On May 2, 1997, Tony Blair, the leader of the Labour Party, became Britain's Prime Minister as a result of the General Election, and moved into Downing Street. John Major moved out and immediately went to watch Surrey play the universities.
At this moment, and for some weeks thereafter, it appears that Britain had, for the first time ever, a prime minister (born 1953) younger than a current county cricketer (John Emburey, born 1952). It also had one who, in contrast to his mad-keen predecessor, regarded cricket as something he had put away when he was a teenager, after a brief fling in which he memorised all the statistics of England's Tests in the mid- 1960s.
Unlike fox-hunting, cricket was not in immediate danger of being made illegal under the new Government. But among the many subtexts of the election campaign was the one in which the struggling Tories were depicted as the party of England past, wedded to warm beer and cricket, while Labour was hip and youthful, representing cold lager and the people's game. Blair took care to be seen on football grounds.
It was all pretty bogus. But the perception that cricket was a tired old sport remained strong throughout 1997. This was not true everywhere. Whereas cricket was in crisis in England, West Indies, Zimbabwe, and perhaps New Zealand, it flourished in the countries where people had more cause to cheer their national teams. In Sri Lanka, in particular, the boom kept reverberating: when TV showed an interview with Sanath Jayasuriya, the country's electricity demand broke 1,000 megawatts for the first time. In Australia, the traditional Boxing Day start of the Melbourne Test attracted its largest crowd in 22 years, 73,812, and a CD making fun of Bill Lawry's commentaries sold 100,000 copies in no time. Across the globe and into cyberspace, cricketing Internet sites were consistently among the busiest on the entire web.
And what was striking even in Britain was the extent to which the public's residual passion for the game could be mobilised. After Denis Compton died in April, the demand for tickets at his memorial service exceeded anything Westminster Abbey had experienced since the death of the TV presenter Richard Dimbleby, at the height of his celebrity, in 1965. Then there was Dickie Bird's autobiography. Here was a book that contained no revelations, no sex (famously so) and a collection of very well-aired anecdotes. By mid-January 1998, it had sold 287,432 copies in hardback. This is an extraordinary figure.
There was a yearning: a need for heroes. English cricket was still awaiting a new one. When he comes, Tony Blair will rush to embrace him. In his absence, a hero from half a century ago and a lovable umpire provided substitutes.
World cricket, meanwhile, acquired not a new prime minister but its first president. In 1996, the possibility that the Indian businessman Jagmohan Dalmiya might take control of the International Cricket Council had caused such consternation that it was almost split asunder. In 1997 he assumed office as President of ICC for a three-year term without a murmur of dissent. And the first public utterance of a man previously painted as a sort of money-mad barbarian was to congratulate Colin Cowdrey on his elevation to the House of Lords. ( The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative on the day after the revolution- Hannah Arendt.)
Dalmiya's job had never existed before. His predecessor, Sir Clyde Walcott, had been called chairman. Dalmiya's title sounded grander, but the reality was less imposing. The work done by Sir John Anderson, head of New Zealand Cricket, in reconstructing ICC's decision-making processes had ensured a presidency with influence rather than power. There is now an 18-member executive board, with subsidiary committees covering cricket, finance and development. At long last, there are the glimmerings of a proper decision-making structure.
None the less, the game over which Dalmiya presided was one he had played a major part in creating, as Indian cricket's chief power-broker. There were 110 one-day internationals played in 1997 (plus two washouts). Most blurred into each other. The most significant may well have been the least noticed: those in Nairobi during October between Zimbabwe, Kenya and Bangladesh in front of tiny crowds and no TV cameras. After the ICC Trophy earlier in the year, when Bangladesh beat Kenya in the final, both countries had been promoted to a new, intermediate status, above the other Associate countries but behind the Test-playing nations. This enabled them to play one-day internationals, as a possible preliminary move to full Test status - very soon, officials hoped.
In Nairobi, the two aspirants proved themselves hopelessly inferior to the newest of the nine Test-playing teams. Zimbabwe's professionalism and athleticism totally outclassed their rivals, and it rapidly became clear that neither would be ready for Test status in the near future.
It is important not to be dog-in-the-manger about this. There is huge interest in cricket in Bangladesh (which should be harnessed when all the major countries visit for a quickie tournament in October this year), and great playing potential in Kenya. Both countries need an injection of resources to develop stars capable of playing Tests, and ICC is right to encourage them and others. Toronto and Singapore now stage one-day internationals; ICC is salivating about the potential of playing in Florida. The more countries that play cricket the better.
But sports politicians can get carried away by their own rhetoric. Dalmiya was quoted as saying this January that the game had to spread to all corners of the world to survive. That is nonsense. If cricket were to mutate into something different simply to try and sell itself to the American market, or anywhere else, it wouldn't be cricket and it wouldn't be worth having.
It might be healthier if cricket officials spent a little less time reaching for the sky and paid more attention to what was going on in the gutter. As 1998 began, the rumours that results in one-day internationals were being twisted to suit the interests of betting syndicates operating illegally, mainly in Mumbai and the Gulf, were moving from a murmur to something nearer a roar. Nobody now doubts that this gambling takes place, for large sums, and that cricketers are involved in the process.
This does not necessarily mean that players have deliberately thrown matches. It is possible that the substantial number who have made allegations - Tim May, Shane Warne, Manoj Prabhakar, Aamir Sohail and so on - are making mischief or a mistake. Possible, but increasingly implausible. ICC needs to set up a credible international investigation designed to discover the truth, not what everyone wants to hear.
Anyone with experience of gambling will feel that the amount of smoke billowing out of this story is a pretty reliable indicator of fire. The international programme, particularly as played by India and Pakistan, is a guaranteed recipe for jiggery-pokery. The one-day tournaments of which these countries are so fond have no real meaning. No one remembers who wins them, so honour can never overcome profit. And the actual rewards for victory are hardly exciting. England's success in the Sharjah Champions Trophy in December won them just £25,000 between a squad of 14. Champion golfers tip their waiters better than that, never mind their caddies.
The present system bears a resemblance to the one that was prevalent in tennis a decade or so ago. The top players would turn up in some hick town for what was billed as a showdown. They would split the profits amiably and put on a show for the locals. It was not that they didn't try, but no one except the poor saps watching cared who won. The difference is that the cricketers are not getting rich - not from cricket. A handful do manage to turn their fame to good commercial advantage, but that is not the same thing. It would be astonishing if some of the others had not been tempted by villainy.
As is now well known, Wisden has a solution for the problems of Test cricket. The Wisden World Championship, devised in 1996, has now become widely accepted as the best - or at any rate the least worst - method of ranking the teams (see page 1460). The principle of an official Championship has now been agreed by ICC, and details will supposedly be announced in 1998.
Unfortunately, many officials, including Dalmiya, have become seduced by the idea that such a Championship should operate along the lines of the World Cup, as a separate tournament at a fixed time in the calendar, possibly even in a fixed place. Leaving aside the logistical horrors of such an exercise, it would entirely defeat the main purpose.
At Lord's, Mike Atherton became England's longest-serving captain when he led the team for the 42nd time. It was inevitable, given modern scheduling, that Peter May's record would be passed eventually. Atherton has done it without ever commanding the wholehearted support of the public.
There were two main reasons for this: The team's indifferent record, which was not his fault - no one could have been more dedicated to improving that; and his customary scowl, even when there was no reason for it, which his mum should have told him about years ago.
Atherton came close to resigning in August, but the selectors wanted him to stay, and prevailed. They did consider splitting the job, giving the one-day leadership to Adam Hollioake, who proved a popular and successful captain in Sharjah when Atherton took a break, but in the end decided that Atherton should be captain for the whole West Indies tour, both Tests and one-dayers. The Australians blazed a trail by dropping Mark Taylor from their World Series team and making Steve Waugh captain, with patchy success. Fashionable opinion has been all in favour of such schemes. I suspect it's a recipe for confusion and rampant dressing-room politics. Captains have to be allowed to do the job properly, and Atherton had earned the right to carry on.
Even so, England's run of three defeats understandably led to the kind of panic attack to which English cricket has been prone throughout the past decade of extreme ill-health. And in this atmosphere the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), which replaced the old TCCB at the start of 1997, first poked its head over the parapet and launched a blueprint for the future of English cricket: Raising the Standard.
The details of this document are recorded on page 1371. Popular history already seems to have decided that it included the case for a two-divisional County Championship with promotion and relegation, which was rejected by the selfish and parochial counties. Indeed, I read somewhere that Lord MacLaurin, the ECB chairman, was staging a crusade.
Well, it was a funny sort of crusade, because Lord MacLaurin never went into battle, never raised his standard. His actual proposal was for the 18 counties to be divided into three conferences of equal standing, with the champions emerging after a series of play-offs in September.
Fortunately, the various anomalies, complexities and idiocies that would have arisen from this nonsense are now of only academic interest, because the conference plan was thrown out. For a start, the scheme meant that teams in the same division would never have played each other, thus creating the least interesting formula for any sporting competition ever devised.
The ECB's reasoning derived solely from the theory that 14 four-day matches (12 in the main season plus two play-offs for every county to decide placings down the order) was the correct amount for each team, rather than the present 17. This might be so. However, at the same time the Board planned to increase the number of one-day games to an average of 28 (compared to six for the Australian states). This would have wholly negated Lord MacLaurin's stated aim: to improve the England team.
