Comment, 2003

Notes by the Editor

Tim de Lisle

The age of speed

Two of the fastest-scoring calendar years in Test history have been 2001 and 2002 © Getty Images
If you had to choose one word to sum up cricket in the early 21st century, what would it be? Some might say Australia, others Tendulkar or Murali. The cynical observer would be tempted to go for match-fixing or chucking; a South African might just say aaaarrrghh. A more persuasive contender might be something else altogether. In 2003, the name of the game is speed. The concentrated verve of Steve Waugh's Australians has galvanised international cricket as a whole.

For most of the past 126 years, Test cricket was conducted at a leisurely pace. The occasional burst of frenzied activity only emphasised that the standard tempo was sedate. Nowadays, the longest form of the game - of any game - rattles along like a good television drama (which it is). It helps that two of the fastest bowlers ever, Brett Lee and Shoaib Akhtar, are in their prime, turning every ball into theatre. But they are only a fraction of a second faster than their predecessors, if that: Shoaib's 100mph delivery to Nick Knight at Cape Town, while pressing useful buttons in the minds of small boys and journalists, had the benefit of a wind roaring in from the Antarctic, and still, like Lee's 100mph ball a week later, gave Knight no trouble. The more meaningful acceleration has come at the other end. The great dramatic art of fast bowling has been joined by that of fast batting.

Two of the fastest-scoring calendar years in Test history have been 2001 and 2002 (table, page 27). Four of the five fastest Test double-centuries of all time in terms of balls were made in the year to January 2003. In 2001-02, two marauding Australian left-handers, Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer, reinvented the business of opening the innings, seeing it as their job to blaze a trail rather than lay a foundation. As Simon Barnes shows on page 24, fast scoring is no longer the province of the occasional showman, a Botham or Jessop, but a stratagem used by whole teams, all day long. Beyond the turnstiles, life in general is moving faster, and for once the game is keeping up. Always a dance to the music of time, Test cricket is no longer a quadrille: it is a quickstep, maybe even a jive.

Far from being undermined or overshadowed by the growth of one-day internationals, Test cricket has sharpened up its act. One-day cricket, often regarded as a little trollop lowering her older sister's standards, has actually enabled her to let her hair down. When you consider the electricity of the fielding and the exuberance of the fans, the immaculate virtuosity of Tendulkar, the flawed genius of Lara and Warne, the mysteries of the new-model off-spinners, the spread of express bowling to New Zealand and India, the classical craftsmanship of McGrath and Dravid, the rampaging audacity of Adam Gilchrist, the wiles of Stephen Fleming and Nasser Hussain, the Greek tragedy of South Africa and the Ealing comedy of Pakistan, Test cricket may be more entertaining now than it has ever been.

Promises, promises
But if it is the best of times, it is also the worst. Speed is not just the name of the game, but of the man who runs it: in July 2001, Malcolm Speed, boss of the Australian Cricket Board, moved to London to take on one of the world's trickier jobs as chief executive of the International Cricket Council. His credentials were strong, his intentions were good and his urgency was striking. Within three months, the time once taken to organise an executive board meeting, Speed was standing on a designer podium at Lord's, giving a glossy presentation of the ICC's new strategy to an invited audience of the great, the good and the media. He made all the right noises, and the air grew thick with abstract nouns: "transparency... accountability... relevance... progress... innovation... decisiveness... inclusiveness... vision... tradition... spirit of cricket... major culture shift... high impact..." Speed didn't just promise us the world, he promised to act on his promises. The game's governing body was acquiring a face, and leading us to expect some teeth.

Eighteen months later, we can begin exercising that accountability. It does not look good. Just when cricket has become more fun to watch, its bosses have made it harder to follow. For much of the past year, the ICC were at their worst, which is saying something. Their Champions Trophy did not produce a champion. Their Test Championship produced the wrong one. Their new One-Day Championship was so arcane that it went virtually unnoticed. Their World Cup consisted of more than 50 matches but hardly any real contests. And they adopted a stance on Zimbabwe that shamed the game.

When sport meets tyranny
The cricket administrator's favourite charge down the years, the catch-all phrase deployed to deal with naughty boys, has been "bringing the game into disrepute". More often than not, it is hogwash. But early in 2003, the game really was brought into disrepute - by its own rulers. Months before the World Cup began on February 9, it was clear that Zimbabwe was in a desperate state. Robert Mugabe's government, returned to power in a flagrantly fixed election, was running a vicious, thuggish police state, apparently indifferent at best to the famine afflicting millions of its people. Those in Zimbabwe who raised the alarm risked imprisonment or worse: in 2002, the local human-rights forum reported 1,061 cases of torture. As the banners on marches say, if you weren't outraged, you weren't paying attention. This was no place to stage a major sports event.

The 2003 World Cup had not been awarded to Zimbabwe. It had been awarded to South Africa, which decided to make it more African, and more helpful to their World Cup football bid, by handing six matches to Zimbabwe and a couple to Kenya. Irrespective of whether you approved, it was an unmistakably political decision, taken, as the World Cup organiser Dr Ali Bacher was careful to point out, by the government. There was no sporting reason to stage matches in Zimbabwe or Kenya: it meant worse pitches, smaller crowds, longer flights. Companies wishing to be World Cup sponsors had to show they were furthering the cause of black employment: again, this was a fine thing, but clearly political. The South African team was selected on political lines, with pressure from above to make sure it wasn't all-white, even though the success of Herschelle Gibbs and Makhaya Ntini all but guaranteed that anyway. The Zimbabwean selectors were under similar orders to pick Dion Ebrahim, who was palpably not in the strongest XI; one of those selectors, Andy Pycroft, resigned in protest. The notion that politics should be kept out of sport, still trotted out by the more blinkered inhabitants of planet cricket, was never an option. Politics ran through this World Cup like the zebra-skin logo that bedecked the stands.

One poll after another suggested that three-quarters of UK sports followers thought visiting teams should be allowed to switch their Zimbabwe games to South African venues (which were already on stand-by in case of security problems). Malcolm Speed reacted to this idea like a new father who hears someone criticising his baby. He took umbrage and insisted, to the open-mouthed disbelief of those who had observed their machinations over the years, that the ICC were non-political. It hadn't stopped them stomaching plenty of political activity from the South Africans. It hadn't stopped them letting matches go ahead in Zimbabwe under a repugnant regime. And it didn't stop them standing by in silence as Mugabe's police arrested dozens of people for making polite protests at Australia's game in Bulawayo.

Before the tournament, Nasser Hussain grasped three crucial points: that England and Zimbabwe had a singularly complex relationship, the legacy of colonialism; that the England players could hardly represent their country if their country didn't want them to go; and that they would be making a political statement whether they went to Zimbabwe or not. Speed couldn't see it. Vision? Decisiveness? Spirit? None of the above. The ICC ended up doing something that ought to have been impossible: washing their hands at the same time as burying their heads in the sand.

The gravest threat

Malcolm Speed: has overseen has been the most grimly legalistic period in the game's history, and the most dismally corporate © Getty Images
Before becoming an administrator, initially with Basketball Australia, Speed was a barrister, then a businessman with his own sports-management company. His time at the top of world cricket already bears this double stamp. It has been the most grimly legalistic period in the game's history, and the most dismally corporate.

Not content with being a body, the ICC decided in 2001 that they should also be a brand. It was a need that possibly only a sports-management executive would have felt. The 2003 World Cup became the ICC Cricket World Cup. In South Africa in February, the ICC's name was everywhere: on bats, balls, hats, shirts, stickers, badges, postcards, and every player's chest. Supporters could go to the game in an ICC T-shirt and smear themselves in ICC sun-block, which perfectly encapsulated the ICC's sudden desire to go from behind the scenes to in your face.

What the fans couldn't do was drink Coke, because Pepsi was a sponsor; or express opinions, because they might offend Mugabe. The back of each ticket was a thicket of rules and regulations. The organisers were so anxious to quash ambush marketing, they even persuaded the South African government to pass a law banning spectators from carrying the wrong brand of mineral water. At the gate, fans found themselves being frisked by the soft-drink police. As if cricket didn't have enough fussy rules, here were a load more. Sport ought to have at least some connection with freedom and self-expression, and a game famous for its spirit should tread very softly in this area. Instead, cricket is marching to the beat of big business. A couple of years ago, the gravest threat to the game's fabric was corruption; now, it is corporatisation.

