June 4, 2009

Bringing the monster back home

When it comes to bringing its invented games back home in triumph, few countries could possibly boast a worse track record than England

From Association Football to Eton Fives, no country in the world has proven more adept at inventing and exporting new sports than England. But when it comes to bringing those games back home in triumph, few countries could possibly boast a worse track record.

Twenty20 cricket is the latest in a long line of sports to "come home" to England this week, but it is being made to feel about as welcome as a cane toad in a Brisbane living-room. If you were to ask your average English fan to name this month's big sporting events, the Lions tour of South Africa would probably share top billing with Wimbledon, with an honourable mention for Royal Ascot and the British Grand Prix. Does the prospect of a three-week, 12-team global cricket festival really whet the nation's appetite? Worryingly, I think we already know the answer to that one.

England's attitude to a form of the game they devised in 2003 is as apologetic as Albert Einstein's attitude to the Atom Bomb. An exceptional invention, subverted beyond the imagination of its creator, and now apparently threatening the very thing it was designed to help save. England's failure to embrace the shortest format - in defiance of the crowd-pleasing evidence from the domestic Twenty20 Cup - stems from a deep-rooted suspicion of the monster they've created.

Put simply, Twenty20's combination of money and brevity is seen as a direct threat to everything that England holds dear about cricket, namely the rhythm and history of Test matches - or, put more simply still, the Ashes, which is the only contest that really counts in England this summer. Everything revolves around the recapturing of the urn, because there is a misguided assumption that only a glorious repeat of the 2005 series will suffice to hoist Test cricket back to the pinnacle upon which it once belonged.

It is a damaging fallacy and one, ironically, that England's own Ashes foes would never condone. Australia haven't failed to reach the final of the 50-over World Cup since 1992, and they've won the last three crowns in a row from 1999 onwards - a run of form that hasn't exactly detracted from their ability to win Test matches. Coincidentally, the first of those victories was achieved at Lord's, in a tournament that England disgraced on numerous levels, starting with quite possibly the worst opening ceremony ever witnessed at a top-level international event.

The ECB's plans this time round are a closely guarded secret, and little wonder. Back then, a host of soggy fireworks turned the Lord's outfield into a civil war re-enactment society, a loosely connected microphone fused midway through Tony Blair's curtain-raising speech, and the team bombed out in the first round, the day before the official tournament song had been released. In the course of the tournament, England showed a complacent indifference to the fact that the eyes of the world were upon them. A decade on, and have those lessons really be learnt?

Not if the words of the then-ECB chairman, Lord MacLaurin, are anything to go by. Writing in this month's Wisden Cricketer, he stated that "Twenty20 should be kept in its box", as if it was some uppity underling with too much ambition for the office senior to handle. "I should say that I count myself among the traditionalists who didn't want any lessening of the game of cricket," he said. "It mustn't be the be-all and end-all of cricket. That should be Test matches. I would hate to see Twenty20 become the biggest form of cricket."

'England's attitude to a form of the game they devised in 2003 is as apologetic as Albert Einstein's attitude to the Atom Bomb. An exceptional invention, subverted beyond the imagination of its creator, and now apparently threatening the very thing it was designed to help save'

It's such a misguided attitude. You can't maintain quality by suppressing competition. To witness Lord's and Trent Bridge glowing under fully-functional, permanent floodlights, and to see The Oval bursting at the seams with 23,000 fanatical Indian and Pakistani supporters, was to be reminded that a major sporting event really has arrived on England's shores, and that surely has to be celebrated.

But why then, were there a mere 9200 punters at Lord's on Wednesday evening to watch Luke Wright and Ravi Bopara batter England to a nine-wicket win over West Indies? The choice of opponents clearly had something to do with the lack of interest - 17 encounters between the two sides in four months takes familiarity to contemptuous levels - but the admission price of £30 clearly didn't help the cause either. In 2007, the tournament organiser, Steve Elworthy, arranged for first-round tickets to be available for as little as £1.50. And there was scarcely a spare seat in any house.

Exchange rates aren't quite that favourable in England, but would it really have hurt to throw the gates open for a fiver, and encourage people to drum up enthusiasm for a competition that, in the words of Elworthy, is "a development product … for attracting new markets and new fans." England owes it to the sport it spawned to get with the programme and put together a tournament to remember, because the game is not going to stand still and wait for the old country to make its mind up.

Instead, the opportunity to capture a new audience is being allowed to drift by. Take the marketing for instance - about the only advertisement that has been remotely visible in the past weeks and months has been an ambiguous poster of an old buffer with St George's Crosses painted on his cheeks. What on earth is the message that that is trying to get across? Don't be afraid? Even old farts know how to barn-dance? Thanks for the hard sell, guys. Sadly, in this country, Twenty20 cricket is still being regarded as mutton dressed as lamb.

Trying suggesting that to Lalit Modi. The recently concluded Indian Premier League was not a competition without its faults, especially given the political problems that forced it to relocate to South Africa, but the successful exporting of one-year-old franchises such as Deccan Chargers and Chennai Super Kings gave the lie to Giles Clarke's assertion last summer that cricket fans are not interested in "made-up sides".

As global franchises such as Real Madrid and Manchester United have already shown, sporting allegiance does not have to be dictated by national boundaries. That may have been the formula that has worked for cricket until now, but let's be honest, the contests that have taken place in England so far this summer has been dire mismatches, thanks in no small part to a West Indies side that didn't even want to be here.

Even at full focus, West Indies struggle to match the game's big guns, just as the likes of Hull City and West Brom fail to keep up with Chelsea and Liverpool. And yet, West Indies aren't even the biggest stragglers on the international scene - Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and Kenya exist in various shades of grey, while the up-and-coming Ireland feel their heads banging against a glass ceiling, as they lose their best players to England, time and time again.

The atmosphere of India's clash with Pakistan at The Oval demonstrated just what is possible when two fully-focussed nations go head to head - that very same visceral thrill turned England into Ashes junkies in 2005. But ever since that summer England have been as guilty as any nation of neglecting the form of the game that they profess to hold most dear, through a refusal to engage fully with any contest beneath the most glorious.

It's a sad fact that there are more viable IPL franchises than international outfits in the modern game. Old-school cricket needs a showcase like never before in the coming weeks, and the onus is on England to provide it. This month, it must finally be accepted that Twenty20 is not the enemy. It is the only realistic path to salvation.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

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