January 22, 2014

When a six is not enough

How long before the mighty heave that clears the stadium is awarded more than half a dozen runs?

A record 65 sixes were hit in the 2013-14 Ashes series © Getty Images

It's an innate human quality to create sport. Prehistoric cave paintings depict early versions of wrestling, sprinting and archery. Games that evolved from crude contests of speed and strength now fill stadiums and generate billions of pounds, dollars and rupees in TV revenue and gate receipts.

Although cricket has come a long way from the overdressed and overfed gents rolling potato-shaped balls between gates defended by curved bats, we still love to debate its changes and its future. But whatever form cricket does take, and whatever complaints are made by the purists - despite "pure" being a misnomer in a game that has never been out of flux - there's always an improvised version of the norm in play. Whether it be a frenetic tape-ball game on an Indian street, the non-stop rallies played in school sports halls, or French cricket in the back garden, there is an inherent joy in hitting an spherical object with a length of wood.

Long before I ventured into the formal arena of a cut and watered wicket, stepping over a boundary rope that required me to wear whites and comply with umpires and ratified laws, I played most of my cricket on the side street of a scruffy industrial estate in the East Midlands. Bowling at a set of stumps graffitied onto a factory wall in black marker pen, and spanking a tennis ball with a splintered bat, I played for hours with friends at weekends when the machine floors silenced and we wouldn't be chased away by irate workers worried about their windows. While most English cricketers hibernated through the dark winter we played out an endless summer as the yellow streetlights gave off just enough illumination to see that incoming rubber delivery.

This Christmas holiday I took a stroll along that former tarmac stadium, and apart from how small it now seems, I realised that its particular contours may well have shaped my adult skills. Mid-on was always a pointless drive, as no matter how deft the footwork and the timing, the ball would invariably rebound directly back to the bowler. Scoring shots were best played square of the wicket, with a well-hit cut scooting down the alleyway for four, and a lifted pull shot the only possible six - discounting the "six-and-out" lofts that resulted in the reckless batsman risking life and limb retrieving the ball from the corrugated factory roofing. It's perhaps no surprise that these two strokes are my go-to run-getters.

Now the T20 format challenges every other morph of our gentle game, grown from the chalk downs of Hambledon, and so too do the dominant skills transfer and, as dear Geoffrey Boycott loves to harp, both pollute and enhance the longer formats. This Ashes series has broken all records for the tally of sixes, and aside from the woeful cricket on display from England, one must credit the muscular strokeplay of the Aussies - an array of shots (and attitude) honed in the IPL and the Big Bash.

Although I have written before about the "human ceiling" of performance, that we have physiological limits to how far and hard we can hit the ball, the six distance has yet to reach its pinnacle. In 1910, when Australian Joe Darling cleared the Adelaide field but not the ground, he became the first player to be awarded a Test six by simply lifting the ball over the rope - although he did reach his century in the old-fashioned way, by putting England bowler Jonnie Briggs into the nearby park - as the powers that be had decreed that this effort was now worthy of a maximum.

At what point does a ball clearing the boundary rope become worth more than just six runs? Should more runs be awarded for a skyrocketing ball launched over the floodlights? Mongoose bats even went so far as to put a £1 million wager on Marcus Trescothick clearing the Lord's pavilion, an effort yet to be matched since Albert Trott's projectile in 1899.

In Sports History: A Practical Guide, Martin Polley states that apart from experimentation, evolution, health and safety concerns and the growth of litigation, one of the most significant influences in rule-making over the last decade has been television.

Television is funded by sponsors who want their brand up in lights. I wonder if the bright idea of a "Coca-Cola Ten" has already been put forward by a savvy executive. How far away are we from a ring of red and white billboards being cleared for a double-figure score? Why not reward the mightiest biffs with more runs? Some fans may be aghast at this thought. Perhaps spectators in the 1910 crowd in Adelaide were outraged at the new-fangled idea of a six being awarded simply for clearing the boundary rope and not the stands.

Nature is in a constant state of change. So is cricket. As we alter our environment - or as our environment alters us - we adapt and, despite any initial grumblings, we ultimately accept. I'm no futurologist, but I do wonder what game I'll be watching in my retirement, and what scores will thrill the crowds of 2050 when balls are fizzing into the stratosphere.

Nicholas Hogg is a co-founder of the Authors Cricket Club. His first novel, Show Me the Sky, was nominated for the IMPAC literary award