February 25, 2014

Bigger, better? Sorry, no

Why does cricket have to succumb to the marketers' eternal need for everything to be bigger, flashier, and more in tune with youth - whatever that means?

Cricket: it's about lone men and their dogs too © Getty Images

My body has been failing me for years, but the first time I really became aware of growing old was listening to a debate on the future of English T20 cricket three or four years ago. It was essential, one of the combatants insisted, to streamline the competition and amalgamate counties into franchises. It's an argument often heard and, while I don't necessarily agree with it, I can at least see an economic logic. But then he started saying that creating glamorous, heavily marketed franchises with their own brand values was the only way to bring in a younger demographic. It was all about creating a new audience.

And that's when I lost patience. It's not just that the last thing I want to do is hang around with young people - or at least young people who act like marketing people believe young people act. I've put in the hard yards growing old and I've no intention of wasting those years of effort now. I've finally reached an age when nobody even tentatively says at the end of a nice meal out, "Should we go to a club?" Or if they do, they mean some members club with a nice quiet bar. Cricket, though, seems obsessed with young people, and I suppose marketers need to be. They are, after all, as Ignatius of Loyola pointed out, the future. But I always find it odd when an institution risks ostracising the audience it has in order to reach a putative new audience.

There is a strange gigantism in sport. Everything always has to be bigger and better (unless it's the list of Test-playing nations, in which case the principle of the self-interested closed shop overrides all else). Profits always have to be higher. There always have to be more people through the gates, more people watching on television, more games. And, of course, it must be nice to be popular.

But cricket undermined its World Cup on that principle and, although it seems to have recognised that, football is going the same way. There's an argument that the reason the last three football World Cups have been so disappointing is the expansion to 32 teams, and there's now talk of expanding again, to 40. The talk is that that makes it more inclusive, that more countries can take part, but that seems to miss the whole point of sporting contest, and ignores the fact that there is already a lengthy qualification process involving 203 nations (which is more than have seats at the UN). Sometimes smaller and more streamlined is good.

Some aspects of the presentation of limited-overs cricket, I confess, baffle me. I've nothing particularly against the bursts of music at every boundary, and walkout tunes, done with a level of irony, can be charming, but does that really draw in the mythical young people? If they want to listen to music, wouldn't they go to a concert - or "gig", as I believe they call them - or put on their iPods (a modern version of the Walkman), so they wouldn't have the annoyance of the sport and crowd noise getting in the way? Do the bursts of flame - pleasingly warm as they were at that freezing Champions Trophy semi-final between India and Sri Lanka in Cardiff last year - draw crowds? "Did you enjoy the cricket today, son? Who did you see? Sangakkara? Malinga? Dhoni? Kohli?" "Yes, but the best thing was the intermittent jets of fire..."

And even if they do, what does that say about the sport that it needs to be supported by such cheap props? Sport, ultimately, lives or dies on the quality of the competition. I'm not even sure you need the top stars for that: while the best sport sees the very best going head to head, I'd far rather watch two B-grade teams battling out a tight encounter than an A-grade side hammering a C-grade side. This year's T20 championship in England will be a test of that. Playing it on Friday nights over the course of the summer means it can't accumulate the biggest global stars in the way more concentrated tournaments can, but it also means it can become a regular part of people's weekly routine - in the way league football used to be before television started shunting fixtures around. But convenient scheduling and all the gimmicks in the world will mean nothing if the actual cricket isn't worth watching.

And this is where we come back to my old gittishness, and why I should probably be ignored when it comes to anything to do with the future of the game, if that future has to include huge crowds and young people. I went to four days of Test cricket last year - one at the Wanderers, two at Lord's and one at The Oval. This year I missed out on the Lord's ballot and when it came to applying for England v India tickets at The Oval, I hesitated. Last year, I went to the first day of the Ashes Test at The Oval. I confess I was having a bad day anyway, having slept badly and sat on my glasses that morning, but still, the experience of sitting in a cramped seat under a blazing sun without shade was thoroughly unpleasant and, head throbbing, I left at tea.

That's me, I realise, and some people like the sun and the compact beeriness. But my best days at cricket last year also came at The Oval, sitting in the shade for county games with a couple of mates, a few bottles of good wine and nobody anywhere near us. I realise we'll never make anybody a fortune, but I hope cricket isn't just an endless marketing quest for young people but always has a place for misanthropes with flexible working hours.

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