Sorry I’ve been largely absent for the last week. I’ve had loads of work on, plus I’m in the middle of a rather complicated house move with buyers threatening to walk out and solicitors moving at Gavin Larsen pace.
Needless to say I’m rather stressed out. However, at least I’ve had a break from the somewhat monotonous treadmill of international cricket. The white ball games are coming thick and fast at the moment, and whilst I’m sure they’re great fun for those in attendance, I find myself completely unable to care about the results.
And this is coming from a die hard cricket fan who has devoted almost a decade of his life writing about the England team on this blog. If someone like me is fatigued to the point that they can’t even be bothered to check the score most of the time, I’m not sure who does give a rat’s arse?
I don’t want this to turn into an anti-white ball cricket rant because I actually really enjoy limited overs contests. I always have done. I was brought up on Sunday League cricket at New Road in the 1980s when the likes of Botham, Hick and Moody absolutely murdered most county attacks.
However, back in those days an imperious Hick lofted drive into the stands behind the bowler’s arm used to be special. The sound of leather on willow, and a dejected bowler sheepishly returning to his mark, provided captivating theatre. Sixes might only happen once or twice in an innings. And when they did it was really memorable and a definitive champagne moment.
Back then it was a real challenge to take on the bowling in this way. Bats weren’t nearly as effective so the risk: reward ratio was often in bowler’s favour. You had to time the ball beautifully or you’d be caught on the boundary.
That’s where players like Hick and Moody came into their own. Their timing was awesome plus they had the muscle to carry the ball over the ropes.
Tim Curtis, Worcestershire’s somewhat stodgy but often prolific opener, couldn’t hit a maximum to save his life unless it was a hook / pull and he used the pace of the ball to his advantage.
These days it’s a very different story of course. Even the most diminutive cricketers can mistime the ball and get away with it. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen a batsman swing through the line, not really connect properly, but the sheer volume of wood has helped the ball to clear the ropes (particularly if the ropes have been needlessly moved in a few yards). A bowler’s life just isn’t fair anymore.
Although I freely admit that players are fitter and stronger these days, and that they’ve spent a great deal of time developing their range-hitting skills, I can’t help thinking that bat technology has made the modern one-day game a bit one-sided and unfair. I’ve experienced this myself. I couldn’t hit the ball off the square with my old bat, but my new one lets me block the ball to the boundary with good timing. The difference is incredible.
One would’ve thought that cricket’s authorities would respond to this new technology in the same way that golf has adapted to power hitters and new drivers: by lengthening the courses. 500 yard par 4s are now relatively common in majors. However cricket’s governing bodies, in their wisdom, have decided to do the opposite. They’ve decided to make life even easier for big hitters by actually shortening the course (or rather the boundaries).
Although this response seems absolutely crazy, cricket’s administrators honestly believe that the more runs are scored in a day then the better that day has been. The more boundaries are scored, then the more people are entertained – or so the thinking goes.
Cricket’s governing bodies obviously believe that cricket fans (and sports fans in general) are dribbling idiots who only see value in ‘the spectacular’ or ‘the extraordinary’. And even their definition of ‘extraordinary’ is limited to bats bludgeoning balls (rather than fast bowlers destroying batting line-ups).
The problem, of course, is that 50 overs games with scores over 350, and T20s with scores over 180 or 200, are no longer ‘extraordinary’. They’re becoming somewhat mundane and really quite ordinary. What’s the appeal of all these sixes and fours if they’ve become as commonplace as a singles used to be?
When Aaron Finch made a century against England a couple of weeks ago, the crowd hardly applauded fours. There was just a ripple of appreciation. The natural conclusion is that boundaries don’t always excite like they used to. Either that or everyone’s hands were sore by the fifth over.
Boundaries also have less impact today because the ‘jeopardy factor’ has been removed – in other words, batsmen are no longer so afraid to lose their wicket. A team can afford to lose a wicket every two or three overs in T20 and not get bowled out. Obviously wickets are important because they often slow down the run-rate and can shift momentum, but batsmen can generally shoot from the hip without particularly worrying about the consequences of getting out. They’re more worried about scoring rates than wickets.
Once you give batsmen licence to plunder in a largely consequence free environment – and diminish the risk-taking element of batting – the experience becomes somewhat hollow. Bowlers also become cannon-fodder and they’re set up to fail. The decision to use two new balls in ODIs, which has taken reverse swing out of the game, further erodes their effectiveness.
Call me a traditionalist, or a stick-in-the-mud killjoy if you like, but I’ve always thought that the best cricket (by which I mean the most compelling and entertaining cricket) is when there’s a true contest between bat and ball. This balance is absolutely essential. People will eventually get tired of watching bat bully ball. The dynamic needs to shift in order to captivate. There’s no value whatsoever in creating a series of high-scoring affairs which basically mirror each other.
So here’s some food for thought for Colin Graves, Tom Harrison, and all the other people who (mis)manage our wonderful sport. Which game was the best in England’s recent 5-0 series whitewash of Australia? Was it the one where England broke all those records on a Trent Bridge pitch that was tailor-made for carnage? No. Entertaining as it was to witness yet another wind-assisted world record, I much preferred the finale at OId Trafford.
The fifth game was the best because it offered a contrast and some real tension. The bowlers were generally on top, wickets fell, and a fascinating scenario developed in which Jos Buttler had to use all his skill, experience, mental strength, plus his mental agility, to see England over the line.
The big shots were selected carefully in this innings. And when the boundaries came they were little events in themselves rather than part of broader boundary binge. The game also oscillated intriguingly. At one point it looked like England might get bowled out for under a hundred. The fact that Buttler (with a great little innings from Rashid) had to dig in and improvise to secure victory created a really engrossing contest.
Sometimes fewer runs is better. Sometimes less is more. Would the football World Cup be better if every game ended 6-5? The scoring of a goal is the ultimate event in football. If ten of them happened every game then the ecstatic reaction of players and fans would soon become nothing more than a brief ‘hurray’ and a pat on the back.
FIFA might not be a bastion of competence but at least they’re not daft enough to mess with a winning formula. If cricket’s authorities ran football I imagine their first directive would be to cancel the off-side rule. And they’d ruin the sport in the process.