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May 27, 2013

New Zealand in England 2013

Is cricket losing its sense of judgement?

Jon Hotten
Compton scored back-to-back hundreds against the same side six innings ago. Shouldn't those be taken into account if you discuss his recent low scores?  © Getty Images
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Some years ago, Danny Baker began a radio phone-in about football called 606, named after the time that it came on the air. The idea was that fans would call in on their way back from matches and chew the cud about the state of the game, not necessarily the one they'd just seen but football in general. It arrived at the height of fanzine culture, and for a while it reflected the great human zoo that was the football-going public of Britain. Baker steered it like the skipper of a ramshackle ship; he had no idea where it was going, and nor did anyone else. It was about the journey, not the destination.

The show is still on but Baker left years ago. It's lowest common denominator broadcasting now, hooting ex-pros arguing with blustering punters over the minutia of who did what to whom. Opinion is god, and woe betide anyone who doesn't have one. There is no longer a language with which to discuss the game. In its place is simple polarity. The manager who was unbelievable last week is sackable this, and so on. The only point of interest is whether this language reflects football's biddable short term-ism or drives it. The nice thing about listening to 606 is the knowledge that cricket is nothing like that.

The game, especially the first-class and Test game, has a rhythm as deep and consistent as a heartbeat, and it's a rhythm that was essentially set at its creation. It can be accelerated by sprinting through short forms, but over the longer distances it will always return to something resembling the original. A single day or an individual match can suggest a line of thought, but rarely can it offer a concrete conclusion until it is the culmination of ongoing events.

Whether it's the irresistible instantaneousness of Twitter or the availability of other social-media platforms, it's starting to feel like cricket is losing the sense of judgement that sets it apart as a challenge and as a game. On Sunday, Nick Compton failed for the fourth time in two Tests against New Zealand, scratching around for single figures. Twitter erupted, mostly with the sentiment that he had played his last Test innings. Some pointed to the day's Telegraph column from Michael Vaughan, which called for Joe Root to replace Compton at the head of the order.

Vaughan's better placed than I am to offer a technical opinion on Compton, although most player's faults are amplified by a few low scores. Anyone can parrot out the flaws that emerge in Alastair Cook when he's on a lean trot, and there are undiscovered tribes in the Amazon rainforest that have suggestions about KP's travails against left-arm spin.

The relevant point isn't about Compton, but an overall move towards instant herd response. Six innings ago he was coming off two centuries in a row. In all, he has batted 17 times for England for those two tons, plus a fifty. Pulling some random examples from recent history, Marcus Trescothick after 17 innings had one century and four fifties; Vaughan two half-centuries and one hundred (which came in his 17th innings); Ian Bell two hundreds and five fifties; Kevin Pietersen three fifties (in his first three innings) and two hundreds; Jonathan Trott two hundreds (one a double) and two fifties; Paul Collingwood three fifties and one hundred. Jonny Bairstow, who would retain a place in the "Compton for Root and KP back" scenario, has three fifties from his first 12 innings.

Judgement about players with so few caps is being made on something other than scores. The most interesting point made about Compton was that he might be the last player to be selected on weight of runs in county cricket, rather than emergence through England's age-group and Lions sides centrally controlled from Loughborough. In that respect he is an outsider.

Ask many of the voices writing him off about England's problems in the 1990s, or about the enigmatic international careers of Mark Ramprakash and Graeme Hick, and they will point to inconsistency of selection, the lack of central contracts, the desire to pull a rabbit from a hat rather than develop a player. Posit a situation where England change an opening partnership that they have spent a winter developing for the first Test of an Ashes series and they will point you back to those dark days.

The credo of Andy Flower's England is faith and consistency. The axe, when it comes, can seem cruel but it is never wielded on a snap judgement of a few bad innings. England now feel the rhythms around the game and respond to them, so if Compton goes it won't be for that scratchy 7. We don't need the debate around the game to become 606-like, either. It's okay to say you haven't made your mind up yet.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jon Hotten
Jon Hotten is the author of Muscle and The Years Of The Locust, neither of which is about cricket, and writes the blog The Old Batsman, which is. @theoldbatsman

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