and my liver chipper and fighting fit – I wrote a morose piece on Why Red Cards Have No Place In Cricket. I promised or threatened, depending on how you look at it, to write a follow up on why day/night Ashes Test Matches are akin to the anti-christ. Well, with the New Year unwinding and my belly reminiscent of a furiously pumped beach ball, now is that time.
I should apologise in advance for the stream of consciousness that I’m going to unload. The problem is that day/night Ashes Tests cannot be discussed in isolation but only as part of a much wider issue that is slowly casting a shroud-like presence over our game.
An individual examination of day / nighters would be like a doctor diagnosing the last symptoms of a critically ill patient. What we actually need to do is go back further through the patient’s history – right the way back to the booze, fags, fry-ups, and all those bad lifestyle decisions that brought us into this imaginary emergency room. So, sit back and put your Leonard Cohen record on – a dearly lamented man who surely would’ve seen the art and beauty in a grim 5th day rear-guard action.
I don’t know about you but I worry about the recent glut of sudden and ill-considered changes to the game. Not in a “disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” type way (although I do often struggle to suppress Luddite type sensibilities) because it has metamorphosed into a form of grim acceptance. The ICC, ECB and other national governing boards seem determined to lock Test and first class cricket into a box and bury it deep in the ground – a treasured artefact but one that has reached the point of anachronism. I worry that ‘proper cricket’ is now merely damned with insincere reverence – brought out, dusted off and indulged now and again to remind the deluded faithful that it is carefully cherished by its keepers.
I am reminded of the poet Robert Frost (I name drop him only to cultivate a thin veneer of intelligence). Over the past few years, cricket has arrived at Frost’s metaphoric “Two divergent roads in the yellow wood”. Rather than taking a thoughtful and considered view on Test / First Class cricket’s future direction, the administrators instead zipped up their hoodies, cranked up their gangster rap and sprinted up the undiscovered path to profit and shallow modernity. Probably kicking a dog walker and happy-slapping a pensioner along the way.
Have the authorities come to the deliberate conclusion that the pure-form of the game is terminally uncool, impossible to sell to a modern 20/20 obsessed audience and most importantly not lucrative? After all, this is the only value system that counts in the sporting corporate world. If this view exists at the very top then what hope does the long-form of the game have?
Clinging on to the last fading remnants of seasonal licence let us for a moment wheel out the ghost of Christmas, or should it be the ghost of cricket, past. If, like me, you happen to be on or around the unfortunate age of 39, English, and reading this, then you can only possibly be a diehard.
Throughout our youth everything possible was set in place to make us hate the game. I myself made the catastrophic mistake to love cricket in the summer of 1989. This was the summer when England meekly surrendered The Ashes to Allan Border’s Australian’s, and the tone was set for 16 years of ritual humiliation.
I was 12 back then, and endured this cycle of indignity and purgatory until that wondrous day at The Oval in 2005. Liking cricket at school was to mark yourself out as seriously uncool, and England were denounced by everyone, much to my frustration, as totally rubbish. Cricket to the uninitiated was a boring and soft game played by nerds, chewing on limp cucumber sandwiches and drinking tea (probably with an extended pinkie out of china cups).
There were a few high spots, the 1991 World Cup being one, but not many. Despite this conspicuous lack of success the grounds were usually full for Test Matches and one-dayers. I can also remember relatively healthy crowds down in Bournemouth for Hampshire’s out-ground matches. I saw the last ever championship game there versus Middlesex. The teams included David Gower, Malcolm Marshall, Robin Smith, Mike Gatting, Desmond Haynes, Angus Fraser, Phil Tuffnell and John Emburey. When was the last time we saw 8 proper internationals playing in a run of the mill championship game? Probably all down to central contracts.
It helped having only four TV channels and nothing much to do in summer holidays. Tony Lewis and Richie Benaud would be a regular fixture on the BBC as the Soul-Limbo theme tune faded out. Solid and reliable coverage. No fanfare or razzamatazz because it was the crusty BBC, but also because they had faith in the product, despite the routine incompetence on the field.
The nadir was reached in 1999 with the humbling home series defeat to New Zealand that ushered in the Duncan Fletcher era and happier times. A year earlier Channel 4 had taken over the TV rights – thus upgrading the BBC’s solid family saloon to a flashy sports car.
It seemed to me that cricket was on the up. The ECB brought in T20 in 2003 as a bit of fun to get the crowds in and fund the serious stuff. Mainly aimed at families as a mechanism to grow the game but also to lure out lads out the lash (once a year punters who were good for 5 or 6 rounds to swell the coffers). It is entertaining now to remember that many of the star names had little truck with it. They preferred to sit it out and stay fresh for real cricket. That changed of course with the IPL and its thick wads of cash.
In 2004 the ECB took the money and farmed the game out to Sky. Live Cricket was no longer reachable on terrestrial television after 70 uninterrupted years. They told us the money would be invested in grass roots and we tried to believe them. The following year England regained The Ashes. I remember running into a pub after work to catch the conclusion of the Old Trafford Test. It was full to the rafters with every single person watching the game intently. I had never seen that before. The nerdy game had found its way back into the mainstream.
The terrific opportunity existed to latch onto this success and new-found popularity. Players like Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff were recognisable and bona-fide 21st century superstars. But the chance was squandered. The ECB cut open the belly of the T20 golden goose via market saturation. However, they still see it as the panacea for all of cricket’s ills. Meanwhile the championship gets squeezed into ever more contorted shapes – truncated into the least attractive ends of the summer when the weather is at its most inclement.
The ECB seem to have concluded that no one is interested, and that the decline in county cricket (and by natural consequence test cricket) is terminal – save for a few anoraks with their thermos flasks and Play Fair Cricket annuals. However, I sense that the demand is actually still there (or is at least no worse than it was 30 years ago). The problem is that access to the supply has been removed. And because the product has become so inaccessible, it is now rapidly becoming redundant; therefore the prophecy is a self-fulfilling one.
Likewise England has opted to prioritise white ball cricket over red. I always held the belief that England would be the last defenders of the long game. That hope now looks forlorn. Day/night Tests are just a gimmick and will do little to arrest the perceived decline in interest in the long term. Instead it will just chip away at the purity and integrity of the game and further devalue the product.
Only a bovine board like the ECB would book a day / nighter this summer at fortress Edgbaston as a means to give a weak West Indies team a fighting chance in the dark. Do they think no one will come otherwise? I think they will. If it is marketed properly and with conviction and at a fair price.
Most worrying the amateur game is receding year by year. It is easy to blame that on schools but it was relatively non-existent at my school back in the 80’s an early 90’s. Yet, the local senior and youth leagues were then in rude health. In the late 90’s my old local Sunday league had 80 teams. This has now fallen to barely 25.
The reasons for all of this are complex. But I trace most of this back to mismanagement, greed and avarice at the very top of the sport. The proliferation of plastic international T20 franchise tournaments that compresses international schedules and lures the big names away doesn’t help. Plus, of course, the ECB’s fateful decision back in 2004 to take away the free availability of televised cricket to all. Compared to where we are now, the seismic change that World Series Cricket brought about was merely kids’ stuff.