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January 16, 2013

Cricket's evolution

Cricket's look and feel: A mixed bag

Samir Chopra
Alvin Kallicharan whips the ball to the leg side, New Zealand v West Indies, World Cup, The Oval, June 18, 1975
You're almost never going to see a photograph like this in modern international cricket  © Getty Images
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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

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Keywords: Nostalgia

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by Phaedrus on (January 30, 2013, 4:56 GMT)

Subodh: my comment was my opinion on/ critique of the opinion piece. The expression , "how could you miss ...." was not used to demean the author but as an expression of surprise at his having missed out what appears to me the most visible symbols of the game gone by and present when that is precisely what he attempts to address in his piece. Hope you understand. It'll be OK if you don't.

Posted by Harvey on (January 20, 2013, 11:03 GMT)

I agree with Robin Gordon-Walker about the entertainment value of modern Test cricket being better than in the 70s. Much is talked about the small size of Test crowds, but I reckon that in most countries (including India) they're better now than they were four or five years ago. The recent series v England was well attended. Crowds for these games were not as big as they are for T20 internationals or ODIs, but the whole reason for the introduction of the shorter formats was to put bums on seats.

Posted by Mo on (January 20, 2013, 9:59 GMT)

What i dont miss about the old days were the physiques of those players-many had that stomach pouch which looked and was not athletic.Sure you still get the odd guy who is paunchy ala Jessie Ryder,Sehwag but players are better athletes generally,fielding has improved overall and scoring rates are higher.As well umpiring has improved and there are far more results.

Back in the 70's could one have had Sri Lanka leading the Aussies in Australia in the odi series? Never.Or South Africa being the number 1 test team-impossible.The balance of power may have changed but the game has moved forward.

Posted by Enigma on (January 19, 2013, 16:53 GMT)

Someone mentioned imran Kahn's run-up. That was hilarious. The guy would run all the way from the pavilion only to deliver a dud. Ditto Waqar younis.

Posted by Bhadra on (January 19, 2013, 11:42 GMT)

Oh look, a nostalgic. Yes, cricket has changed, thankfully to become more like a modern sport. Deal with it.

Posted by Ravinarayanan K.R. on (January 19, 2013, 7:56 GMT)

This is the feeling of many old admirers of the game. Mr.Samir's comments on the modern gadgets and the missing of facial expressions, hair style comes from his heart. It's also true that contemporary players have got so many facilities to improve their batting/bowling skills. But, alas, it's not happening. May be they just want to enjoy the fun and endorse products to fill their coffers. The rudiments of the game are gone, of course some exceptional players are there on the horizon. But, we have to move on with the time and watch the game as it comes. You cannot deny the fact that Test cricket is the mother of all the game and you cannot kill the golden goose. Hope better sense will prevail upon the Administrators, players to keep the game in good stead and the onus is on the spectators to accept and watch good test cricket and come in large numbers to watch the 'real game'. And of course they can enjoy the fun in ODI/T20 games as well.

Posted by ADD on (January 19, 2013, 7:50 GMT)

The ideal look:

Hat: Wide-brimmed, floppy - Richie Richardson Collar: Upturned, like Azhar Bat-swing: 360 degrees, Sobers Pads: "Bulbous" - Tendulkar Crowd: Jamaica '76 (Sunny Days)

A batsman with all these at his disposal would be, well, perfect. Someone forgot to tell Marlon Samuels.

Posted by Robin Gordon-Walker on (January 18, 2013, 12:10 GMT)

Chopra's points all fair BUT crucially the actual content and play of Test cricket is now so much better! In the 1950s to 1970s there were many "bore drwas" with slow scoring rates while now - even though over rates are slower - there is much more real action and both cpatains normally play for a win with generally higher scoring rates and with wickets prepared with a view to getting a result within the five days - not many Test matches actually go the fifth day now! Better ground covering, making up overs lost to rain and use of floodlights mean that even a Test played in bad weather often produces a result. A match like the recent Test at Nagpur is so rare now that it attracted universal condemnation and cries of "Never again"! Yet 0-0 series where every match was like Napgur were common 40/50 years ago - India v England in 1963/4, India v Pakistan 1954/5 and 1960/1 etc. Even Ashes series became less than gripping with only one or two matches a series producing a result.

Posted by Kunal Talgeri on (January 18, 2013, 7:57 GMT)

A point I forgot to mention: run-ups of today are so devoid of the bowlers' persona.

Posted by Kunal Talgeri on (January 18, 2013, 7:55 GMT)

I miss the bowling run-ups in cricket. Even the Tied Test between Australia and West Indies documented long run-ups, which also inevitably showcased the clothing of the time that Samir alludes to. From Lillee and Geoff Lawson to Craig McDermott, from a fit Imran Khan to a raging Waqar Younis, there once was an build up to the actual moment when a batsman played a ball. It's just a matter of time before Indian cable-TV audiences take to F1 and football clubs. I hope cricket's potental loss in TV audiences can be hockey's gain. Hockey is a definitive "TV sport." When that happens, the learned BCCI will realise the value of spectators in stadiums.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Samir Chopra
Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He runs the blogs at samirchopra.com and Eye on Cricket. His book on the changing face of modern cricket, Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket has been published by HarperCollins. Before The Cordon, he blogged on The Pitch and Different Strokes on ESPNcricinfo. @EyeonthePitch

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