Two black armbands
When the ICC failed to give a lead over Zimbabwe, the England and Wales Cricket Board had the chance to fill the void. Instead, Tim Lamb said: why us? Cricket, he argued, was part of the international leisure and entertainment industry. About 300 British companies were continuing to do business with Zimbabwe; why should cricket alone be expected to take a stand? The answer hardly needs spelling out. A national team has a symbolic dimension that a firm importing mangetouts does not. A cricket board is not a company: it may be businesslike, but it does not exist to make money. It exists to stage cricket, to promote it and protect its good name. Lamb's stance, like Speed's, brought the game into disrepute. How can they govern cricket, who only cricket know?

Not that the administrators were alone in ducking the issue. Ricky Ponting played a great captain's innings in the final, but he hadn't shown much leadership in Bulawayo, where he went with a shrug of the shoulders. The Australians were reportedly asked to wear black armbands and refused. (The reporter who disclosed this was Peter Oborne, the political correspondent and presenter of a Channel 4 documentary on Zimbabwe which influenced Hussain's thinking. Oborne reappears on page 579, making a fifty for the Lords and Commons.) The only visible flickers of conscience in the Australian camp came from Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist, who was so deeply affected that three weeks later, he walked when given not out. Bulawayo was the one moment where Australia missed Steve Waugh: a man who had founded a ward for the daughters of lepers in Calcutta would have been able to see beyond the boundary.

Hussain and his players did better than most. They at least managed to raise the moral issue, before allowing tactical considerations to tilt the argument towards security grounds: that got the ECB on board, and could have given the ICC a way out. The price to be paid for that pragmatism was the loss of the high ground. It looked as if nobody else would come along to claim it, and cricket would have to file for moral bankruptcy. But then, out of nowhere, came two black armbands.

England had got stuck thinking there were only two options: go or don't go, kowtow or boycott. Henry Olonga and Andy Flower, in a far tighter corner, found a more agile solution. The statement they issued at Zimbabwe's first game was calm, dignified and lethally clear. Their stand was not just brave but shrewd: there were two of them, one black, one white, they were both senior players, and they had not even been friends until this episode made them, in Olonga's words, "blood brothers". Together they were responsible for a shining moment in the game's history, which is already on the way to entering its mythology (armbands and the men I sing...). The Zimbabwe Cricket Union dropped Olonga, and would have dumped Flower too had it not been for a players' mutiny, thus neatly proving that it was a politicised organisation. Two strips of black tape, more potent than any logo, breathed life back into the game's battered spirit. And the ICC were so blind to this that they asked for the armbands to be taken off.

Aussies and Kenyans
If the governors are going to see the world in narrow terms, the cricket they stage had better be good. This World Cup was one-third party, two-thirds flop. The good things were the balance between bat and ball, the renewed power of attacking bowling, the romance of the Kenyans, and the sustained excellence, against all teams and in mixed conditions, of the Australians. They rode the loss of Warne and Jason Gillespie and found fringe players who not only filled in for absent stars but got the remaining ones out of any scrape. If Tendulkar was rightly named man of the tournament, he only just outshone Andy Bichel, who sparked fire from slow pitches, made crucial runs and even pulled off a direct-hit run-out. His desire was so great, you could see it throbbing in his veins.

The Kenyans were a big bonus. The ICC shrewdly signed up Bob Woolmer two years ago to fly around as a consultant to all four non-Test teams, and it showed in their fielding, bowling and pacing of an innings: like Brad Hogg, Australia's postman-spinner, they proved that part-timers can be highly professional. The Kenyans' story is a film waiting to happen, with its lyrical start (boys learning the game with a maize cob for a ball - corny, but true) and its heart-warming climax as a forgotten old-timer returns from his job in insurance to torment the mighty Aussies with his left-arm slows. Kenya's celebrations were irresistible: their shimmying huddle made its English equivalent look like Stonehenge.

