May 19, 2009

Gayle spake as he saw

Why the West Indies captain's pronouncements reflect the actions of cricket's administrators

One of the abiding gripes of the hard-bitten hack is the sheer monotony of modern playerspeak. Another day, another press conference consisting of the bleeding obvious, reliant on liberal use of the words "hopefully" ("hopefully we'll win") and "obviously" ("obviously, hopefully we'll win"), with maybe a few "good areas" thrown in. Perhaps the last time a press conference made news was 20 years ago, and not even then for what was said, but rather what was done, David Gower hurrying from his inquisitors at Lord's to attend Anything Goes, thus transiting from one mainly pointless farce to another.

On the other hand, maybe it's no wonder that players say so little given the response when they actually do. Witness Chris Gayle, who generally troubles to move his lips as much as his feet, but who on the eve of the Test at Riverside wearily confessed in an interview with the Guardian that the West Indies' captaincy was "not something I'm looking to hang on to", and that he "wouldn't be so sad" if Test cricket faded away, although some English opponents such as Andrew Strauss "would be sad" because they lacked the panache necessary for Twenty20.

Cue shocked reactions all round, the knightly duo Sir Vivian Richards and Sir Garry Sobers standing up for Test cricket's epic grandeur, their old mucka Clive Lloyd having already chastised Gayle for arriving hot-foot from representing the Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL.

English fondness for periodic fits of morality was also confirmed, Simon Wilde opining in the Sunday Times that Gayle was "not a leader and never has been", and Steve James in the Sunday Telegraph that he certainly shouldn't be a leader any longer: "Gayle is hardly one of the game's great thinkers. But he is a Test captain of a major nation. And with that comes a certain responsibility. He has abdicated that quite astonishingly."

Yet West Indies is not a nation; it is a region, and a troubled one at that, whose cricket has in recent years seemed at constant risk of falling apart, which would have wearied a skipper of sterner stuff than Gayle. And the fact is, not everyone wants to be a Test match captain - even Allan Border, who captained Australia in more Tests than anybody else, did not want the job, and took a long time to feel comfortable in it. Had Border been held to Steve James' standards of responsibility, his tenure wouldn't have lasted a year.

The last of Gayle's grumblings, meanwhile, obviously breached that quaint sporting omerta concerning comment about rivals. Last night after watching my Aussie Rules team, Geelong, annihilate its opponents, I saw our star midfielder Jimmy Bartel respond to the obvious statement from the television interviewer that it had been a one-sided affair. "No, they took the game right up to us," he insisted, failing utterly to strike a tone of sincerity, but participating obediently in the charade that every opponent is equally respected and every victory is a brand from the burning.

Frankly if the alternative is such phoniness, give me Gayle's candour every time. For that matter, give me Strauss's initial candour in chiding Gayle for his belated arrival, which probably coaxed his rival into a little tit-for-tattle. Test cricket looks dour enough at Riverside without honestly held opinion, even annoyance, being held back too.

The chief beef with Gayle, of course, is his breach of that politesse about the "primacy of Test cricket". But why the sense of affront? A Professional Cricketers' Association survey last year confirmed that more than a third of English first-class players would consider retiring early to take the opportunity to play in the IPL, and a further fifth would court banning, by playing in the Indian Cricket League. Responding to a March survey by the Australian Cricketers' Association, fewer than half of Australia's elite cricketers believed that representing their country would be the ultimate professional accolade in decade.

Personally I consider Gayle mistaken. I believe Test cricket's welfare matters a great deal, for it is the most thorough and exacting examination of the overall quality of a cricketer. But it also benefits nobody if the "primacy of Test cricket" is upheld simply by a polite public agreement not to say otherwise, especially if it is simultaneously being undermined by those who run the game.

Personally I consider Gayle mistaken. I believe Test cricket's welfare matters a great deal, for it is the most thorough and exacting examination of the overall quality of a cricketer. But it also benefits nobody if the "primacy of Test cricket" is upheld simply by a polite public agreement not to say otherwise

For a belief in the "primacy of Test cricket" hardly seems to be shared by Gayle's employer, the WICB, which cheered on as tens of Allen Stanford's mysteriously-gotten millions were lavished on Twenty20 cricket in their region, yet who had to cancel a Test three months ago because the Viv Richards Stadium wasn't fit to graze cattle on.

