February 13, 2014

Cricket's constantly unfolding narrative

It may feel as though the game is at the peak of its evolution but it's only a matter of time before current events seem dated

Cricket Max: a prescient and early version of T20 © Getty Images

My friend Simon Massey was a terrific cricketer and a man with the game in his soul. After he passed away cruelly at the end of 2011, his mum and dad gave me a bundle of his old cricket magazines, and I pulled one out at random today: Wisden Cricket Monthly, December 1997, cover price £2.60. On the front is a full-face (and what a full face it is, boom boom…) image of youthful blond bombshell Shane Warne along with a cut-out of Steve James, Glamorgan daffodil centred on his helmet and playing an on-drive with his trusty Stuart Surridge blade. "One of these two is our man of the season," runs the cover line. "Guess who?"

Inside it's a freeze-frame cornucopia of detail that, if not yet period, feels generationally different and undoubtedly more innocent (despite the three-page dissection of the Shakoor Rana affair and a letter, name withheld, from a former professional cricketer admitting to smoking dope). That letters page carries no email address, Brian Lara appears in a small ad for the limited edition, leather-bound 1997 Almanack, Geoffrey Boycott extols the virtues of the Notts Sports Non-Turf Pitch. The Christmas Gift Guide ("64 Ideas For Xmas") includes Jack Potter's Bowling Training Strap for £9 and - a stroke of genius this, bring it back - the Hunts Custom Batmaking Kit: for £120 you get a "top-grade pressed splice, rough shaped blade, turned handle and a comprehensive instruction leaflet".

More telling are two intimations of the future. The four-page Alan Lee Report is on "The England Teem", pun most definitely intended, an examination of coach David Lloyd's support system. "The national side has begun to resemble a job-creation scheme. What's going on?" Lee asks, before revealing that the ECB now has an office staff of 44 (what did they all do?). He notes the arrival of a press officer, a logistics officer, a fitness consultant and a young technical director by the name of Hugh Morris. The seeds of 80 pages of cous cous recipes are here.

Most serendipitously of all, on the day of the IPL auction, is a lead news item on England's defeat in their first Cricket Max series in New Zealand. The invention of Martin Crowe, one of cricket's most original and enquiring minds, Cricket Max was a prescient and early version of T20, a game that, as WCM reports, "incorporates most of the tricks of floodlit cricket and adds some of its own". It had a ten-over, two-innings-per-side format that included the "Max Zone", where all hits counted double.

An England side that featured Phil DeFreitas, Chris Lewis and Robin Smith lost 2-1 to Roger Twose's New Zealand and the series produced some futuristic figures. Mark Alleyne managed to score 24 from three balls and concede 31 in a single over.

It was an idea ahead of its time, and as the simplicity of the T20 revolution showed, it was probably a little over-thought. Media coverage was scant, a tour game featuring the New South Wales state side gained more column inches.

What a magazine issue like this one shows most of all is that our present is never quite what we think it is. It may feel as though we are at the peak of evolution, the end of the story, when in fact the narrative is ongoing. Everything we have will soon feel as dated and distant as cricket in December 1997 does now.

And the man of the season? Well that was Steve James, who saw off Shane Warne and three other Aussies in the readers' vote for the top 11 players of the year. A young cricketer named Charlotte Edwards polled a single vote. A further glimpse of the future right there.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here