Have standards dropped to the extent some claim? (1987)

Time present and time past

Vic Marks

Comparisons may well be odious but they are also irresistible. Who's the greater: Laver or Borg, Joe Davis or Steve, Steel or Owen, Bradman or Richards? Such debates are often endless and always fruitless, yet cricket enthusiasts, as well as slightly desperate biographers, can rarely shun picking their All-Time World XI. Usually the selectors plump for the heroes of their own era, and with an ageing population the lament that Things ain't what they used to be grows gradually louder. However, I do not intend here to deliver a polemic in defence of the modern cricketer; rather to examine some of the changes of the last few decades, as well as to observe some surprising similarities between cricketers past and present.

In the 1960s, cricket was compelled to react to the force of economic necessity. County club's coffers were like colanders, and the authorities' response was the introduction of instant cricket: the Gillette Cup knockout in 1963, the John Player Sunday League in 1969 and the Benson and Hedges competition in 1972. In addition, they permitted the influx of non-qualified overseas players in 1968. In retrospect, the authorities, so easily maligned, should be congratulated for ensuring the survival of all the first-class counties. Now the treasurer of a county cricket club is less susceptible to (stress induced) ulcers than his counterpart in the Football League.

Cricket has survived, but not without sacrifices. Instant cricket has created a demand for instant success; with four competitions each year there is less excuse if your club does not win one of them. Newcomers are now expected to match the contributions of their more experienced colleagues immediately. In 1964, Dennis Amiss could be assured of a slow and gentle baptism to first-class cricket, a luxury no longer afforded James Whitaker in 1984.

The advent of these new competitions had far-reaching consequences, such as the installation of a computer in the Pavilion at Lord's and a complete transformation of the fixture list. The county cricket season has become one prolonged, frenetic dash around the highways and byways of the country. County cricketers no longer check train schedules but instead tune into motoring flashes as they lunch from a JPL game at Canterbury back to a Championship match at Northampton. Our car insurance premiums have, unsurprisingly, rocketed.

These domestic changes have been mirrored at international level. In 1975 the first World Cup was a spectacular success and one-day internationals became a financial necessity. As a result, the commercial wizards planning a tour of Australia now insist that the intervals between Test matches are spent, not with missionary visits to the outback but in a series of lucrative one-day games. A modern international cricketer, when asked his impression of Australia, is scarcely able to give anything more than a vivid description of the airport lunges of Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. Many enthusiasts will have been astounded by Graham Gooch's decision not to tour last winter, but a regular tourist with a young family will understand his position much more easily. So, while our predecessors may envy the increased financial rewards available at the highest level, the modern player might yearn for the more leisurely existence of the 1950s-- 32 Championship games and nothing else, and the chance to play golf on Sundays.

As the governing bodies, amidst general approval, have become more commercially minded, it is not surprising that some players have reacted in the same way, often to general condemnation. Modern players sometimes employ agents to maximise their earning capacity through endorsements and the newspapers during their short lifespan as a cricketer. This august Almanack has noted this trend: Too many Australian and England cricketers appeared to be governed by commercial interests and cricket suffered accordingly. That was written by the editor of Wisden in 1964. Surely, then, it is a misconception to believe that it is only the cricketers of the last decade who have been rather keen to make some money from their prowess? Indeed, the established county player is unimpressed by the theory occasionally expressed in the columns of the Daily Telegraph that cricketers are overpaid. He earns approximately £8,500, a figure he is unlikely to match in the winter months and one which does not compare that favourably with the £10 a week that leading professionals received in 1933. And they didn' t have to dive in the field.

Before England's tour to Australia in 1986, the TCCB in their tour contracts imposed restrictions on the players regarding their contributing to national newspapers. Those concerned, notably Phil Edmonds and Ian Botham, acquiesced and signed the contracts, presumably at some financial loss to themselves. However, this was no new problem. No doubt in Adelaide Sir Donald Bradman allowed himself a wry chuckle, recalling that he was in a similar position in 1932 when his newspaper released him from his contract, with full pay, to allow him to play against Jardine's tourists. Who can blame Bradman or Botham or the lesser mortals for trying to exploit their brief stay at the top? Cricket is a precarious profession: you might be dropped next week.

Today's cricketers have an uneasy relationship with the press. They enjoy praise and being offered writing contracts; they usually tolerate criticism of their performances on the field; but they detest the constant intrusions into their private lives. Of late, cricket tours have been covered by a gaggle of 50 or so pressmen, not just cricket reporters but newsmen as well, hunting for some saucy snippets for the tabloids.