The solution that emerged was certainly more sensible though, in the hysterical atmosphere that followed the Ashes, it was widely rubbished. In 1998, the championship will be essentially unchanged except that teams who finish in the top eight will compete for a Super Cup in 1999, and the bottom four will play each other, rather than a minor team, before they can progress in the following year's NatWest Trophy. Wisden can hardly criticise the idea of a Super Cup, since it was first proposed in these Notes in 1995.
It will replace the Benson and Hedges Cup, with its time-wasting zonal games, and enable the season to be more sensibly skewed so that one-day games can be concentrated later in the summer, when weather and crowds are better. This will leave April and May, when players need to get into nick, much freer for the Championship.
Meanwhile, what was the Sunday League and is becoming the any-day-of-the-week League is not going to have the big increases in fixtures originally envisaged. It will, however, be in two divisions with promotion and relegation. And here's the snag. This means the crucial objective for counties each season will henceforth be to ensure that they stay in the top division of this league. Their recruitment policies will be amended accordingly, making it improbable that any county will dare to concentrate on the first-class game, the way, for instance, Glamorgan and Middlesex did in 1997. Any prospective Shane Warnes can forget their chance of a contract if there is competition from a bowler who hits the deck from a few paces and can knock the ball around a bit at No. 7.
So the next incarnation of county cricket will be lop-sided: it will force the counties to over-stress the one-day game. Thus one begins to think a two division Championship is inevitable and will constitute an improvement. Naïve enthusiasts still need to be aware of the drawbacks of such a system (mentioned here in past years) and the unnerving agendas that exist in the minds of some of those who support the same reform. There are men in key positions in English cricket who dream of an elite Championship catering only for big-city clubs and played only on the Test grounds. Nothing would be more guaranteed to kill the appeal of the game once and for all.
Lord MacLaurin apparently did want two divisions but was without the support of all his closest advisers. And, having received negative responses when he hawked the idea round the counties before the season, he did not have the courage to fight for it. The absurd thing is that he could have won. Once the conference plan had been jeered off the table, the counties were asked to vote on two divisions. The motion went down 11-7.
Yet I know of at least three counties who would have changed sides - and thus changed the result - had the following three conditions been met: 1. Sensible, and legally watertight, regulation of the transfer market. 2. Guarantees protecting the future of clubs in the second division. 3. A convincing cost/benefit analysis of the subject. No such document was sighted. Like many businessmen, MacLaurin proved politically inept.
In its first year the ECB did convey, much of the time, an air of efficiency and progressiveness. It became, however, increasingly obsessed with its efforts to persuade the Government to remove Test cricket from the list of events that have to be seen on terrestrial TV, so the rights can be sold to the highest bidder. Ideally, the Board wants Test cricket to stay on the BBC so it can be seen by the widest audience. But it understandably and rightly wants more money, and argues that 180 hours of Test cricket a year cannot be compared to 12 minutes for the Grand National and Derby. This is a tightrope walk, though. Rugby's viewing figures have plummeted since it moved to Sky TV. The financial gains are short-term. The damage is not.
There was no attempt to reform the most pernicious evil within English cricket. One always feels slightly uneasy at charity fundraisers when well-heeled people eat and drink to raise money for, say, the starving. But it is legitimate and effective charity. When they do this to raise money for sportsmen taking advantage of a tax anomaly, whose employers are simply too skinflint to pay them properly, one just feels sick.
The benefit system, with its emphasis on time-serving and de-emphasis on excellence, is profoundly corrosive. While this goes on, argument about the format of the Championship is like those fierce debates between mediaeval scholars about how many angels can dance on a pinhead.
The ECB's preferred norm of 14 games would be meaningless in the current circumstances. Hugh Morris again: "Glamorgan have a week off, something of a contradiction in terms as Colin Metson has three benefit games and a dinner organised, and I will be playing for MCC against Ynysygerwn."
There was no argument about the bulk of detail in Raising the Standard; the plans for reforming the amateur game. The advantages of Premier Leagues should outweigh the small loss of tradition. And the idea of a group of, say, six elite cricketing universities instead of two is a brilliant one.
Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and (probably) Loughborough would be obvious choices. If a couple of the newest, not very academic, universities could also be funded to become elite cricketing centres, there is the potential for a system that could be an appropriate equivalent of the Australian Academy, catering for excellent cricketers of varying scholastic ability.
A league of these six universities playing three-day matches on good pitches from April to June would be a far more sensible use of everyone's time and money than the farcical non-games between Oxbridge and the counties, which are an insult to the concept of first-class status.
