March 20, 2013

Were the good old days really better?

Let's break it down to a few parameters and try to make an objective analysis

Technology or human eyesight? Helmets or bare bonces? Covered or uncovered pitches? Back-foot no-ball law or front? Arlott or Bumble? Does any breed of sporting spectator spend quite so much time as we cricket folk when it comes to debating the merits of the way we were and the way we are? Granted, our baseball and boxing counterparts in particular might scoff at such a suggestion, but they haven't seen their game repackaged as three distinct products.

"Before the Fall? Reflections on cricket in England during the 1950s" is that sagacious social historian David Kynaston's contribution to an annual lecture series at Lord's. A prolific author and academic whose books range from Austerity Britain to W.G.'s Birthday Party, Kynaston uses ten criteria to compare past with present: aesthetic, meritocratic, competitive, craft, excitement, personalities, sportsmanship, walking, crowd behaviour, "mattering", and coverage. Overall, he concludes, "it comes out pretty even".

Loath as I am to take issue with such an esteemed chronicler - and bearing in mind that I had yet to celebrate my third birthday when the 1950s ended - this strikes me as a perfect case of nostalgia overshadowing, if not fact, then assuredly common sense.

Given that we are six weeks away from the 50th anniversary of the most far-reaching of cricket's innovations, the limited-overs game (90 years, it should be noted, after the first knockout cup event was abandoned after a solitary match), now seems an apt moment to stand back and reflect on how far we have come and whether, on balance, we have advanced. Most of Kynaston's categories will do nicely, although it feels reasonable to merge walking and sportsmanship (is the former not an intrinsic, if extreme, aspect of the latter?).

Before we begin, let's reel back to a revealing Daily Express survey from that summer of '63: the "Better Cricket Competition". Readers were invited to make five suggestions to improve the County Championship, then the planet's lone competition for full-time pros. The judges - Alec Bedser, Doug Insole and Norman Preston, editor of Wisden - assessed 2000-plus entries, from whence came sundry proposals: overseas players, Sunday play, promotion and relegation, over-restricted first innings, more overs per hour, 15-pace run-ups, rewards for faster scoring, leg-before decisions to dissuade pad-play, and eight- or even ten-ball overs.

The more sensible of these would soon be woven into the first-class fabric, though it is intriguing to note that the judges were unanimous in insisting that the most pressing need was the elimination of time-wasting. In this respect, at least, it seems fair to say that cricket in 2013 lags a vast way behind 1963, though whether this matters is another kettle of cod entirely. It certainly didn't seem terribly important to those who completed the recent public surveys conducted by the ECB and Cricket Australia.

And so to the Kynaston Test. Not unnaturally, some of his sub-divisions permit more objective analysis than others. So, for all that he rightly deems it to be "somewhere near the core pleasure", let's dispense with the aesthetic, the "sensory aspect". The way he sees it, much has been lost through the arrival of "helmets, garish-coloured clothing, umpires no longer in white coats, sponsors' markings on the playing arena" and the "continual noise and exaggerated celebrations" of the players; such preoccupations will strike younger generations as profoundly old hat, not to say downright petty and daft.

Fifty Aprils ago marked the start of the first English season to be unencumbered by the distinction between shamateurs and professionals: all hail the new meritocracy. Now, thanks to the multiplicity of formats, the ultimate meritocracy is with us: not only can even an Afghan earn a penny or two, you can have a disobedient body, like Shaun Tait does, and still put in a fruitful day's work by bowling four overs. Today: 2pts

In the 1960s the average Test total was 323; over the past ten years it has been 350. Yet before we get too carried away with this apparent widening of the gap between bat and ball, the rise in scoring rates (from 2.49 runs per over to 3.27) has compensated handsomely for the reduction in the number of overs per day, the upshot being that the ratio of conclusive results has soared from to 53% to 74%. Throw in the fact that standards are far more uniform - while only England, Australia and West Indies were regular winners in the first period, this year alone has seen New Zealand take a one-day rubber against South Africa and force England to follow on, India all but reverse 2011-12's 4-0 loss to Australia, and Bangladesh trade 600s with Sri Lanka - and it's another no-contest. Today: 2pts

Uncovered pitches might have asked more of batsmen (and commensurately less of bowlers) but immeasurably more is demanded of today's practitioner. Who knows whether undimmable titans such as WG, Bradman or SF Barnes would have been so adaptable, but there is no question that Hashim Amla, Marlon Samuels and Graeme Swann are as effective over 20 overs and 50 overs as over five days. 1pt apiece

Two words should suffice: "Virender" and "Sehwag". Or "Kevin" and "Pietersen". Or "De" and "Villiers". Or, if we're being thoroughly modern, "Shikhar" and "Dhawan". Or, if we're being meritocratic, "Lasith" and "Malinga" or "Saeed" and "Ajmal". Put it another way: when those of us who can remember that far back try to recall feeling excited while watching the game half a century ago, the options are generally confined to "Garry" and "Sobers". It helps, of course, that we can now trust our own eyes rather than parrot the word of others. Today: 2pts

Does cricket matter more than it did? In numerical terms, given growth in population, communication technology, access to games and ICC membership and funding, of course it does. But is it healthy for an essentially trivial pursuit to matter more?

