January 23, 2013

What pop music can teach cricket

Is the paying public interested in the cricket the ICC is putting out?

If there was ever a Woody Allen Smart-Arse One-Liner Award for cricket journalists, my vote would go unblinkingly to Martin "Scoop" Johnson, now concocting sly side-splitters for the Sunday Times, following sterling stand-up stints for the Leicester Mercury, The Independent and the Daily Telegraph. The fearless prediction that nothing could stop England winning the 1986-87 Ashes bar an inability to bat, bowl or field may be his best-remembered crack, but the vast majority tickled funny bones without the aid of overly creative exaggeration.

It helped, admittedly, that he came to the fore at the back end of the eighties, just as the national team were exploring unplumbed depths. Fired by the backstories of Botham, Gatting, Gooch and Gower, the off-field histrionics maintained such a pitch of intensity - thanks to the tabloid circulation wars as much as on-field ineptitude - we might as well have been tuning into a soap - Tailenders, or Beefy Street. Grist for Scoop's prolific mill was never in short supply.

He was at his graphic best on Sunday. "Fifty-over cricket is like some ageing Hollywood actress, forever trying to revive interest with regular nips, tucks and injections of Botox. It works for a while but eventually the skin reverts from baby's bottom to dried-up riverbed and off you go again to the plastic surgeon."

Being more prone to likening the current game to the music business, where the product once spun at 33, 45 or 78 revolutions per minute, I can't help but wonder whether the collapse last week of HMV, the venerable high-street record shop, emphasising the plight of an industry seemingly in terminal decline, is a foretaste of cricket's destiny.

Ever since the oil crisis of the early 1970s compelled record labels to redouble their efforts to find new clothes for the old ceremony, we've seen no end of fresh tailor-made suits: cassettes, eight-track cartridges, mini-discs, laser discs all flared and floundered, ultimately leaving compact discs as the only game in town. Having increasingly overcharged for vinyl, CBS, EMI, Warner and his equally greedy brothers had scaled such heights of fearless hubris that they hiked prices even higher for CDs; the cost was free downloading, a development that hit nobody harder than the musicians for whose sweat and creativity a generation has patently decided it has no compunction to pay.

Giles Clarke has described the piratical online streaming of televised matches as the foremost threat facing cricket; as over the top as such an assertion seems, he might be right in a strictly fiscal sense. Bracketing such practices with free downloads does not seem unduly excessive; it's the price you pay for selling your soul to broadcasters.

Changing rules almost as often as Kate Moss trades outfits, the ODI reminds me of those vain efforts to delay vinyl's decline: picture discs, colour discs, maxi-discs, double-packs, ten-inchers and 12-inchers. None, ultimately, could stem the desire for greater compactness and ease of use. If T20 is cricket's answer to the CD, then the ODI is the cassette: a splendid idea at the time but, what with the endless potential for de-spooling, the sluggish, imprecise rewind, and that tiresome need to turn the confounded thing over, too damned fiddly.

For all that coming to terms with the new regulations is proving daunting for the players, never mind viewers, the latest tweaks, on the face of it, have already had a demonstrable impact. In a development to which many purists are doubtless composing hymns of gratitude, revised fielding restrictions, double the bouncers and one fewer Powerplay seem to have accelerated the general swing towards the pie-chuckers.

Since coming into force in October, in the 17 ODIs (up to Monday) where weather conditions have permitted at least 40 overs in the first innings, there were just three such totals in excess of 250, while five failed to reach 200, including Australia's 74 against Sri Lanka - their lowest-ever tally batting first. Only twice in the previous 11 ODIs had a first innings in a weather-resistant game between the eight senior nations not attained 200, and just 11 times since August 2011. It remains to be seen whether history ascribes this shift to the teething problems that accompany any period of adjustment, a longer-lasting pattern, or the end of the beginning of the end.

While this more level playing field is to be heartily welcomed, it hasn't half made for some excruciating watching (notwithstanding the fervent protests of the Channel 9 commentary team), especially for the travelling Poms, who have dutifully endured the sight of Ian Bell honing his impression of Hanif Mohammad, having spent much of 2012 impersonating Virender Sehwag.