Underlying all the ideas, however, is a delusion: the notion that part of English cricket's problem is that it is a closed shop. If only amateurs were allowed to rise through the system, goes the theory, without necessarily making an early choice of a cricketing career, England teams would improve.
Only English cricket could believe, at the end of the 20th century, that the answer to its troubles is more comic-book dilettantism. The Essex League one week, bash the Aussies the next, hey-ho.
What is really required is the exact reverse: a sound career structure in which the most promising talents are nurtured by the counties, with the help of the elite universities, and are given the prospect of clear and top-notch rewards for success at both domestic and international level, instead of the vague promise of a benefit and the chance of ancillary deals if they get a good agent. We seem to be going backwards.
There was too much looking back in more routine matters in 1997. I have never been an enthusiast for the third umpire, but I know when I'm licked. TV replays have added an element of dramatic tension to decision-making, which has been very popular. But this is an insidious addition to cricket, and it keeps occupying new territory.
During the Oval Test against Australia, a four scored by Greg Blewett was converted into a six a day later following close examination of the video evidence, when not merely Blewett but the whole Australian team were already out. The total was changed to 220 after the morning papers reported 218. Where does this stop? Will we start changing results after the match?
During the Warwickshire- Somerset Sunday League game (the first to be floodlit), Trevor Penney's cap dropped off while he was chasing the ball into a dark corner of the field, and helped stop the ball's progress. Ian Botham, acting as deus ex machina just as he did in the old days, saw the incident while commentating on TV, replayed it over and over, and alerted the umpires who awarded five penalty runs retrospectively.
The decision seemed wrong anyway, since Law 41.1 says stopping the ball with something other than your person has to be wilful to merit a penalty. However, the problem was not the error, but the retrospection. Luckily, this was not a tight contest. Otherwise, the tactics of both teams could have been seriously affected.
Both these events derived from taking pernickety examination of the evidence too far. These were games of cricket, not murder investigations. If the third umpire cannot instantly advise on such matters, the decision of the man in charge on the field should stand. Right or wrong.
It is of course desirable that a cricket match should produce the fairest possible result. But that cannot be the only consideration. This volume faithfully reports that Glamorgan, batting second in a rain-affected Sunday League match against Warwickshire, scored 81 for three against 147 for seven, and thus won by 17 runs.
As editor of Wisden, I would like to be able to explain why this is so. Trouble is, I haven't got the foggiest idea. It is, of course, all tied up with the Duckworth/ Lewis system that is used on these occasions and tormented the lives of players, umpires, scorers, journalists and spectators alike in 1997. It is said to be fairer than any other system yet devised.
Unfortunately, virtually everyone except the inventors have to take that on trust, because if we understand the principles which govern the system, we get lost when it comes to its implementation. If the average, reasonably well-informed spectator cannot understand what is happening at an event, then it is not a credible entertainment.
This Wisden includes an article to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of W. G. Grace, which falls on July 18 this year. The author, Geoffrey Moorhouse, has his own view of the great 19th-century champion. My own line would be more charitable.
But even Moorhouse wants to raise a glass to the greatest of sporting Victorians. Cricket, it seems, does not. W.G.'s 50th birthday in 1898 was marked by a special celebration Gents v Players match at Lord's with the man himself playing. A similar match was arranged for his centenary in 1948 (without his presence). By happy chance, July 18, 1998 is a Saturday with no Test or cup final, when Middlesex are away and, indeed, a special MCC v Rest of the World fixture at Lord's has been scheduled.
Nothing to do with W.G. though. It is a memorial match for Diana, Princess of Wales. Her tragic death last year affected millions of people (though only one county was sufficiently affected to postpone a home fixture the day it happened). But her connection with cricket was somewhat remote, it has to be said, and, of all the many worthy causes which deserve support, her Memorial Fund is perhaps not the one in most urgent need of cricket's patronage. I am sorry that MCC has, uncharacteristically, opted for the obsession of the moment, rather than a rare chance both to honour English cricket's most lustrous star and to choose its own charitable priorities.
In 1949 Group Captain A. J. Holmes, the chairman of England's selectors, remarked: The buttons of the mushrooms of a new era in English cricket are just showing through. He was talking about young players like May, Graveney, Trueman and Bailey who would help make England the top team in the world for most of the 1950s. Maybe we are now at a similar stage in the cycle. It looked that way when 19-year-old Ben Hollioake was smashing the Australian bowling to all corners of Lord's in the one-day international last May, and again when England won the Under-19 World Cup in February. As Wisden went to press, England had just lost the first Port-of-Spain Test having looked certain of victory; before they can flourish, mushrooms always have to disappear beneath loads of muck.