21 April 2010.
An abbreviated format may not provide enough of a canvas for greatness to be displayed, but cricket is about entertainment foremost.
A lot of nonsense is talked about lengths of matches. It does not make much difference. A cricketer is a cricketer. If he is any good, he will quickly learn to adapt his game to meet any challenge. Timeless Tests and ten-over matches, it’s all the same. Old dogs might not be able to lean new tricks but any cricketer worth tuppence will rapidly adjust. In any case the basics of the game remain immutable. Batting and bowling do not change half as much as each generation supposes. Fashions come and go – slower balls, reverse sweeps, reverse swing, googlies, mystery balls and the rest of the malarkey – but eventually the response arrives and the game returns to the centre.
Over the centuries, the only significant alterations in cricket involve the move from underarm to round-arm and on to overarm. The other telling innovation was the introduction of helmets. Everything else exists at the margins. In most cases it is still 11 against 11, attack against defence, bat against ball.
It’s the same in other sports. Hockey has improved immeasurably since the advent of artificial pitches. Soccer has been uplifted by several factors: better surfaces, lighter balls, the rise of the game in Africa, referees prepared to protect skilful players from the savagery witnessed a few decades ago. Rugby has been refreshed by awarding five points for a try, and rules designed to discourage the sort of trench warfare often seen at the Recreation Ground in Bath in the 1960s.
Certainly professionalism has made these games fitter and faster. Diets, fielding drills, preparation and the rest combine to put a premium on pace. Cricketers unable to field or run between wickets stand out precisely because of the company they nowadays keep. Strong soccer teams play a quick-passing game beyond the capacity of even the greatest sides of yesteryear. From my vantage point, Barcelona is the best club team seen in 40 years.
Perhaps the borderline exists somewhere between 60 and 40 overs. Arguably 60 and 55, just, are long enough to pit a man against himself and the world, to take him to his limits.
But mankind has not changed that much in the interim. It takes an athlete of the stature of Usain Bolt to raise the bar and the roof. No one growing up in the era of Michael Johnson, with his high-stepping action, expected to see his feats matched in their lifetime. Incredibly, a man as fast, and even a fraction faster, emerged a decade later. Bolt is the most extraordinary athlete of the last 50 years, surpassing even Carl Lewis, a man whose career was hamstrung by drug cheats.
That records are claimed only by the most exceptional performers these days means that the battle against drugs is not as forlorn as had been supposed, and confirms that man does not change much physically in a short period. Of course, he does not change much mentally either.
Since man does not change much and sport does not change much, it’s hardly surprising that the top players of any age keep proving their worth. Take a look at this season’s IPL. Jacques Kallis and Sachin Tendulkar scored stacks of runs. Nor is Rahul Dravid any longer a liability. Before long, Kevin Pietersen will master the genre. Meanwhile yesterday’s heroes slowly and predictably fade and lightweights are exposed. Even the importance of captaincy has been underlined.
Accordingly all the palaver about England deciding to play 40- as opposed to 50-over cricket in its domestic competition is misplaced. It will take about 10 minutes for the local players to return to slightly longer versions. After all, the same fellows may take part in a Twenty20 and four-day match in the same fortnight. A quarter of a century ago Somerset played, successively, 40-over, three-day, 55- and 60-over matches. If the ECB concludes that 40-over games can fill grounds, then so be it. They only take an afternoon. Cricket cannot ignore its audience. Indeed, that has been the primary lesson of the last few seasons. Twenty20 caters for its market. Test cricket has taken its spectators for granted.
Moreover English spectators are used to the 40-over game and enjoy it. Because the English game has mostly always been professional, it has been more innovative than any other dispensation. Far from being dominated by stuffed shirts, English cricket has been adaptable. But then, it is as much an industry as a recreation.
