Cricket's evolution January 16, 2013

Cricket's look and feel: A mixed bag

One of the curious ironies of modern cricket is that just as our means of the visual inspection of the game, its players and their skills have grown ever more sophisticated

One of the curious ironies of modern cricket is that just as our means of the visual inspection of the game, its players and their skills have grown ever more sophisticated and refined, the actual on-the-field happenings have seemingly grown less visually attractive. That is, thanks to modern television with its high-definition and thousands of frames per second coverage, and modern photography with its awesome array of filters and lenses, we can inspect the game with far greater detail and acuity than ever before; but what we look at is perhaps not as attractive as what was available in previous, less technologically blessed times.

Consider for instance, player appearance. The modern player, in sharp contrast to players from thirty or so years ago, wears an arsenal of protective gear starting with the helmet, and proceeding downwards, elbow guards, chest guards, bulky gloves, thigh guards and bulbous pads. (The contrast with pre-1970s players is even greater.) His uniforms, too, look very different.

Of these, nothing has quite done as much damage to the batsman's appearance as the helmet. The batsman's face is obscured by a visor or grille; his hair by the hard-top of the helmet. The helmet renders the batsman anonymous, pushing him ever more distant from those who observe and inspect his actions from afar. Gone are the distinctive hairstyles or facial expressions visible in the days when batsmen wore team caps, or a variety of other headwear ranging from floppy sunhats to wide-brimmed Panama hats. Thankfully, some of the damage of the helmet has been mitigated by the presence of the team logo on it, counteracting the efforts of batsmen, as in the 1990s, to wear utterly bland white helmets.

The bare-headed batsman, a subject of some of the most visually striking photos of yesteryear, is almost totally absent from contemporary cricket photography. The variety of hairstyles and headgear in the past ensured a distinctive look for batsmen, enabling each one to make an idiosyncratic contribution to the game's look and feel; now, the helmet ensures a smoothing out of this desirable roughness. And, of course, very few batsmen bat with the team cap, one of the most visually memorable images of cricket's past eras. The team logo is now visible on the shirt, and on the helmet, and the cap is a fielding adornment.

Then there are the shirts. The full-sleeve buttoned, collared shirt, which enabled so many memorable images of cricketers with rolled-up sleeves and unbuttoned fronts (think Alvin Kallicharran taking on Dennis Lillee at the 1975 World Cup) or raised collars (think Ian Chappell) is gone, replaced by a variety of athletic wear: half-sleeved shirts and full-sleeved jerseys with top buttons. There are now streaks of colour visible in the button strips and, of course, sponsor logos adorn the shirt front and the sleeves. (England have gone a step further by picking a ghastly gleaming white for their uniforms and ditching the traditional cream in the process.)

Moving on, players' bodily movements are more organised now. Modern players are coached more extensively, their actions scrutinised and corrected relentlessly by coaches. Bowlers' actions look less frenetic, batsmen's movements more compact and organised. In the past, a variety of body languages ensured a pleasurable Babel of cricketing expression on the field, but we now are treated to the sight of cricketers who seem to have graduate from the same linguistic academy. This effect is more pronounced on batsmen though; while bowlers still manage to show an interesting variety of bodily actions, batsmen's movements have become far more generic, far more revealing of the impress of the coaching manual than ever before.

The equipment cricketers use has contributed to this situation as well. Heavier bats mean that batsmen do not swing the bat with as much abandon as they used to. A hard-hitting batsman, 30 years ago, swung the bat hard, and had a full follow-through of the bat. Sometimes, the bat landed up over the batsman's back, its backside parallel to it. The batsman's power was thrillingly placed on display. Not anymore: an entire range of bodily movements has vanished with the presence of the modern bat, which enables dispatch to the boundary with minimum movement. Good timing ensures this, of course, but the increasingly common 'effortless boundary' suggests more is at play. (While playing a club match a few years ago, I surprised myself when, using a bat borrowed from a teammate, I 'effortlessly' drove a quick bowler back over his head for six. It was not the shot I had in mind.)

Lastly, and perhaps most sadly, too many Tests seem to be played in stadiums that are not anywhere close to being full. This is the crowning insult; a game is always set off best against a backdrop of stands packed to the brim with colourful, passionate and engaged spectators. (Perhaps the stellar television coverage now available makes the living room a more attractive option?) This last defacing of cricket ensures that modern players' performances, which still provide brilliant displays of skills, competence and style, take place on a stage that does not do justice to their wares. The spectacle of the game suffers ever more.

In penning what might seem like a series of superficial fashion notes, I might be accused of being, well, superficial. But I think that would be a mistake. Much of our passionate, long-standing relationship to the game is underwritten precisely by a variety of such intangible factors: in this case, the 'look-and-feel.' Most of the changes I have described above are irreversible (except perhaps for the ugly pads pioneered by Sunny Gavaskar and adopted by Tendulkar, Laxman and Dhoni; perhaps in the future no batsmen will ever wear these ghastly appendages). As time goes by and as a new generation of cricket fans comes into contact with the game, they will find their relationship with it moderated and tempered by its visual offerings. They will find, in the days to come, their own zones of pleasure and disdain. In writing this post, I have merely sought to express the feelings of someone who has watched the game long enough to notice a very distinct transition in its appearance, one prominent enough to occasion this response.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here