August 5, 2009

Faster, stronger, uglier

Why has cricket deteriorated aesthetically even as it has improved as a spectacle?
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Every blue sky has a cloudy lining. From where I'm sitting, cricket, despite the indecently manful efforts of its administrators, is as thrilling and watchable as it has ever been during my lifetime. The variety of formats and spread of global talent (who'd have guessed that the best allrounder in 2009 would hail from Bangladesh, or that the most promising young seam attack would be Sri Lankan?), allied to a greater awareness of what it means to be in the entertainment business, have seen to that. Yet as the game has improved as a spectacle, it has deteriorated in aesthetic terms. What was once opera is now rock. For Verdi, Sacchini and Rossini read Presley, Holly and Tom Petty. Roll over Beethoven and tell George Headley the news.

This is not to decry rock music. Far from it. Give me rousing lead guitars, rumbling basses and pounding drums any day over overweight, overwrought tenors prattling on about jealousy and homicide in Italian. The best rock music, though, possesses subtleties and nuances, and all too often contemporary cricket reminds me of its most monotonous offshoot, heavy metal, or in its more inventive days, substandard prog.

How can we not rejoice that batsmen have shed those ancient shackles? How can we not cheer those broader palettes and minds? How can we not rejoice in the freedom and enterprise that has seen risk embraced, orthodoxy shunned and scoring-rates climb to un-glimpsed, unimagined heights? We can't, or shouldn't. There is, however, a small, arguably unaffordable price to pay for such enrichment. Aside from a precious few - Mahela Jayawardene, VVS Laxman, Mohammad Yousuf, Michael Clarke, Ian Bell, Brett Lee, Danish Kaneria, Sachin Tendulkar - the current game is virtually a style-free zone. Where are the bowling actions that inspire schoolboys? Where are the forward-defensives worthy of being sculpted by Henry Moore? The nearest most Tests get to elegance is when Jeremy Coney is spouting his lyrical wisdoms from the commentary box: Chris Martin the "android steam train", Daniel Vettori the "home-baked batsman", Australia "slowly moving from that chrysalis of caution".

Spurred on by the sometimes manic requirements of the 50- and, especially, 20-over formats, batsmen have been even further emboldened by something rather less desirable, namely brick-thick blades. But these bludgeons and biffing machines are not exclusively to blame for this gradual erosion of finery. As new strokes have been conceived and alternative scoring avenues explored, so risk has been greeted with flair rather than fear, switching the emphasis from ground to air, from fours to sixes. The aim of every shot should be to repel the ball and, ideally, beat the field, but the most pleasingly executed tend to be those that succeed while minimising that risk - by ensuring they cannot be caught.

Think of the exquisiteness of a cover-drive painted by Michael Vaughan or an on-drive signed by Tendulkar. In hands such as these, every joint seems synchronised and harmonised, bat serving as an extra limb, an extension of self. In Vaughan's case, the crowning glory was a flamboyant flourish of a follow-through that wouldn't have looked out of place in the hands of a symphony conductor or prima ballerina. Gems such as these, though, are rarer than steak on Zimbabwean dinner tables.

Effortlessness should not be confused with elegance. Virender Sehwag sends the ball colossal distances without exerting himself. Likewise Chris Gayle, who embodies languor and never does anything quite so uncool as break sweat. Yet neither is what I would call elegant. Both, crucially, disdain footwork. Both, therefore, get high marks for productivity and low ones for artistic impression. Such is the new industry standard.

In fact, it takes a great deal of effort to look effortless. David Gower spent his teens in the nets. It may be more apparent in left-handers (if only because most of us are not), but elegance, by and large, is only possible if the basics are obeyed; Gower's footwork may have been lacking but he found ample compensation in impeccable timing. What we loved about him was the fluidity of movement, the beauty. Zaheer Abbas had it too, so too Jeff Dujon, Carl Hooper, Brian Lara, Dilip Vengsarkar and Mark Waugh. Yes, they made it look impossibly easy, but that serene, often feline felicity was all grounded in crucial if often barely perceptible movements. In some cases there was a touch of vanity about it all, but so what? We're talking showmen here, not laboratory assistants.

