June 25, 2009

Tradition v survival

Don't double up in horror: day-night Tests, coloured clothing and the white ball could be the saviours of the first-class game

Bound as we are by accepted wisdoms, enforced tastes and ritualised snobbery, there are certain beliefs that any self-respecting cricket lover of a certain vintage, if they value their street credo, is expected to keep unexpressed. That Virender Sehwag is a finer opener than Sunil Gavaskar. That ball-tampering is neither evil nor cheating. That the limited-overs format has the aesthetic edge on its first-class ancestor.

Somewhat perversely, though, nothing is likelier to incite scorn and invective than the notion that Test cricket could be played in coloured kit. Yet that, it strikes this observer, could very well be the answer - or at least one of the most helpful answers - to the game's most ticklish and pressing problem: namely, how to ensure the survival of the Test match in the Twenty20 era. Just because an Ashes series of captivating and regenerative possibilities is a fortnight away, it should not blind us to the patient's overall health, nor excuse any further prevarication.

In truth, even those of us who would defend the increasingly unhip five-day form to the death have felt a wee bit wobbly of late. True, both series between Australia and South Africa supplied prime exhibits for the defence, but the recent Wisden Trophy in the Caribbean, played as it was on life-free pitches that defied the principle of an even contest between bat and ball, was far closer to the norm. And so long as broadcasters, sponsors and advertisers exert an influence over lily-livered home boards, and hence groundsmen (for all their forgiveable protestations of independence and innocence), it is hard to envisage the situation undergoing any significant improvement in global terms. The only consolation - of sorts - is that a generation of players is emerging to whom a six-hour century will be as alien as an inch-thick bat.

Thus far, fortunately, suggestions that Tests be turned into elongated limited-overs contests (c. Mr J Dalmiya) appear to have fallen on deaf ears and stony ground (though renewed calls must be expected). Nor, happily, has the desirability of reverting to three- or four-day affairs been strenuously aired (though it is difficult to imagine that it won't happen soon). Ever since Ian Chappell began pushing for it a couple of decades ago, a World Test Championship has loomed as an enticing if hugely and ludicrously belated innovation, one that would surely capture and perhaps even imprison hearts and imaginations for generations to come. But for reasons best known to themselves, the administrators, besotted with their precious Future Tours Program, seem stubbornly unwilling to consider it with the gravity it warrants.

Twenty20 itself could help. Giving each side two innings would offer a natural stepping-stone to the game's highest means of expression for the ever-expanding ranks of those to whom the notion of a first-innings lead, let alone the follow-on, is currently about as meaningful as Esperanto. Unfortunately this is a concept that has yet to strike any chords where it matters, though its time, one trusts, may come.

INSTEAD THE ONLY PROPOSAL that appears to be meriting serious discussion is day-night Tests, the inception of which would have the not inconsiderable virtue of bringing matches within the reach of those who are obliged to go to school or work for a living. As things stand, this remains the only branch of the international game - and the only remotely popular spectator sport for that matter - not to bite this particular bullet.

At last month's ICC Cricket Committee Meeting, the so-called "primacy" of the five-day game was discussed at length (what is it about the incessant parroting of that word that makes you doubt its spouters' conviction?). That the best idea, a World Championship, does not appear to have rated so much as a syllable was profoundly regrettable, but, sadly, entirely predictable. The will is simply not there. No, the sole route proffered as a means of rekindling interest was floodlit Tests.

"The committee recognised the need to promote Test cricket and was happy for talks on this matter to advance," said Haroon Lorgat, the ICC's chief executive. "However, before it gave the concept the green light it agreed that several aspects needed to be firmed up first. This included identifying an appropriate colour ball for use in such matches and trialling the game at first-class level beforehand. The committee also wanted evidence that day-night cricket was what cricket's stakeholders wanted because there would be no point in staging such matches if that was not the case."

The drama and the crowds generated by the World Twenty20 have supplied another reminder of the pickle in which Test cricket now finds itself. In the battle between tradition and survival, between nostalgia and progress, there should only be one winner

The idea that those "stakeholders" (another dread word that smacks of the political jargon the English Labour Party has been spouting for the past dozen years) would not want to stage such matches seems daft in the extreme. Given the potential impact on attendances, why on earth wouldn't they want to? Which brings us to the chief and only worthy sticking point: the colour of the ball. Orange and pink have been mooted, the latter by MCC with no little zest and enthusiasm, but both alternatives, as yet unroad-tested, ignore the compelling claims of a far more obvious solution: a white ball.

All that's needed is a leap of the imagination, a surrender to logic and a sheathing of prejudice. A white ball and white kit won't mix, so something will have to give. Does anyone in possession of an open mind really object to coloured togs and pads anymore? Does anybody even use the pejorative expression "pyjama parties" any longer? I certainly can't remember the last time I saw it in print. Tennis has hardly suffered in popularity since it stopped insisting on all-white garb. What was once revolutionary, not to say objectionable to many, is now the norm, and accepted as such, even by arch-traditionalists, albeit only in the abbreviated formats. Would it be that unthinkable to take that final leap and bring Tests into line? Take it, and the white ball eliminates the question and becomes the solution.

I CAN HEAR THE SHRIEKS OF DISMAY. White sweaters, shirts and flannels - cream, actually - set our beloved obsession apart from all the competitive arts bar bowls, maintaining links with a long, proud and distinguished past and investing it with a purity and non-razzmatazz that serve as an antidote to rampant commercialism and technicolour showiness. Besides, how can "proper" cricket be "proper" cricket without those red-stained thighs?

Ten years ago, I readily confess, I would have recoiled at the proposition I have just advanced, but the joy, the drama, the exhilaration and the crowds generated by the World Twenty20 have supplied another, arguably needless, reminder of the pickle in which Test cricket now finds itself. In the battle between tradition and survival, between nostalgia and progress, there should only be, can only be, one winner.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton