February 29, 2016

Indoor cricket at the Olympics?

If the collisions don't leave you befuddled, the rules will

Good for when the weather is inclement but maybe not for a tournament of globally epic proportions © AFP

Cricket dependency can be a pitiful sight to behold. While club cricketers with a second sport to fall back on can normally function during the winter months as contented and even useful members of their community, it's a different matter for those for whom cricket is the one and only. The prospect of having to survive till spring without a cricket fix can, in the most serious cases, prove an almost unbearable burden.

Not surprising, then, that some committed souls seize on any possibility of feeding the cricket habit during the off season in the vain hope of maintaining a semblance of form and thus, come April, "hitting the ground running". Come to that, any sort of metaphorical forward movement would be desirable - jogging, walking, or even crawling.

Nets are the most common manifestation of this relatively harmless intent. Why stop, though, at mere net practice? Why not go one step further and get match practice? While your bitter rivals in Next Village CC slumber in front of the log fire, why not steal a march on them, turning out on Sunday evenings to hone team skills, mental and technical, in the "pressure-cooker situation" of games held in cavernous draughty leisure centres, fielding "tracer bullet" straight drives off the zero-absorption rock-hard playing surface?

It's not merely amateurs who are contemplating its possibilities: indoor cricket featured on the international agenda late last year when the Telegraph announced that it was being considered by the ICC as a possible Olympic alternative to the traditional T20 (two words that are rarely placed together) format. Facilities would be easier to produce, games would be faster: a more attractive prospect for host cities with no cricket history. At the very least, it might sound a cry in the wilderness and prepare the way for the real thing, capturing the imagination of audiences, the hearts of viewers, and the cash - correction, investment - of potential participating countries. Could this be the "gateway drug" to seduce the masses?

Drop the ball at your feet, scamper to the other end, and you score two. Hit a majestic lofted straight drive, easily six in any outdoor match, and you score zero

Your rules may vary. One common variant that I've experienced is essentially pairs cricket, played on an enclosed netted area, on an absorptive surface. Something along those lines appears to be the format used by the World Indoor Cricket Federation. No pads are needed, although gloves are typically worn; swing and spin is possible with the softish leather ball.

More recently, though, with my local club scraping the barrel for players, and my own habit needing feeding, I had the opportunity to sample the delights of the other main variant: hard surface, hard orange ball - as the fingers rapidly discover. And those were just the obvious differences.

Take the rules regarding scoring - which can vary from league to league, even venue to venue. Drop the ball at your feet, scamper to the other end, and you score two. Rock back to crash a short delivery to the midwicket wall and your score will advance by one. Nudge the ball through the slips to the wall and you receive three. Hit a majestic lofted straight drive, easily six in any outdoor match, and you score zero. Wides count as two and normally require no extra delivery. Enforced retirement at 25, but last man stands.

It wasn't quite tangerine trees and marmalade skies territory but nevertheless after a while the impression was that a committee had sat down and said to themselves: "Cricket is too easy to understand. Is there any way we can reduce the comprehensibility quotient?" If it takes seasoned cricketers a while to get their heads around all these modifications, what chance for newcomers?

More importantly, is the game still sufficiently similar to the real thing to merit bearing the name of cricket? If it is to be a staging post rather than a destination, how will onward progress be encouraged - both of players and spectators? Peter Borren, captain of Netherlands, pointed out that in that country, whatever format is chosen for the Olympics would be the one that receives focus, to the neglect of other forms of the game. In his words: "We would literally give up on normal cricket." I therefore wouldn't hold out much hope for anyone moving far along the no cricket-indoor cricket-T20 cricket-Test cricket pathway.

It's even more confuddling if the game, already suffering an identity crisis, suddenly morphs into other sports - such as rugby, which it did on this occasion for about four seconds. Intercepting a nudge to mid-on, in a subconscious attempt to emulate Jonty Rhodes' famous 1992 run-out I decided to run to the wicket rather than risk a shy from square-on. Sure enough, as I homed in on the stumps I became airborne - just like Jonty. Unlike Jonty, this was due not so much to any Superman leaping on my part, as it was to the fact that the batsman and I momentarily attempted to occupy the same point in space, with dramatic results.

Shorter than the shortest format © Getty Images

I had never had cause to doubt that force is equal to mass times acceleration, but in any case, the resulting interaction eloquently demonstrated that Newton knew his onions. The batsman, while nowhere near Inzamam proportions, nevertheless had sufficient momentum to force the abrupt acceleration of my mass into a non-grounded state, creating a triple collision of batsman, bowler, and umpire, and prompting an unscheduled Strategic Time Out for all concerned.

Officiating, incidentally, struck me as a considerably riskier business than it is out in the open: it must be hard enough with the ball ricocheting around at high velocity in suspect lighting, without the added hazard of flying players. And off the court (a better term than "field", considering the absence of any natural features), there were the usual administrative headaches for them, with one team simply not turning up. That isn't an idiom: they literally forgot they were meant to be playing. Badly managed as some international teams are, even I can't imagine a no-show due to a forgetful team manager - though a pay dispute might be another matter.

So is this the gateway drug that will entrance millions of Olympic Games viewers? Well, if you take "drug" to imply "something that produces momentary excitement whilst causing significant damage", then yes. If you take it to mean "something addictively pleasurable that you want to experience again at the earliest opportunity", perhaps not.

Indoor cricket is not the accelerated solution the ICC should force on the masses. We can be thankful, then, that the International Olympic Committee apparently poured tepid, if not icy, water on the idea, emphasising that it would only accept a form that included the best players. Call me cynical, but I don't think Steve Smith, Joe Root, Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson will be falling over themselves (or crashing into each other) in a rush to play glorified knockabouts.

As an exercise for helping club cricketers keep their eye in, it has undoubted merit - though it requires effort for our motley crew to "take the positives" as we limp out with our catalogue of injuries. A format worthy of the prestige of the Olympics, it isn't.

I wonder what EW Swanton would have made of it. It's cricket, Jim, but not as we know it.

Liam Cromar is a freelance cricket writer based in Herefordshire, UK @LiamCromar