It's not unlike those fighters v boxers debates that have divided readers of The Ring for decades. This is the era of the batsman as streetfighter, as personified by Sehwag and MS Dhoni. The stakes dictate it. Garry Sobers was Muhammad Ali and Viv Richards was Sugar Ray Leonard: violence as dance. In the blue corner of late we have had Matty Hayden as George Foreman and Graeme Smith as Sonny Liston, all bully-boy power and lumbering gait; in the red corner bobs Shivnarine Chanderpaul as Roberto Duran, all awkward angles and ungainly effectiveness.

Demanding that players try to bat more elegantly or come up with more pleasing bowling actions is a bit like asking Grand Prix drivers to take bends with greater panache. It's not exactly a key aspect of the job description

The same, if not more so, goes for bowlers. Who, right now, has an action that ravishes the eyes and hoists the spirits in the manner of a Michael Holding, a Graham McKenzie or a Jeff Thomson, much less a Bishan Bedi, a Phil Edmonds or a Hedley Howarth? Brett Lee is as fluent and compelling a sight as any, a monument to coordination and smoothly uncoiling menace; Danish Kaneria's curls and curves suggest a chap auditioning for the Dance of the Seven Veils; Amit Mishra has all the makings of the first topless model to grace an MCC textbook. But who else feeds the senses and seduces the soul? Beyond lies the crab-like, the jerky and the neanderthal. For every Lee there's a dozen Morkels, Nels and Martins pouring out of academies, all chest, knees and flailing arms; for every Kaneria there's an endless queue of Clarkes, Shoaibs, De Merwes and Samits, all low arms and non-existent arcs.

The growth of the mixed action, to counter strain and protect the spine, is undoubtedly a factor for fast bowlers, who seem to have more freedom to bowl as they see fit, as comes naturally, rather than contort themselves into some sort of idealised norm. How else, pray, was Andre Nel able to rise through the ranks without submitting his action to the sort of reconstruction usually seen on Nip/Tuck? So be it. Their health is more important than our gratification. Besides, beyond trips to the barber (sorry, hairstylist), how many players have time for mirrors these days?

"THE SPEED OF LIGHT does not merely transform the world. It becomes the world. Globalisation is the speed of light." So reckoned Paul Virilio, the cultural theorist responsible for coining the expression "accelerated culture". Soccer and rugby, the other two main transcontinental team sports, are no different to cricket in the way professionalism has brought about acceleration. With heightened fitness has come a repellent breathlessness. There is less space and even less time for the ball-jugglers and body-swervers, less inclination to take chances. With the two codes now distinguishable almost exclusively by union's potty persistence with lineouts, I now find rugby virtually unwatchable. Cricket is still by far the most leisurely of these trivial pursuits, but the acceleration in the emergence of new skills has been accompanied by an erosion of one of the game's chief marks of distinction and distinctiveness.

Robin Daniels knew what he was doing when he entitled his wonderful new memoir of Neville Cardus "Celebrant of Beauty". For that, indubitably, was the Guardian laureate's function: to celebrate what he experienced, whether music or cricket. And whereas today's correspondents celebrate the art and heart of competition, Cardus' priority was to celebrate beauty. He admired Don Bradman's genius but had more time for Jack Hobbs' grace. After seeing Wally Hammond bat at Lord's, Cardus attended an opera at Covent Garden and felt "a distinct lowering of the aesthetic temperature". He was, however, prone to the fanciful and the exaggerated. "I didn't invent Emmott Robinson; I enlarged him," he admitted unapologetically of the Yorkshire spinner he turned into a folk hero. "Guilty to fiction, m'lud, if it serves a higher Truth."

He couldn't get away with it now, of course. Television, websites and newspaper sports sections have made expert, undeceivable, mostly unromantic witnesses of us all. No longer are we obliged to believe what we read (I'll never forget how deflated and swindled I felt the first time I saw footage of Frank Woolley). The price of that evidence and enhanced understanding has been a lessening of expectation. To bemoan a lack of beauty is thus somewhat petty. Of course substance is preferable to style. Of course unorthodoxy is more important than orthodoxy. How can a game move forward unless it rejects elements of the past? And yes, it's not as if there is a solution on its knees somewhere out there, hands clasped together, begging to be discovered. Demanding that players try to bat more elegantly or come up with more pleasing bowling actions is a bit like asking Grand Prix drivers to take bends with greater panache. It's not exactly a key aspect of the job description.

All the more reason, then, to celebrate when beauty does avail itself. And lo and behold, on that final afternoon at Edgbaston, it was firmly present and resolutely, absolutely correct. Their cause may have been safety yet Michael Clarke and Marcus North carried out their job with style and grace, techniques embedded in purest orthodoxy.

