December 2, 2013

The grass must be green, the strip yellow

Unlike most other sports, cricket needs to look right to its fans, from the colour of the grass, the pitch and the stumps to the quality of the light

In the spectator's mind, every series has a colour chart © Getty Images

I don't like those yellow stumps. Of all the things that were wrong with the first Test between Australia and England at the Gabba, the most wrong was the colour of the stumps. This is not, I realise, the sort of issue that's going to rally others to the barricades, or having them marching on to Dubai, but still, it seems to matter.

Cricket, more than any other game, with the possible exception of golf, is reliant on its aesthetic. A golf course may be a stunning test but it needs to look right as well: it needs to have the bleakness of the dunes or the manicured beauty of a park; it can't just be strips of grass of various lengths and the odd sandpit laid out in a car park. Similarly cricket, perhaps because of the length of time it's on, the way that for those of us watching on television it inhabits a corner of the room for hours at a time, has to get the aesthetic right.

Now that's not something that's simple to explain. It's not necessarily about looking beautiful. Some grounds do, of course: Lumley Castle looming over the Riverside at Chester-le-Street, redolent of the ghosts of Shane Watsons past; the pavilion at Lord's, reeking of history and daring batsmen to repeat Albert Trott's feat of striking the ball over it; the fort frowning over the inadequate ticketing arrangements at Galle. That's part of it, and you wonder with a sense of unease how the redevelopment at Adelaide will pan out.

But there's also a place in the aesthetic for the more functional: the concrete ring of the Gabba, the old brick pavilion at Headingley that seemed to have been designed to evoke an ordinary semi on a 1960s housing estate, the towering stands of the Wanderers. Some grounds manage to combine both: Cape Town has both Table Mountain and that brewery. But it's not really about prettiness or ugliness - it's about appropriateness. And that, of course, is a meaningless term, because it's so subjective.

I remember watching England's three-wicket defeat to West Indies in Port-of-Spain in 1998 and having the nagging sensation of having been there, even though I knew I'd never been to the Caribbean. Eventually, midway through the morning of the fifth day, as Carl Hooper compiled a match-winning 94 not out, it dawned on me: there was something about the Queen's Park Oval that reminded me of the bus station in Dharamsala in northern India. In part, perhaps, it was the deep maroonish-brown supports on the stand, but primarily the similarity was something to do with the quality of the light.

For Australia, the grass needed to be a rich green and the strip a sandy yellow; the sound needed a strange echoiness; there had to be needlessly bright computer graphics and a cartoon duck accompanying batsmen who had made nought off the pitch

That, in turn, sparked a greater revelation, which is that every tour England go on has its own light quality: the dusty shimmer of Pakistan, the damp greens of New Zealand, the heavy, saturated brightness of Sri Lanka. Of course it wasn't constant, of course it changed from ground to ground, from day to day, but there was still a colour chart for each series.

And for Australia, for like all England fans of my generation, it was on the grand slam tour of 1986-87 that I really began to obsess about such things, there was a very clear aesthetic. The grass needed to be a rich green and the strip a sandy yellow; the sound needed a strange echoiness; there had to be needlessly bright computer graphics and a cartoon duck accompanying batsmen who had made nought off the pitch ("Why do they do that, Dad?" I asked. "They're a childish people, the Australians," he said, with a glance over his newspaper); the higher stands meant a higher camera angle that emphasised how far back the wicketkeeper was standing, and the majority of the advertising hoardings had to be garish yellow to fit the Benson and Hedges sponsorship.

But amid all the differences, one thing remained comfortingly the same: the stumps were made, overtly, of wood. And, more than that, it was pale wood, not the dark, heavily varnished wood of the spring wickets we used at school. Because pale wood was what proper players used. Not dark wood. And definitely, absolutely, categorically not yellow-coated wood.

I reckon if you showed me an inch square of footage from any football World Cup from 1950 to 1998, I could tell you which tournament it was, provided I could see grass (more recently, as everything's become homogenised, it's much harder). I like the fact that cricket used to be the same, each with their own unique characteristics, so that at a glance you could see which country the game was being played in (for instance, the small clip of Sachin Tendulkar batting in Slumdog Millionaire, which is said to be in Mumbai, clearly isn't: the shade of green is wrong; it's blatantly Stormont green).

I realise, of course, that what I'm saying is that I want everything to be the same as it was in the eighties and nineties, and that things shouldn't change from the moment at which I decided they felt right, and that that essentially is ridiculous.

But, on the other hand, those stumps were yellow.

Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Fox. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Online on December 5, 2013, 14:49 GMT

    (contd)... Lastly, I used to love how the scores and stats were presented in the past. The current score was in a little box in the top right hand corner and it always said for e.g. 173/5 (44.2 Ovrs) with the other team's score just below it, unlike in modern times where you get only get the "target" running in a single line at the bottom. A player's stats were shown as soon as he came in, at the bottom in a wide row at the bottom. Nowadays it almost always has the player's photo and is shown on the right side of the screen. Good old days, sadly we are never going to get them back.

