October 2, 2011

Resurrecting the ghost of cricket's past

Sam Blackledge
Today we don't have to rely on hazy memories or other people's descriptions of the game's history. We can just log on to YouTube

When the first televised cricket match was beamed into people's houses in June 1938, it must have been a magical moment. Entire summers could now be spent glued to the action without fear of transport, weather or other people getting in the way. Over the years that followed, the medium became an integral part of the game, and now a similar wondrous magic has crept up on us almost unnoticed and has retrospectively affected the way we watch cricket. It is called YouTube.

Visit the ubiquitous video sharing website, type "cricket" into the search box and write off the rest of your day, because you will immediately stumble down a virtual wormhole, with each video leading you hungrily to the next. The sheer quantity of material is staggering, and you can find almost anything you want, from last week's ODI to the most obscure passage of play from 50 years ago.

Like a seedy backstreet VHS outlet that caters to all sorts of weird and wonderful tastes, YouTube has something for everyone. That fetish for Mike Atherton dismissals you've been keeping secret all these years? Feast your eyes on this compilation of his dismissals to Glenn McGrath. In the mood for some sadistic violence? David Saker's brutal delivery to Jeff Vaughan should do the trick.

There are, of course, the shop-window videos already wired into the brains of hardcore fans. Garry Sobers' sepia-toned six sixes, Shane Warne's ball of the century, Allan Donald's moment of madness in 1999. But what really gets the juices flowing is the obscure stuff, the footage that reminds you why you fell in love with the game in the first place.

My personal obsession dates back to one particular day, September 4, 1993. As an eight-year-old on my first trip to Lord's, I watched wide-eyed as my beloved Warwickshire chased 322 to beat Sussex in what is still regarded as one of the most thrilling one-day finals ever. All I remembered of the see-saw match was peering through the gloom as Roger Twose sliced the winning runs... until I stumbled upon a nearly hour-long highlights package.

Over the next few years after that final, my obsession grew. I'd race home from school to catch the final session of Test matches that would inevitably involve the superhuman Graham Gooch propping up a fragile England team. I would then dash outside to recreate the action, my attempts to follow in the footsteps of Warne, Hughes and May literally leaving imprints in the garden.

Buried among all the action on YouTube are moments of humour, outbursts of emotion, and sheer bizarre behaviour picked up by the cameras and recorded for posterity. Sledging is always good for a laugh - witness Andrew Flintoff goading Dwayne Bravo and Tino Best - and of course the adventures of Aggers, Johnners and Co in the commentary box will never get old. Search long enough and you will find something that takes you by surprise. A video entitled "Dougi Bollinger sexy behaviour'" is likely to leave you feeling confused and violated.

There is a constant debate between cricket fans about whether you can compare players from different eras. There is no way of knowing how Don Bradman would have coped against the West Indian attack of the 1980s, and who is to say how Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting would have dealt with a spell of Bodyline. But what we can now do is compare techniques, assess playing styles and analyse how the game has changed, all in minute detail.

For this treasure trove of goodies we owe some dedicated fans. One in particular. Rob Moody - better known as robelinda2 - is an Australian who has uploaded more than 100 cricket videos, amassing an amazing archive of his own. Reviews of series, endless top tens, highlights of entire careers - Moody's impressive stash has made him something of a cult figure.

"For me the attraction is an obvious one," he says. "The older footage looks more raw and real, no advertising, no plugging TV shows, no over-the-top commentary, just pure cricket. Such serene viewing. The other attraction is simply being able to see these classic players and form my own opinions about them. Sometimes you read so many endless comments from people that the truth gets a little distorted."

It's not just fans who are embracing the joys of YouTube; the players love it too. Graeme Swann's brilliant Ashes video diary provided a hilarious insight into life on an England tour - and, of course, it brought us the world famous sprinkler dance.

But, as the Guardian's Rob Smyth warns, this luxury may be short-lived as the owners of the original broadcasts begin to assert their copyright over much of the material. There is no room for nostalgia in the 21st century, it would appear. The authorities are determined to push ahead, to re-invent, to wipe our collective consciousness clean of evidence of a time before Twenty20, DLF Maximums and Hawk-Eye. A distant time full of the simple pleasures of leather on willow, proper woollen sweaters… and Dougie Bollinger grabbing a team-mate's arse.

Of all the many online innovations, video-sharing looks like it's here to stay. YouTube is an extraordinarily powerful tool that could be used to broadcast cricket to a wider audience. So a heartfelt plea to the powers that be: don't take away our memories. They remind us of who we are.

Sam Blackledge is a journalist with a local newspaper in Surrey