North's defensive play was both object lesson and joy - full stride, head over the ball, bat and pad locked together, nose sniffing out danger as a bloodhound might scent a fox's trail. He also penetrated the covers with precision and ease, the ball gliding across the turf as if drawn to the boundary by a magnet. Overcoming a growing tendency to half-leave harmless balls and offer slip catches off the full face of his eloquent blade, Clarke was his right-handed, prettier doppelganger, building his innings brick-by-immaculately-laid-brick, the footwork worthy of Fonteyn, Baryshnikov or Ali, encouraging all Australians to believe that here is Ricky Ponting's successor as both captain and technical maestro. Bar that cocky pull at Ravi Bopara's second ball, aerial shots were about as visible as burkas at a British National Party rally, yet this scarcely left us bereft.

As the afternoon wore on, as England's victory prospects thinned along with the crowd, there was still much to relish. Cardus would have loved it. "What we want art to do for us is to stay what is fleeting," he reasoned, "and to enlighten what is incomprehensible, to incarnate things that have no measure, and immortalise what has no duration." By turning the quest for survival into an exposition of batting's most essential arts, Clarke and North made time stop, immortalised the effectiveness of their centuries-old methodology and reincarnated the game's innate beauty.

And to think that there are those who would send the honourable draw the way of the dodo and the woolly mammoth. Philistines.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Ramrajani on August 7, 2009, 5:31 GMT

    Just like the formats of every game changes to it's new heights for more entertainment, same way the test matches has to change it's format as well. And as you know in the past there has been lot of changes in test cricket so according to the time and the demand of spectators, the ICC and BCCI need to change the format by having a restricted 75 overs an Inning, for each team to be played 2 Innings. this way much more Fun and enthusiasm will be in the Game and the spectators cuz every match played will have the result and much more shots will be played, without wasting time and overs.

  • probalc on August 6, 2009, 15:50 GMT

    For fataquie:It took me a while to register, get a password and post a comment. Should give you an idea how strongly I feel. My dad took me to watch "Vishy" bat at the nets I was probably 10 yrs. Dad said, "You will realize its worth when you grow up, what you saw today!". Its etched in my memory. I have not seen Bishan bowl in his hay days, but Maninder, wasn't that pure joy? Holding running up to bowl, no wonder he was nick named "Rolls Royce". If only scoring runs, taking wickets is the criteria might as well watch baseball.

  • obaidulmasum on August 6, 2009, 15:47 GMT

    I think Steen is a one eyed man. I don't think that the past players are more stylish and graceful than the presents. Didn't you watch playing Mark Waugh and Damien Martin's batting. Was realy Gower more stylish and graceful than them. I don't think so. I have seen lot's of matches where Gower played and watch youtube's so called video of Mr.Gower but I dont find anything impressive in him. Though arguably he was the best stylist batsman of that time but Brian Lara seems more stylish and Mark Waugh and Damien Martin was better than Brian. Though Brian was more classical than both of them beacause of his ability. Similarly we can say that Ricky Ponting's pull and hook shots are more enjoyable than Grag Chappel. In recent time we have seen some players who are also very stylish( Gautam Gamvir,Youvraj, Rahit Sharma, Salman Butt[incredible power of playing cover drive with wrist], Younis Khan, Samaraweera, Chamara Silva, De Villierse, Dumini, Bravo[wristy powerfull], Tamim Ikbal.

  • MartinAmber on August 6, 2009, 12:04 GMT

    For fataquie:

    Cricket of the 70s and 80s "boring"? I'm sure Holding's over to Boycott at Bridgetown in 1981 is on youtube somewhere. That's a perfect example of something that scores very highly on aesthetics and sheer thrills. Of course, if that doesn't convince you, then Botham's 1981 innings at Headingley (thrills) and Old Trafford (aesthetics) might. Or Viv Richards' 189 not out in an ODI at Old Trafford (both, again) in 1984. And, more generally, there were four of the best all-rounders ever to play the game, all winning matches with bat and ball throughout the period.

    In response to the piece in general, I don't particularly want to separate thrills from aesthetics. Can I not just say I delight as much in one of Gilchrist's "violent" innings as I do in, say, the "beauty" of Michael Clarke's 136 at Lord's?