The Super... how many?
So much for the good news. The bad things were the politics, the legal battles, the corporate bullying, the fact that there were only two good teams, and above all, the way that there were seven or eight non-events for every close contest.

The decision to punish England and New Zealand for their no-shows distorted the whole tournament. The four points the ICC insisted on awarding to Zimbabwe and Kenya stayed in the system like a virus thanks to the quirky business of carrying points through to the Super Six, which should have been dumped after 1999. The Kenyans, for all their romance, were not quite the giant-killers they were made out to be: their three wins over Test opposition came against the wretched Bangladeshis, the downtrodden Zimbabweans and a Sri Lankan side with food poisoning.

Of the 14 teams, only four enhanced their standing: Australia, India, Kenya and Canada. The pool stage had just enough interesting games, and some of the mismatches were redeemed by splashes of colour from John Davison and others. But the Super Six was dire. Australia and India each went through to the semi-finals in their first match. The carrying-through of points baffled the public and wrecked any sense of suspense, and the semi-finals, once Sri Lanka's top order rolled over, fell horribly flat. The World Cup was six days of great entertainment spread over six weeks. It dragged, which is just what one-day cricket was designed not to do. It was run in the interests not of the supporters, the players and the game itself, but the sponsors, broadcasters, politicians and lawyers.

Not simple, not effective
When it comes to putting on tournaments, everything the ICC touch turns to maths. The World Cup, like the Test Championship and especially the new One-Day Championship, was hard to follow: dangerous for any sport, and for cricket more than most. The intricacies of the game are part of its strange magic, but they are all the more reason for its surface to be straightforward. It should not try to shed its historic appeal to solemn 12- year-olds (of all ages) with a weakness for neat columns of numbers. But it must be attractive to other constituencies, more representative of an age in which the word anorak no longer signifies a waterproof jacket.

In some eyes, the Duckworth/Lewis system for resolving rain-affected one-day matches is a charming eccentricity. In rather more, it is a turn-off. It allows crucial matches, and the fates of captains and coaches, to hinge on pieces of paper covered in figures which not even the players always understand. Stats are one of the joys of cricket, but there is a place for them and it is not on the field. Duckworth/Lewis may be the fairest system imaginable, but it is out of tune with the game. It bewilders, where sport is supposed to bewitch. Before the next World Cup, Dave Richardson, the ICC's wicket-keeper turned gamekeeper, must find a system that is radically different and a great deal simpler.

The wrong champions
At least the World Cup produced the right winner. In January, the ICC Test Championship mace passed from Australia, one of the best teams ever, to South Africa, who were not even the best South African team ever. By no stretch of the imagination were they the best team in the world. They went top partly on the strength of fine victories in India and the West Indies, but largely because they had had the political will to play the minnows.

This didn't make the Test Championship a bad idea, but it did show up severe flaws in its execution. Something had to be done. The ICC agreed on a new format, to begin in June 2003, at their meeting the day before the World Cup final, but did not say what it was (transparency? accountability?). The only clue was that it would take account of every match. In other words, it would get more complicated. The best thing about the original idea, floated in these pages by Matthew Engel in 1995 and known as the Wisden World Championship until 2001, was its simplicity. You could explain it on the back of a bus ticket. Two points for a series win, one for a draw, none for a defeat; count only the latest meeting between each pair of teams, home and away; take an average until such time as all play all. Engel's championship began with South Africa top, but that was then - Hansie Cronje wasn't yet a crook, and Australia, under Mark Taylor, were only three-quarters of the way to becoming the victory machine of today.

Once Australia went top, only a dud system could dislodge them. The ICC made an elementary error in counting South Africa's two one-off Tests against Zimbabwe in 1999-2000, home and away, as a two-Test home series for South Africa: it wasn't. They made a more general blunder in not allowing one-off Tests to count. A single Test is enough for a series between the strong and the weak; Bangladesh would surely have learned more and suffered less if they didn't have to keep playing two-Test series. Better still, Bangladesh's results could be discounted for their opponents as well as for them. We can only hope the ICC get it right second time.

