The county cricket season is about to get underway, but are the subtleties of the game in danger of being lost forever? Harry Mead reports
Cricket again – the new season beckons. But not with the glad familiarity of old. Perhaps it is time for lovers of the game to admit an unpalatable truth, expressed in the phrase most closely identified with the great sport: it’s not cricket.
Of course on thousands of local cricket fields it will be. White-clad figures on the green turf will again present a quintessentially English scene, but on the county grounds? The players, like as not, will be garishly attired. The sightscreen will be black, as might be the batsmen’s pads. Gone will be the beauty, the visual harmony, that has long been part of cricket’s appeal.
This is the so-called white-ball game which, as T20 or one-day, increasingly dominates first-class cricket, it might well be played under lights. Many years ago, that prospect received short shrift from the celebrated cricket writer Sir Neville Cardus. “One has heard folk ask for winter cricket, to be played in some glass-domed Olympia brilliant with electric light,” he observed. “The cricketer of soul knows better than this.”
What he knew, Cardus averred, was that cricket was “part of the pageant of summer.” Spectating pleasure, too, drew as much on the long summer’s day as events on the field. Inserted into his report of Kent’s game against Notts at Trent Bridge in 1928 was this reflection: “Cricket is the summer game, and as we watch it under a blue sky we can feel it is part of summer’s passing show of rich nature and loveliness.”
Today’s one day game is all about razzmatazz. It’s about cheer leaders, flares, music, flashing stumps and on-field microphones. But Cricket is a game of subtle moods and swings. It’s not a Big Bash or a Blast.
As Scyld Berry, cricket correspondent of The Daily Telegraph observed recently: “For a game of cricket to be worth watching you need contrasts; pace and spin; defence and attack; one side on top, then the other.” However, having witnessed the mammoth run fests of several World Cup games, he anticipates that soon “it will be big-hitting all the time, T20 spread over 50 overs.”
However, the popularity of one-day and T-20 cricket is fragile, with endless tinkering required to maintain public interest. Restricted overs by bowlers was the start. More recently boundaries have been shortened, fielding circles and concepts like power play introduced. Every innovation takes the game further from pure cricket. Yet Colin Graves, former Yorkshire chairman, now supremo of the England and Wales Cricket Board, admits that T20 has “gone stale.” His first thought as a remedy? A second T20.
Could it be that cricket has been barking up the wrong tree? Perhaps its best hope of a long-term future is as an antidote to stress, for which a relaxed day at a county championship match has few equals? The idea will be ridiculed. Speaking admiringly of the Big Bash, Richard Thomas, Surrey chairman and a board member of the ECB, recently said: “After every single ball there is something going on. There is constant energy and engagement, which we should adopt.” Fostering appreciation of top-class cricket as a game that can smoulder for hours then suddenly be ignited by, say, a dramatic catch or a brilliant run-out, is obviously not on the agenda.
Unhappy with low-scoring T20 games – which can be fascinating contests - another county chairman, Essex’s Nigel Hilliard, has remarked: “This is not what people want. They want to see the ball disappearing out of the park.” What we are seeing disappear out of the park is the most skilled and satisfying cricket in all its glorious variety. Not to mention beauty. Out of the park, out of our lives and out of the fabric of this nation. Its eventual loss will be a tragedy