It’s been a long 48 hours. After Alex Hales, a batsman many wanted to see in England’s test middle-order, effectively retired from red ball cricket on Tuesday, the arguments on social media have been long and intense. Some see Hales as a Judas whereas others seemed to be celebrating the creeping ‘specialisation’ of the game … even though this process might well lead to the death of test cricket.
I really hope that Hales isn’t the thin edge of the wedge. The truth is I’ve never been so concerned about the rise of T20 cricket. However, it’s also true that I haven’t always felt this way. In fact, one of my most memorable cricket watching experiences was an international T20 game held on 13th June 2005 in Southampton. I admit I was fortunate enough to enjoy some quality cricket hospitality that day, but it was the contagious sense of optimism created by the match that will always stay with me.
When I look back now, I find it incredibly ironic that it was a T20 game, rather than one of the subsequent Ashes test matches, that sticks in my memory so vividly. Yes I’ll always remember “Jones! Bowden!” and all the other signature moments that lit up that special summer, but there was something incredibly uplifting, inspirational even, about that June day at the Rose Bowl. It wasn’t just optimism about England’s chances against Australia that summer; it was an optimistic feeling about the future of cricket in general.
Of course things were very different back in 2005. International T20 was still fresh, new and exiting. Everyone, including me, seemed to love it. It brought in the crowds. Kids liked it too. And it seemed like the ideal taster for the serious action ahead. I never thought T20 would become a leviathan because it was just a bit of fun.
The action that day was superb. What’s more, England were in control from the moment that our openers, Marcus Trescothick and Geraint Jones, took 14 off Brett Lee’s second over. Michael Vaughan’s team really put down a marker that day. They let the Aussies know they were playing a very different England side – one that refused to be intimidated like the weak sides we’d put out in the recent past.
It’s strange to think that all eleven England players were making their international T20 debuts in this match. They certainly didn’t play like rookies. England batted first and made what seemed like an astronomical total back then: 179-8. The top scorers were Trescothick (who made 41), Paul Collingwood (who scored 46), and Kevin Pietersen who made 36 in just 18 balls. The latter’s performance was destructive enough to earn him the man of the match award.
In what seems like a strange quirk looking back, Andrew Strauss came out to bat at No.7 and made 18 off 16 balls at the death. That’s right. Andrew Strauss in the finisher role! Hmmm. How times have changed. It’s also interesting to note that England didn’t bother picking a spinner – something that would be unheard of in 2018. At the time experts thought that T20 would finish off spin bowling forever. How naive we all were.
Australia never looked like chasing England’s Everest-sized total. Darren Gough (3-16) and the mighty Jon Lewis (4-24), who was a very useful limited overs cricketer, proved far too much for them. The visitors lost wickets at regular intervals and were skittled for a miserable 79 all out. Get in! The margin of victory was a whopping 100 runs.
England had a pretty handy seam attack that day. The change bowlers were Flintoff and Harmison, and we had the luxury of leaving out Simon Jones, who bowled rapidly in the warm up match against Hampshire the day beforehand. The fifth bowler was Paul Collingwood, who was possibly our most reliable ODI bowler for a short period back then. People forget just how useful he was.
As for the Aussies it didn’t seem to matter that royalty like Ponting, Gilchrist, Hayden, Clarke, Lee, and McGrath were playing. They came across a superior force that day and succumbed like a child fighting Lennox Lewis. It was all incredibly satisfying.
It’s such a shame that I now look back at that day with both fondness and sadness. T20 seemed so innocent back then. I don’t think any of us thought it would go on to cannibalise first class cricket and possibly threaten the very existence of test cricket too.
Obviously some people will shrug their shoulders at recent developments and mutter something about ‘market forces’ and ‘lifestyle changes’ under their breath. They might even look down on cantankerous traditionalists like myself as daft luddites howling into the wind. However, I can’t help wondering what might have happened if T20 had been controlled rather than pushed at every opportunity at the expense of everything else.
I can only hope that people eventually begin to tire of T20 cricket. Yes it’s very immediate and extremely entertaining on a certain level, but as a sport it lacks depth and nuance. I know that now because I’ve watched so much of it. The problem, however, is that the authorities act like they’re hostages to social and lifestyle changes. They give the impression that flogging T20 is the only way they can keep cricket in general relevant.
I’m afraid I can never agree with this perspective. People might be time poor these days but they’re still perfectly capable of engaging with something that unfolds over a number of days. What’s more, modern technology has increased the media channels via which cricket can be digested. Following the course of a test match should be easier than its ever been.
My personal view is that cricket administrators – one could probably broaden this to sports administrators in general – are simply lazy and short sighted. They always have been and they probably always will. Their priorities are usually short-term profits and they struggle to look further than that. Consequently they allow their sports to be driven by market forces rather than grasping the nettle, being proactive, and shaping their sport’s destiny.
I believe things can be better, and that the different forms of cricket can live in harmony, because I’ve become a big fan of NFL. Yes I know that professional American football doesn’t exist outside North America, and that sports like cricket are different because reform would require agreement between different national boards, but it still shows what can be done with determination and vision.
For example, back in 1994 the NFL realised it had a problem. The big teams were monopolising the best players and something had to be done. The result was the implementation of a salary cap. This reform, alongside the existing draft system whereby the best players from college go to the teams with the worst records, kept the league competitive and the teams on a level playing field.
I’m not saying that a salary cap in cricket would solve all our beloved sport’s problems, but the authorities definitely need to look at what players are earning in different forms of the game. Maybe they could even look at pooling funds generated by tests, ODIs, and T20s, and then distributing this money equally? I know the obstacles would be considerable but it got to be worth thinking about.
The big problem (as I see it) is that I don’t think cricket’s administrators actually want anything to change. They don’t want to curtail T20 or save test cricket. After all, if you struck oil in your back garden would you really care about the protection order on that beautiful willow tree in the corner?
Written in collaboration with Keith Prowse