And just as vinyl, to general astonishment, is enjoying a minor renaissance (there were vastly more platters in the racks on my last trip to HMV in Leicester Square than cassettes, of which there were precisely none), what we have witnessed over the past three months has hinted at a return to the old 40-over John Player Sunday League - wary wicket-hoarding starts, late mini-surges, and piffling-to-middling scores. Not one of the stage's most inspired revivals.

If T20 is cricket's answer to the CD, then the ODI is the cassette: a splendid idea at the time but, what with the endless potential for de-spooling, the sluggish, imprecise rewind, and that tiresome need to turn the confounded thing over, too damned fiddly

There are, as ever, two ways of looking at all this. If the measure of an enterprise is the degree to which those who run it resist the urge to tinker for tinkering's sake, cricket is in a sorrier state than tennis, golf and all the f**tballing variations put together - which is pretty unsurprising, given that no major professional sport demands so much of spectators' patience and hence lacks so much confidence in its present, much less its future.

On the other hand, receptiveness to change, where need and practicable enhancements are identified, can be seen as strength. Rigidity was the watchword until the final third of the 20th century but the pendulum has swung ever more violently ever since. Balance remains elusive. The Olympic Factor may hasten a greater stability.

Someday soon, given the potential funding windfalls for the ICC Associates in particular, it is quite possible that cricket will finally return to the five-ring circus (it goes without saying that it deserves membership of that exclusive club a darned sight more than golf, that most selfish of outdoor games, which recently accepted an invitation). For it to be included in, say, the 2024 Games, a commitment would have to be made at least four years earlier. In other words, if participation in the Games is regarded, as it should be, as a key investment in that uncertain tomorrow, a tool with which to raise the game's profile and profitability outside the Full Member nations, crunch time is approaching.

Will the 2015 World Cup be the last to be conducted over 50 overs? If nothing else, it has been sorely tempting to wish as much ever since the ICC decided, in its decidedly finite wisdom, to slash the number of participants in the game's premier event from 14 back to a measly, elitist ten. What other sport actively seeks to shrink its major occasions? The forthcoming baseball World Classic will feature 16 teams; 24 will compete for next year's basketball World Cup, 32 for its FIFA counterpart, 20 for the 2015 rugby World Cup.

Resisted so persistently as a long-term strategy, the obvious benefits of less-is-more bear constant repetition. Just as riding three horses with one backside is scarcely the most logical of pursuits, packaging a sport into three categories, however distinctive, does not immediately strike one as the key to a workable manifesto. In terms of the Future Tours Programme, leaner should assuredly be fitter, for the sake of the players as much as for public appetites. In terms of development and expansion, enlarging the World Twenty20 field to 16 was progressive, however much of a sop it was to that World Cup winnowing; extending that to 20 while making the youngest format the lone showpiece would do even more to encourage the have-not-very-muches on whose enthusiasm the game must learn to set even greater store.

How much would the midmarket model be missed? Once the initial pangs of loss have worn off, not, one suspects, terribly much. In fact, the national boards appear to agree. As the T20 circuit ballooned last year, so the number of ODIs scheduled shrank to 95 from 147 the year before - a recession closer to 40% than 30%. True, 2011 was a World Cup year, but no attempt was made to bridge the gap. Nor can I recall many ESPNcricinfo readers launching impassioned petitions to reverse the tide. To suggest that the tens of thousands who flocked to Rajkot, Ranchi or Kochi this month would not have done likewise had the contests spanned 20 overs per combatant would be naïve in the extreme. Hell, attendances would probably have been even weightier.

Cricket should not, dare not, ignore the downfall of HMV, still less that of those plucky independent music retailers who once provided a less corporate, more intimate and hence pleasurable consumer experience before being rendered more or less extinct by a combination of internet, iPod and corporate greed. To heed and benefit from those lessons, the game needs to do more than merely resist avarice's eternal allure. It must take more pragmatic stock of what it puts on the shelves.

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