Nor does the idea that cricket concerns more than merely maximising revenue strike much of a chord with Gayle's hosts, the ECB, which also threw in its lot with Stanford, having studiously sealed Test cricket off from a mass audience by selling broadcast rights to Rupert Murdoch, and putting Dick Turpin and Black Bess in the shade by the highway robbery of their ticket prices.

Heaven knows there aren't many believers in Test cricket at the BCCI, which provides the lion's share of global cricket revenue while seeing to it that six weeks' involvement in the IPL earns most participants more than they stand to make from international cricket for the rest of the year - which cannot but cause any cricketer to reconsider his priorities.

Down here I'm not entirely sure what administrators believe. Last week, for example, I made enquiries with Cricket Australia about when they might be selling a DVD of the recent Australia-South Africa series - the best of recent years, and the best I can remember here. "Naaah," came the answering drawl from the marketing department: Aussies won't buy DVDs of series that their team have lost. I wonder where the empirical verification for that conventional wisdom came from, given that Australia have lost only one other home series in 20 years. But so much for celebrating some of the most absorbing Test matches that Australia have ever played.

In speaking his piece, then, all Gayle has done is leave the hypocrisy to others, and taken global cricket administration at its actions rather than its words. If similar questions began generating similarly honest answers from others, then cricketers might actually be worth listening to again.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Alan on May 20, 2009, 18:59 GMT

    I think you've made a lot of very good points in this article. I too felt that the reaction to Gayle saying he "wouldn't be sad" if test cricket died was more tinged with annoyance that someone had broken rank and gone against accepted opinion than actually being offended by what was said. It was almost like "right, for siding with that blooming indian lot, yer barred. you know the rules."

    I too agree Test cricket is the most exciting, it's engrossing and a good one develops over each day into a nervy climax but I do not demand everyone to accept my opinion. Just as, a majority I'm sure, some batsmen prefer test cricket, they still play ODIs and T20 so why can't it work the other way? Would Pietersen or Tendulkar or Gilchrist be thrown out the IPL for saying he prefers tests and wouldn't be bothered had T20 not been invented? I think not.

  • Alex on May 19, 2009, 21:40 GMT

    As Chris would say 'Don't mind Chris' or 'Don't sleep with Chris on his mind' or similar. Chris most definitely spake as he saw - good for all he was his usual soporific self at the end of the series then. WI lose the Wisden trophy after a hard-fought home triumph and the only benefactors are the ECB who can say they are preparing England well for the Ashes and Sky who have filled their cricket quota for the early season. If Sky could bid enough for the IPL then harmony would be restored with the usual suspects sitting pretty with their monopolies and the game better off without the commercial competition.

  • Oliver on May 19, 2009, 18:51 GMT

    "JohnBaxter", whether your argument for Test Cricket being "retired" is sound or not, only time will tell. As a huge Test fan, I sincerely hope you're wrong! And of course Gayle is entitled to his view, and maybe he is right; but he absolutely should NOT be applauded for airing his views *in the way he did*, on the eve of a Test - what kind of leadership is that? What kind of an example is that for his players? That's the reason Gayle has lost respect, not because he dislikes Test cricket per se, and that's why he should in any sensible world be sacked immediately as Test captain.

  • Mohamed on May 19, 2009, 16:47 GMT

    Good article. I do believe that there was a lot more to Gayle's comments that just speaking how he truly felt about Test Cricket. I also believe that Gayle's frustration with the WICB finally tipped over. 1. This is the 2nd time in the past 3 years that an early (prev, unscheduled) tour of England was trust upon WI. 2. Very few WI players have experience playing in Eng much less THIS EARLY (when it's so cold)as opposed to the days of Lloyd or Sobers. 3. WI players are paid a fraction of their peers in Eng, India, Aus, SA, etc., hence their reliance on the IPL. Sri Lanka board realised this fact and canceled their tour of ENG. to let their players enjoy the IPL and it's rewards. 4. Just after regaining the Wis trophy and with little time to celebrate the greed of the WI board forced it's players to defend the trophy in a 2 test series under the harshest of conditions. 5. ECB treats WICB as a lesser child because they know they can.