    PS Mr Steen, earlier this year you said you'd prefer World T20 final tickets to tickets for the Ashes. Now that really is a celebration of ugliness.

  • left_arm_unorthodox on August 6, 2009, 5:30 GMT

    Michael Slater was not an artist of the kind you celebrate, yet his batting possessed vitality and joyousness. Gower, though more elegant, was too insouciant to be as joyous. Sehwag has something of the magic. Ganguly as well. Inzamam comes to mind too. In his case it was localised in the bat and those hands. These players had a sense of vulnerability, like they were forever just a razor-blade-thickness from disaster. Michael Clarke used to have it - before he matured and became so reliable. Amongst bowlers Lee comes to mind, and Shoaib - speed at all costs. These players do not remodel their games for more reliable productivity. They are what they are and in playing they express themselves. You hold your breath, knowing that something, good or bad, will happen. Donald gave off a sense that he wanted to do nothing but sprint into the crease and bowl as fast as he could. He did not need an audience or perhaps even a batsman. 1000 characters is not enough.

  • mac9ue on August 6, 2009, 3:03 GMT

    The arguments in this article seem somewhat manufactured. The author seems to disparage the free-spirited batting styles of Sehwag or Gayle in favor of the textbook elegance of Tendulkar or Bell (I suspect the only instance the latter two have been considered comparable pliers of their trade). Yet, he strives to create an exception for achievers like Viv Richards or Hayden, who were as guilty of using the coaching manual for nothing besides campfires. Watching grainy footage of Bradman's batting, it is evident he did not have the most classical of styles, yet Bradman is the premium subscription to Vaughan's youtube. The elegance of Brett Lee is mesmerizing, as are the ungainly contortions of Malinga. In short, aesthetics for a cricket viewer are as often a byproduct of effectiveness as the other way round.

  • tbc1 on August 5, 2009, 23:37 GMT

    Excellent article, truly excellent. I would add, in qualification, that any number of past bowling actions were as heterodox, and controversial, as those now seen; Griffiths, Tyson etc.. The purity with which the likes of Trueman, Thommo and others bowled should not obscure a diverse and idiosyncratic rnage of bowling styles throughout the history of the game. I would also offer a glimmer of hope for the preservation of "proper" orthodoxy in its full elegence; the continued function of English public schools as cricketing academies. Stuart Broad is an excellent example of this, given the warranted comparisons to the style of Sobers, and the obvious technical rectitude with which he bats.

  • fataquie on August 5, 2009, 22:43 GMT

    Quite honestly, if you watch the cricket highlights of the '70s or '80s on youtube versus the highlights of the 2000's, you would find the former to be boring. Cricket is at its best at present. Where once in the '70s, bowling at close to 90 mph was an achievement only few could do, now we have bowlers who are fitter and can regularly do that. Today, batsmen are not used to leaving the ball even in test match. What is missing is really sporting pitches to give the right balance between bat and ball. Other than that, I would not trade the cricket of the '90s and '00s to boring cricket of '60s, '70s, and '80s. I would definitely prefer watching Afridis taking on Lees, Sehwags destroying bowling attacks in test matches, Symonds deamonizing opposition, Flintoffs rocking the ground, Gayles single handedly knocking out the World Champions, and McCullums doing their thing. No sir. Thank you. I would like to live in the present and have the conditions being made more sporty.

  • pakistanicricketlover on August 5, 2009, 21:55 GMT

    Well written article. Cricket is a respectable game i don't understand why do you need cheerleaders in a cricket match. Nowadays the fans don't know much about the game or players but they make more noise. You got to have the passion for the game. People think test matches are boring and should be scrapped but let me tell you without test match cricket cricket would be lifeless. I have seen and will see test matches, I have seen test matches for all five days, all series. Its called TEST for a reason it tests your true abilty as a player and a team. In a one day or T20 you could get lucky if if's your day. Cricket is beautiful game, but I am worried about the future of it.

  • Cooch on August 5, 2009, 20:37 GMT

    I have to agree with those who speak of rose-tinted glasses. Hadlee was poetry in motion, but Chatfield and BL Cairns were agricultural. For every Gower there was a Border. I think if there is an aesthetic difference these days, it stems from the fact that they play tests on flat decks more often. More opportunities for flat track bullies who don't need to rely on footwork, and less of the long, studied centuries that must be crafted when the ball is seaming about or turning square. In saying that, there was no-one better at long, studied centuries than Border!

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