Comparing characters from different eras is even more ludicrous than comparing Jonathan Trott and his distant ancestor Albert (though we can at least claim with some confidence that Albert, the only batsman to clear the Lord's pavilion with a single blow, was the more aggressive). Again, greater visibility predisposes us to favour the likes of Shane Warne, but this is counterbalanced by largely unpublicised stories from an era when sportsfolk were less closely monitored and hence able to get away with more.

Hugh "Toey" Tayfield is justly celebrated as the greatest of South African spinners, but it was a complete revelation to me to learn, this very week, not only that he was a rampant womaniser who died penniless and largely forgotten in a hospice, but that during the 1960 Old Trafford Test he had been due to appear in court for allegedly failing to repay a £230 loan ("He was a slow bowler and even a slower payer" quipped the prosecution lawyer). We know Sobers and Ted Dexter would have been "personalities" in any era, but given the greater rewards for notoriety today, Tayfield might have met a very different end. 1pt apiece

You could be forgiven, here, for concluding that higher stakes and more frequent fixtures have left today lagging miles behind yesterday, but is that truly the case? "Long after the unenterprising cricket of this Test is forgotten, people will talk of two incidents which brought to a head the question of whether batsmen should 'walk'." So attested Basil Easterbrook in Wisden of the 1965 Newlands Test, referring to Eddie Barlow's decision to ignore two appeals for catches (both rejected) and Ken Barrington's self-ordered exit following a thin nick that eluded detection - arguably the least profitable act of vengeance in the game's history. On the other hand, the capacity of the DRS to expose the truth economists has sired, if not a revival of this most honest (if class-ist) of sporting customs, then certainly a few more incidences than I can recollect witnessing in previous decades. 1pt apiece

Crowd behaviour
Of the 11 riotous contests Ray Robinson analysed in The Wildest Tests, one was played in 1933, the others in the first quarter-century after the Second World War. Had he completed the book in 2002 rather than 1972, he would not have had many to add. Sure, there may be less inclination to applaud the opposition, but add comfier seats, more efficient policing of drunkenness and better protection from the elements to the joie de vivre of the Barmy and Swami armies, and there seems little reason not to believe things have improved. Today: 2pts

Much the trickiest category. Does cricket matter more than it did? In numerical terms, given growth in population, communication technology, access to games and ICC membership and funding, of course it does. Kynaston disagrees, citing the rise in matches, freedom of player movement and alternative leisure activities alongside a decline in the ritual nature of the fixture list and a tighter focus on city-centre venues. But is it healthy for an essentially trivial pursuit to matter more? How often in days of yore did a bad result convince Indians or Sri Lankans to kill themselves? Yesterday: 2pts

There is, of course, no comparison here whatsoever, whether in depth or breadth or even - because we see and know and understand more - quality (literary worth, again, is strictly a matter of taste). At the risk of sounding as disinterested as a mongoose pronouncing judgement on a drunk and disorderly cobra, the range and geographical sources of the voices on this site surely supply incontrovertible proof that we've never had it so good. Hell, if the residents of the Tower of Babel had co-existed this peacefully, we'd all be speaking Hebrew now. Today: 2pts

Final score: Today 13, Yesterday 5

Let's face it: nostalgia simply ain't what it used to be.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Axel on March 23, 2013, 1:28 GMT

    We might find that half the batsmen around today would never have even taken up batting if they were first introduced to it without helmets - obviously the batsmen of yesteryear played with less protection and less return for their shots compared to the bats used today - most batsmen today don't their helmets off even to face spin at both ends - if, as small boys they first tasted batting on uncovered wickets with no helmets, thin pads and bats that jarred the hands if not timed correctly, then many of today's big hitters may not have taken up the craft at all in the past. Back then you couldn't swat at Larwood/Lindwall/Hall and get six off top edges and many of today's pampered batsmen may refuse to bat in such true 'Test'ing conditions. Back then batsmen felt pain if they couldn't bat whereas today they get away with poor technique. Batsmen are hit in the head more today and would die in past series such as Bodyline or vs Windies teams of the 70's-90's with the techniques of today

  • Billy on March 22, 2013, 23:10 GMT

    Evolution-adjusted, there is not much difference between cricket today and cricket in the past. There were more hardships back then to adjust to, and there are more physical skills and demands today to adjust to. Structurally, the main changes compared to the past are: technology in batting, bowling and viewing, professionalism vs amateur, and global access. As to whether today is better than the past, I think the answer lies in how old you are. The older generation would prefer the simpler past, the younger generation prefers today's pace.

