At this time of year, when the next cricket season seems so far away, those of us for whom the game is important take refuge in its vicarious manifestations. As a child that always meant cricket books — for there was no satellite television beaming in the latest match from Sydney or Bridgetown, though I do remember those half-hour highlights programmes from Ashes series in Australia, shown way after my bedtime.
Cricket books seem usually to be aimed at boys rather than men, because they are in large part so unspeakably awful. Of the scores published each year, maybe two or three are worth reading. Most retail the brief life stories of the latest England Test sensations, most of whom are far less interesting off the field than on it, and who seem inevitably to have the sort of personality that blocks drains. The more one focuses on the people who play cricket today, the more one realises that the world has changed. Cricket has changed and, like the world, not for the better.
The outstanding cricket book of this year was Graeme Wright’s Behind the Boundary: Cricket at a Crossroads (Bloomsbury, £9.99). It is an account of Mr Wright’s progress around the 18 first-class counties during 2010, and how he found these disparate businesses trying to survive when people have other things to do than to watch cricket. Mr Wright is no ordinary cricket writer. He used to edit Wisden, has written several other thoughtful books on the game, and addresses its existence with a philosophical sense of scrutiny. He understands the elementary nature of cricket in our culture, and suggests towards the end of the book that just as so many people have lost an idea of England as a nation, so too they have lost a conception of one of the many things that created a national identity: cricket. The point is made in the very last line of the book: “It’s the nation’s heritage you’re keeping alive.”
The business (for that, sadly, is what cricket now is) that Mr Wright found is one that has haemorrhaged customers over the last 40 years or so. Bastardised versions of the game — notably the obtuse and grim Twenty20 slogabout format — still pull in crowds. But those games are short and cater for the modern attention span, which lasts about as long as a computer game or the downloading of a pop music album. Championship cricket, which everyone seems to agree is the raison d’être of the county game, seems now to be only for the elderly. Yet it is important, for it is there that cricketers learn the skills that are needed in Test matches. And Test matches remain important because, at least when certain teams are playing, they pack out grounds despite the outrageously high prices charged for tickets.
I feel I have watched English cricket shoot itself in the foot, and indeed in several other parts of its anatomy, in the 40 or more years I have been watching it. Its administrators should have worked out that people had other things to do during their leisure hours rather than watch cricket — not just computer games, but also, as Mr Wright notes, the alarming habit men have acquired of going shopping — and sought to market their game better and try to make it more attractive. A remorseless diet of limited-overs cricket, so ubiquitous that it ceases to be of interest, was one way of doing this, but now many people have had enough. The real failure has been with the two-innings-a-side championship match, which has become about as compelling to watch as a ploughed field.
Until 1988 all championship games were of three days’ duration. Because cricketers started to play the game more slowly, it became harder and harder to get a result. Back in the 1930s it was not unusual for sides to bowl 130 overs in a six-hour day. During the 1980s a 117-over minimum was established, and games would go on until it was almost dark. So it was decided to play over four days, not merely to seek a result, but to ensure that more batsmen could play long innings and that spin bowling, which seemed to be dying out, could make a comeback.
To an extent, this has been achieved. More than 20 years later, England has a strong batting side and some useful spinners. But it is a rare county match that has a decent crowd. The four-day game is slow and attritional. Worse, it seldom includes anyone currently prominent in the game because the greed-based international schedule removes players from county matches for much of the season, or forces them to rest. One official Mr Wright talked to described the county circuit as “England reserves”. To an extent he is right: if county cricket has ceased to exist for its own sake, but is merely keeping the understudies of the test team in form, then cricket, shorn of its local patriotism, will soon be dead.
Most counties are not viable businesses: they exist on central handouts, supporting them as “England reserves”. As this book catalogues, grounds are now used for conferences and rock concerts. Even in the summer, many host very little cricket. Professional cricketers, paid better than at any time in the game’s history, dislike playing. Some counties want the present 16-match championship reduced to 12. But as one official says, that would give only six home games a season and mean the membership, the core of a club’s support, getting very little for their money.
It should not be beyond the wit of counties to make proper cricket more attractive. One obvious solution — cutting four-day matches down to three days, but ensuring higher over-rates through a stiff system of financial penalties — would make it far less boring to watch.
Most grounds have floodlights so in the warmer months from June until August they could start at 3pm and finish at 10.30pm to pull more crowds in. The baseball-style gimmicks that strip cricket of its charm and distinctiveness should be removed to Twenty20, and stay there. Cricket is a vital part of our heritage, but unless someone has the vision to stand up for its traditional values, it will cease to have much to commend it and will die.