    That's why, I as a WI fan, fully support Gayle

  • Nick on May 19, 2009, 15:14 GMT

    I think all this is fascinating~ with the inability to exercise any kind of foresight, planning, or organization (which doesn't seem to be recent either way), the sport of Cricket is managing to self destruct. The fans just clamor for more Twenty20 or argue back and forth over whether things are India's fault or Australia's fault or England's fault, while the more shocking problems of groundskeepers being unable to lay a pitch that will actually provide a decent surface for play, leaving the only form of the sport that can be played on them idiotproof Twenty20 matches. The argument of "the fans getting what they want" can only apply to fans that want Twenty20. I'll go watch baseball if that's my only option, they don't hack their sport apart to fit in the time frame.

  • abhijeet on May 19, 2009, 13:40 GMT

    Great article. There was a time when people were glued for 5 days, now they just care about highlights and whether their country wins or not. The decreasing attendance and TRPs prove this. A day might come when people won't even care about that. However, I don't see why are people getting so emotional about possible demise of test cricket. If people like it they will watch it, else it will die out like everything else does which doesn't upgrade itself. Administrators and purists should try to make Tests more interesting instead of taking moral high ground and telling 'lesser people' what they should watch.

    PS : Personally I am not too big a fan of T20. 3 boundaries in an over is as monotonous as 3 dot balls in an over, but thats just me.

  • John on May 19, 2009, 13:39 GMT

    Seems Gayle is past it, so why are we interested? Cricket is a wonderful game played by many around the World. It is played at schools and on village greens evertwhere where youngsters learn the skills of a terrific game culminating in Test Match Cricket. What a laugh that anyone can think that T20 can replace it! T20 is not cricket, just a slog for a lot of money, and only entertaining in the early stages. It is already losing its attraction and becoming a little boring. Roll on end of May! What is this thing abvout England? Do you guys still have an inferiority complex. We play cricket because we love it win or lose. For heavens sake get a life, it only a game aftter all - or two games now actually. Or is it three?

  • Parth on May 19, 2009, 13:32 GMT

    Finally a writer who got it spot on. Gayle was just saying what most cricketers are thinking, those few who say otherwise are just bitter at their lack of luck in getting the big bucks of T20. This test series was not about test cricket it was about money. ECB and WICB wanting a quick buck in a space of time where English cricket had nothing going for it. So what do they do? Go make up a tour. Test cricket get's boring and redundant if teams play each other every year. Kind of like India Pakistan, or India Australia. Gayle has his right to go play the IPL and why should he have to leave for a series created that made no sense other than a quick buck. If the ECB, WICB and Strauss are all too happy to play this series for a quick buck why the double standard for Gayle and the IPL?

  • Tristan on May 19, 2009, 13:02 GMT

    The 'primacy of Test Cricket' being questioned is nothing new. People have such short memories.

    Packer's cricket circus and its effect on Test teams was much the same. People said the money and the fast pace of ODIs would kill Tests. It caused problems for a few years but people's desire for Test cricket, and the sensible accommodation of ODIs, meant Tests survived and, if anything, got stronger. Cricketers earned a proper living and fielding and fitness certainly improved.

    That cricketers who've spent twenty years punishing their bodies bowling 25 overs a day, 300 days a year, should have their views clouded by being paid life-changing money for a handful of exhibition games when they're on the verge of retirement, shouldn't be so surprising, but no one will ever become 'great' from T20.

    I'd pay any money and travel anywhere to get a glimpse of Bradman or Lillee, which is just what we do now to get another glimpse of Warney. But no Tests and he wouldn't be a legend, just a bowler.

  • Rahul on May 19, 2009, 11:55 GMT

    Agreed. The British can be very contradicting at times. And your article is a truly reflection of the fact that all the sorrows of England and Test Cricket can't be blamed on India alone

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