June 14, 2013

What's not fun about watching first-class cricket?

It's important to attend a game or two for the sake of your health and happiness. Get to it

There's plenty else to do at a cricket match than just watching the action © Getty Images

I have not watched a single ball of this ICC Champions Trophy. I don't know what it is. A mini-World Cup? What's the point of it? Is it not just another cash cow, more "product" for television stations to sell advertisements on, for bookmakers to run markets about, for players to make a buck playing yet more of these interminable, never-ending short-form games?

Rhetorical questions for another time.

For now I'm going into bat for "slow" cricket. Long-form cricket. First-class and Test cricket that is played across days and has a narrative more detailed - and, you know, interesting - than how many sixes Chris Gayle can whack in an hour.

A couple of years ago a mate and I went to the Sydney Cricket Ground to watch New South Wales play Tasmania in a Sheffield Shield match. We were among the handful of spectators hearing the sound of the cricket ball as it hit the middle of Ricky Ponting's bat when he played his signature pull shot. It was a thump combined with a crack, the distinctive, visceral noise of cricket combat. THRACCCKKK! And in the giant chamber of an empty SCG, it echoed like Ponting had belted Big Ben's bell.

There we were, me and my mate, at the grand old dame of the SCG, watching the best Australian batsman since Bradman facing a fired-up Doug Bollinger on a green Mamba of a wicket. Bollinger was pressing to play in the first Ashes Test; Ponting was battling to keep his head. It was Blues versus Tigers in the Shield. And it was fine cricket: combative, skilled, and hot-blooded.

Yet there were perhaps 24 people there to watch. Curious, isn't it? Two dozen spectators had a near-private audience watching some of the best cricketers in the world. Dotted around the MA Noble Stand were the purists and one-percenters. A couple had the wireless in the ear. One bloke had a scorebook.

Because these people knew. They understood. They had paid $5 to watch world-class cricket. The reason they call it "first-class" cricket is because it's bloody top class. If you're playing first-class cricket in Australia you've reached the very pinnacle of a massive pyramid. You're less than 1%. You're elite.

Yet there was no one there to watch. And as I sat there with my mate Henry (one of those relatively rare Kiwis who loves the summer game), I wondered, "Why wouldn't you come out and watch this?" A cover drive in first-class cricket is as technically pure and well-timed as one you'll see in a Test match. And while space is a place where no one can hear you scream, in an empty SCG you can hear everything: Dougie geeing up Mark Cosgrove; Shane Watson swearing when he beat the bat; the whip-crack of Ponting's blade as a cricket ball cannoned off the middle.

Sure, most of these games are on a school day. But long-form cricket is played over seven hours. You can get out at lunch time or knock off work at 4pm and still see a lot of top-class cricket. After tea it's free. Free! What else is free in life?

Besides, people work too hard. It's acknowledged by Acknowledged Experts that Australians are working too long and that their quality of life is lesser for it. What's the point of living in the Lucky Country if you can't see some cricket? You can't have the odd hump-day afternoon off? That's madness.

In that particular match, a low-scoring affair in which only one batsman passed 40, it was anyone's game throughout. Bollinger bounced Cosgrove. Watson took five wickets. A white-haired swashbuckler called Scott Coyte bowled quick from not many steps. Another new bloke, Trent Copeland, the quickest New South Welshman to 50 wickets since Herbert "Ranji" Hordern in 1911, bowled McGrath-esque lines. On the last day the Tigers lost wickets as they chased not many. It was compelling stuff.

Luke Butterworth stood tall. He hit a bunch of cracking square cuts, the ball whistling to the boundary backward of point. If he'd played them at the MCG on day one of the Boxing Day Test, 90,000 people would have roared. At the SCG on a Thursday afternoon, one person applauded.

Why have they have built this and no one comes? Too boring? Not exciting enough? Friend - bring it in close. There is an art to watching first-class, "slow" cricket, and it is this: no person alive can watch all six hours of cricket straight. As Ian Healy advises young keepers, you need to switch on and switch off. When the bowler is coming, watch the action. Once the action is done, turn away, talk to your mate, read the paper, ring your mum, read a cricket magazine, or any number of things Cricket Watchers Who Know engage in while the action on the field is in hiatus. Long-form cricket is like slow food: satisfying and more than the sum of its parts. It's physical chess with a narrative. T20 is checkers in the nude on drugs.

And so Henry and I drank beer and punted on horses as the game reached its climax. The Blues had been on top most of the day but Tasmania hung in. The deck was still doing a bit. Nine wickets down and Butterworth started swinging. His powerful hitting - cricket shots all - spread the field. Copeland was bowling straight. Hauritz grassed one at third slip. Bollinger charged in the only way he knows. But Butterworth was ready. He swung and hit Big Doug for 2, 4 and then a massive six over midwicket. The game was Tasmania's. The players run out of the dressing cock-a-hoop. And the same lone spectator clapped.


Matt Cleary writes for several Australian sports and travel magazines. He tweets here