  • Dummy4 on March 22, 2013, 1:06 GMT

    I remember as a youngster the attraction of matches in the 60and 70's. They were rare and exciting. Glued to the radio was the next best thing. The roar of the crowd made you wait in anticipation for the commentators dispense. The demi-gods fashioned from hard knocks and for paltry compensation played for love of sport and country. But the main reason was the garrish gait of the cricketers and the way they stood up to the missiles that were delivered. Without the armory, the game can be played by almost anybody qualmlessly. It took aesthetic strokes that kept the ball rolling on the carpet adhering to the cardinal rule of avoiding proffered catches. The mastery, skills and sportsmanship is lacking. Its sad to say, I seldom watch the games, even on free TV. Today its a lucrative individual business. It's the sign of the times -- what a shame !!!

  • John on March 22, 2013, 0:57 GMT

    I certainly think that cricket today is more entertaining than it was in the early 1960s when taken as a whole, although obviously there were players and situations then that were very entertaining. Scoring rates are up and draws are far fewer now in test matches. However, to suggest that only Sobers provided excitement is of course nonsense. The 3 Ws, Wes Hall, Fred Trueman, Ted Dexter, Richie Benaud, Harvey, to name but a few- all great to watch. The subcontinental teams, then only India and Pakistan, hadn't produced the kind of thrilling players they subsequently have, so the pool of players was more limited, but later in the 60s the great South Africans Richards, Procter and the Pollocks emerged, as exciting as anyone could want.

    Oh, BTW, Rob, I must have missed the match this year in which NZ forced England to follow on. They did outscore England by 293 in the first test, but since England batted first they could hardly be forced to follow on.

  • Simon on March 22, 2013, 0:51 GMT

    Comparisons like this are always ridiculous. This is because things are always relative to the context they are in. Today, we expect the ODI run rate to be around 5.75 and 6 an over. Ten years ago, 4.5-5 would have been considered good. Does this make for more exciting matches? Not in the slightest, because the expectation of the audience is different. The only thing about cricket that doesn't change is the drama. A close match where a team needs 100 to win with 5 in hand, or a series locked at 1-1 with a match to go would be just as exciting in the 1950s or 1850s as it is today. Times change, and the people change with it, so in the end everything just balances out. What hasn't changed is that cricket is a brilliant sport! Long may it continue.

  • Murray on March 21, 2013, 21:29 GMT

    Cricket is a unique team game. It's the only game where successful minimization of the opponents scoring doesn't get rewarded with any wins.

    Limited overs "cricket" is like every other game.

    Almost everyone (over 30 yo) agrees the cricketing standards of today are less than they were 20 years ago. Knowing this from their own eyes, they still believe that it's improving rapidly. Amazing !

    Is the need to produce something for the audience, when there's nothing worth saying, improved by having 10,000 times more such production ? Back in the old days, only writers who understood the game were professionally writing about it. Opinions of those who'd seen more were respected, and cricket was still unique.

    When Test cricket reverts to being an amateur game, I'm almost certain it's standards will once again rise. Once those too dull to make a living at anything else are gone, those with real lives (balance) and a zest for a bit of competition will return. Can hardly wait.

  • Philip on March 21, 2013, 7:12 GMT

    We should be a little more questioning of the higher scoring rates achieved today. First, the batsmen are no longer in mortal danger from bouncers. Second, bats are so much better. Third, the boundary is closer in. Fourth, pitch preparation has improved. Who can really say that batting today is so much better because scoring rates have gone up? Maybe the bowlers have just gotten worse? Or maybe, as I said, it's these other factors coming into play? I plump for that last possibility as the major cause of higher run rates. And yes, higher run rates can be better to watch, but let us not get too excited about shots being middled off the edge or mishits going for six. These do nothing to improve the game, but they do improve the scoring rates. Shots middled off the edge or mishits going for six: negative twenty points.

  • Sam on March 21, 2013, 5:00 GMT

    Choose a particular narrow time, you know, like a year or two. Compare that to the current time. Limit the comparisons to certain categories alone because, well, because it was in a book. Score each category with numbers as if using numbers would create the illusion of objectivity. At the end, finish the comparison with a flourish as if a solid case has been very convincingly presented. Have I summarized the thought pattern that went into this piece??

  • Tom on March 21, 2013, 1:35 GMT

    The methodology is questionable. First off, it's declared that Kynaston's criteria will be used, but then one is immediately discounted altogether. Then a questionable matrix is used to devise the scoring thereafter. At times it reads a bit like "of course, during the Renaissance, they had da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Titian, Raphael and so on. But today, we have Damien Hurst. 1 point apiece."

    If you think the game today is better than during the 60s, that's fine, but trying to justify it with these sorts of scoring shenanigans, especially with the minimal detail gone into, just makes the whole thing look predetermined and pointless.