With the county game putrefying in the era of the Beatles and Carnaby Street, and following in the footsteps of the International Cavaliers, a collection of the brightest and best brought together to entertain crowds with 40-over matches against county players on Sunday afternoons, the authorities decided to introduce their own inter-county afternoon league.
From the outset it was a success. Families so inclined could attend church, enjoy their traditional Sunday roast and then go to the cricket. Freewheeling types could sleep late on the Sabbath, go to a pub at noon and wander down to the ground, ready to cheer on their champions, by 2pm. For a few hours, usually dormant cricket grounds came to life, with songs and cheers and gasps and the other accoutrements of dramatic activity. Not that these days theatre-goers are allowed to respond. Part of the beauty of sport is that the end cannot be foretold. Every story is unique.
Moreover the action was fast and furious. Teams were given 130 minutes to bowl and the penalty was severe. Sides failing to comply were obliged to complete their task but then faced only the overs completed by 16.10pm. Short run-ups were compulsory and fast over rates commonplace.
Players took easily and happily to these short contests. Sixty-over cricket had been introduced in 1963. At first, players had been bemused by the change in tempo. Typically, Ted Dexter was ahead of the pack, and under his leadership Sussex dominated the first few seasons of the competition. Until the emergence of the recently retired captains Atherton, Vaughan and Hussain, all impressive in their own ways, Dexter has had the best mind in English cricket. His only weakness was a tendency to appear eccentric, in which regard he may not be alone.
As it happens, Somerset developed a team superbly suited to the format, and in the 1970s and early 1980s the team regularly challenged for the title, without often winning it. Abandoning previous customs, spectators arrived early and by noon the grounds were packed to the rafters. They relished the cut and thrust of the 40-over contest. Probably 50 overs would have stretched their patience. Most of them were enjoying a day off work and wanted to relax.
In almost every respect it was a healthy and productive period in English cricket. Only one reservation could be felt about it. In 18 years of almost constant participation I cannot remember a truly great spell of bowling or great innings played in the 40-over format. The closest was an extraordinary chasing knock played by Steve Waugh in an otherwise unremarkable match against Northampton at Taunton. In his early years Waugh was a match-winner, the best I have seen, and his innings was as brilliant as it was defiant of defeat.
Most likely even that was not a great innings. Admittedly greatness is hard to define. Can it exist in comedy? Music hall? Cartoons? The Simpsons? PG Wodehouse? Or does it require a canvas to match? Where is the borderline? Although Twenty20 may confirm greatness, it cannot produce it or unleash it. I think the same applies to 40-over cricket. On the other hand I have seen great innings played in 55- and 60-over cricket, in Lord’s finals, in World Cups – truly glorious exhibitions of batsmanship against high-class bowlers striving with every power at their disposal. I can remember Viv Richards several times, Sunil Gavaskar at Taunton once, Clive Lloyd at Lord’s, and many others.
It’s harder for the bowlers because their work is restricted. Often they are withdrawn after making the first incision. Even so Joel Garner often saved his best for the shorter matches, and he counts amongst the giants of the game. Now and then Wasim Akram and Shane Warne dazzled.
Perhaps the borderline exists somewhere between 60 and 40 overs. Arguably 60 and 55, just, are long enough to pit a man against himself and the world, to take him to his limits. Forty-over cricket makes the decisions but the longer version gives players a lot of rope. As regards 50-over matches, suffice it to say, for these purposes 50 seems closer to 40 than 60. Frankly, even 55 a side appeared marginal.
But then, the capacity to extract greatness is not the only test of a contest. Sometimes it is enough to amuse. Cricket is not a religion nor yet a culture. It is a skill, a profession and an entertainment. Indeed, cricket’s saving grace has been precisely that it has learned not to take itself too seriously. Notwithstanding its reputation, it is the most audacious of games. Of late, too, it has realised that solemnity does not pay the bills or attract youngsters. The trick has been to combine enchantment and excitement. Without greatness, a game shrivels. Without an audience, it dies.