Dullness is feared and avoided. So unfortunately is fact. The News Room has invaded Sport and on the occasion of Test Matches, the cricket correspondent is often reinforced by a columnist or newshawk, who with furrowed brow, scours hotels and pavilions on his dark and dubious assignments. The technique of the game now ranks far below the 'story' and you will often hear reporters at the end of a full day's cricket lamenting that 'nothing has happened'. No one has fallen dead while taking guard or been arrested while placing the field.

To my surprise, that analysis of the press was written by Robertson-Glasgow in 1949, so bang goes the theory that such attention is a new phenomenon. However, the problem still remains, and it is sometimes exacerbated by the TV cameras. Every smile, every grimace, every expression of disappointment is relayed unerrignly into our sitting-rooms so that a cricketer's behaviour is under the microscope as never before.

Finally, let me turn to what actually happens on the field. Have standards dropped to the extent that some of our commentators would have us believe? I can begin with confidence by making two assertions. Firstly, the overall level of fielding has improved as a result of one-day cricket; even Fred Trueman would agree with that. Secondly, the standard of wrist-spin has declined dramatically; no quarrels there even from Kim Barnett, one of the few left. Thereafter the picture becomes more blurred.

In an attempt to gain some perspective about the changes in the game, I examined the 1964 season; Simpson's Australians retained the Ashes 1-0, Worcestershire, led by Don Kenyon, won the County Championship, Sussex, under Dexter, retained the Gillette Cup in its second year, and Geoffrey Boycott was on of Wisden's Five Cricketers of the Year. Like any gnarled old pro I turned to the averages. Although I recognise that averages can be very misleading, especially when they refer to my own performances, certain trends were clearly established when placing them alongside those of 1986; namely that batsmen today dominate the game to a far greater extent and that spin bowlers in particular have become less effective over the last two decades. Here are some statistics: in 1964, 13 batsmen averaged over 40: in 1986, 48 batsmen averaged over 40 with Geoff Boycott, inevitably, being the common denominator.

Unsurprisingly the converse applies when examining the bowling averages. In 1964, 39 bowlers averaged under 22; in 1986, 9 bowlers averaged under 22 (common denominator-- N. Gifford). Out of the top 30 bowlers in each year, twelve were spinners in 1964, only four in 1986.

One obvious explanation for the change is that the full covering of wickets, introduced in 1980, made batting a less precarious occupation and deprived spinners of twenty wickets per annum. However, I think that this trend has been exaggerated by the advent of one-day cricket, which has damaged our bowlers far more than our batsmen.

In the fifties and sixties, the great English bowlers such as Bedser, Laker, Titmus and Shackleton presumably rediscovered their optimum length and line in a net every April and they persevered with it until the Scarborough Festival. Minor adjustments might be made for individual players, but basically there was just one place to bowl-- a good length at off stump-- and they became superb bowling machines programmed solely for Championship and Test cricket. Now, every Sunday evening captains around the country are beseeching their bowlers to bowl anything but a good-length ball at off stump because such deliveries give the batsman too much room to swing his bat as he searches for that match-winning swat over mid wicket at the end of the innings. Good-length bowling becomes a liability. Spinners are asked to attack leg stump as quickly as possible, in complete contrast to the requirements of Saturday and Monday. Even Norman Gifford admits that it' s hard to make the adjustment, so what chance has Richard Illingworth? While one-day cricket has demanded greater aggression from the batsmen, often causing them to discover new, uncharted talents, as in the cases of Glenn Turner and Ravi Shastri, it has nurtured a negative, containing approach in many of our bowlers. Maidens rather than wickets become the goal. It may be no coincidence that the two leading wicket-takers in Test history, Ian Botham and Dennis Lillee, have seldom been fêted for their prowess as limited-overs bowlers.

Today's cricketers have had to become more adaptable as they turn their attentions to the differing demands of the various competitions, and unfortunately there is less scope for the out-and out specialist. I'm afraid they have had to become fitter as well. They also need a comprehensive road atlas, a reliable car, an understanding wife and a thick skin. Whether they are any better or worse than their predecessors, I don't know. All I can say is that Hobbs and Hammond, May and Trueman, Botham and Gower would have triumphed in any era.

© John Wisden & Co