  • Online on December 5, 2013, 14:43 GMT

    Well, well, well, who've we got here! Like 9ST9 I too used to doubt my sanity as I was spent my time focussing on such details. It wasn't always only the game, it was everything the game brought including the viewing experience. I used to marvel at the green pitches in England, Aus, NZL and SA and wonder why, despite being a lush green tropical country, Sri Lanka couldn't reproduce similar pitches. Even the pitches in Kandy, with its relatively cooler and cloudy weather in the Sri Lankan hills are still parches bare when compared to the pitches in the Northern and Southern hemisphere. That said, my main attraction was the on-screen graphics. You could tell who the home side are by the colour of the screens. When Sri Lanka played at home the screen colours were always dark blue and white with black text and if I'm not mistaken with Times New Roman font. It wasn't my favourite as other countries had more appealing graphics.

  • Gopalakrishna on December 3, 2013, 22:36 GMT

    This article resonates what and how actually every sport has it's own attraction to me. I love and strongly love only few sports cricket, Tennis and football (not American). The esthetics of these sports is unique and have very fond memories. Specially the duck tale tale that this author referred to and the answer he got from his Dad. I love this article and the soul in it. Nice thing mate, please write these kind of things in the midst of great series like Ashes, India vs Pakistan, Australia Vs India, so those series bring fond memories back. My big thank you to you.

  • Prateek on December 3, 2013, 21:14 GMT

    What a wonderful piece. I have always recognized the unique pictures that came from different countries and it was easy to tell what country (if not exact stadium) the match was played in. It is still possible to quite an extent but I couldn't have imagined of turning that somewhat subconscious understanding into a delightful article. Kudos!

  • Art on December 3, 2013, 17:39 GMT

    Lovely article. I hate the advertising on the very stumps themselves.

    One thing though:

    "But it's not really about prettiness or ugliness - it's about appropriateness. And that, of course, is a meaningless term, because it's so subjective."

    The fact that it's subjective doesn't make it meaningless. In fact, most things that matter are subjective!

  • Cyril on December 3, 2013, 14:47 GMT

    The only sight in world sport that beats a cricket match is the peloton descending a mounting, the flashes of blurred lycra snaking away. If you haven't seen it you must, the speed, colours and elegance are amazing, quite emotional when paired with a tremendous landscape.

    Aesthetics are so important in cricket, especially in a sparsely populated county ground. Some views just don't feel right. I feel thoroughly dislike the view of the field from the school side of The Oval, but adore the view from under the old scoreboard. Lord's loses a bit of its charm watching from the pavilion end. Edgbaston is better empty than filled with drunk T20 morons.

    The yellow stumps are ghastly and as the lovely picture shows appear invisible, not part of the game. Perhaps a better picture to illustrate the point, or was this it?

  • Anurag on December 3, 2013, 10:08 GMT

    Wow this article sooo resonates with my very reasons for watching sport!

    Some sports, for instance tennis, literally scream out where the match is being played, for the court could be anything from red to green to blue. But that colour chart for each country you speak of is so true, yes the green dampness of NZ, the overcastness of England, the brightness of SL! I think even the specific TV channels broadcasting the match contribute to that.

    I'd thrown in the sounds as well as they add to that feel of the venue - the commentators' accents in South Africa and Australia, the music in West Indies and SL, the crowds in India.

    Now all these venues are in different continents, but watching football played at stadia just a few miles away from each other is also so different. Just the shape of the stands, the colours of the crowds, the cut of the grass, the angle of the camera, the advertising boards, and most importantly the chants makes each one so distinctive and identifiable!

  • Dummy4 on December 3, 2013, 8:51 GMT

    Great article, you really need to get into the atmosphere to truly enjoy cricket, its not just about seeing bowl hit the bat.

  • Vinod on December 3, 2013, 4:32 GMT

    yes, aesthetics are important. this is why the cricket down under looks beautiful. yes, beautiful. regardless if IND is playing or not, I always make it a point to watch cricket down under because it is simply beautiful. fantastic grounds, colorful stands, and the happiness all around. can't wait for Thurs.

  • sachit on December 3, 2013, 3:28 GMT

    What a great article. I always doubted my sanity as I have been obsessing with such details for 17 years now. It's comforting to know that there are other people that are so much into cricket that, other than the actual game itself they pay attention to the finer aspects. The best thing about cricket is the regularity. If it was May - July it was the English season with lush green outfields, alternating sun, players with sweaters, the quiet and appreciative crowd clapping gently, Atherton at slip rubbing his arms together (in the 90s) and the voice of Geoff Boycott. In December with the holiday cheer comes the Aussie season with the green outfields, light and hard looking decks, the voices of Benaud, Lawry and Greig, with the score appearing at the bottom left of your screen. Contd.

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