It's all too much
There is a deeper problem which the Test Championship has only exacerbated. The international game, as Christopher Martin-Jenkins argues on page 34, is bloated. Test matches now come along at a rate of more than one a week. In the 18 months covered by this book, England played in seven countries: Zimbabwe, India, New Zealand, England, Sri Lanka, Australia and South Africa. A generation ago, there weren't that many countries in Test cricket. By the World Cup, there had been 157 Tests this century; in the last century, the same number took 32 years, up to the middle of Bodyline.

If you divide the whole of Test history into two halves, Ian Botham's debut is now in the first half. The Test at Cape Town in January 2003 which sent South Africa to the top was the 1,637th ever. Botham's first hurrah, in July 1977 in the days when young Englishmen could waltz in and knock over Australians, was the 806th. In one-day cricket, the imbalance is even more pronounced. The 2003 World Cup final was the 1,993rd one-day international; the half-way point, like someone playing Grandmother's Footsteps, had sneaked up to April 1995. So Allan Border's entire one-day career now lies in the first half of history. It's ridiculous. Overload drains the players, risks boring the fans, and makes for one-sided Tests and series. Of the 78 Tests freshly recorded in this book, 24 were innings victories, and only ten finished in definite results that were remotely close - five wickets or 100 runs, or fewer. Quite a few Test series are settled in seven playing days, as touring teams arrive undercooked and leave overtired; whitewashes no longer happen once in a blue moon. The whole programme needs a drastic rethink.

The art of un-intimidation
Given all this quantity, the quality is amazing. There may be only one great team in the world, but there are six or seven very decent ones. England are in the middle, a solid Test side capable of competing with anyone except Australia. Against South Africa this summer, thanks to the UCBSA's panic-stricken gamble on a 22-year-old captain, England should start favourites.

At the toss on that hopeless first morning of the Ashes, Nasser Hussain looked, for once in his life, intimidated. It made little difference to the result: two weeks later, when he called right again and batted, England still lost by an innings. But it was a symbolic moment that took a lot out of England. In the end, they did pull themselves up off the floor, once their injury epidemic spread to the Australian dressing-room. Hussain's achievement, through December, was to un-intimidate his team. After that, they pushed Australia harder than anyone else at the World Cup. His dubious reward was to be exhausted even before England reached South Africa. The next World Cup, in the West Indies, is also at the end of an Ashes winter. That's in 2007, which happens to be the date the ECB have set for England becoming world-beaters. If the players are given a reasonable break after the Ashes, we will know that the board are serious.

Domestic harmony (almost)
Like the national team, the county game is getting there, slowly. The County Championship had a reasonable year in 2002, as Pat Gibson argues on page 554. Lord MacLaurin, the outgoing chairman of the ECB, did much more good than harm, even if he bears some of the blame for the board's over-corporate culture. But there are still big problems. The step up to the international game has yet to shrink: the typical English batsman, making his Test debut, goes out to bat like a lamb to the slaughter. Last summer Robert Key, a character with a mind of his own, was amazed at the size of the crowd and the intensity of the media.

He duly joined the ranks of those who make no runs to speak of in their first match. It is nearly 15 years since a right-handed English specialist batsman made even 50 on Test debut (the last was Kim Barnett, father of the county circuit in 2002). The best since Barnett's 66 is 65, by Darren Gough of all people. Only Graham Thorpe and Marcus Trescothick, two left-handers carefully nurtured through the A team, have bucked the trend.

There are still too many domestic competitions, even as the Benson and Hedges Cup drifts into history. The new knockabout Twenty20 Cup is a valid experiment in itself, which shows cricket noticing at last that some of its followers have other commitments. But the circuit is still overloaded. It's practically impossible to do well in four competitions. Somerset and Yorkshire, the 2002 C&G finalists, were both relegated in the Championship. Glamorgan, the one-day league champions, finished 14th in the four-day game. Only Surrey, Warwickshire and Essex achieved any consistency, and of those only Warwickshire were in both first divisions. The elite that the divisional system was designed to create is barely visible on the horizon.

The Championship tables are a bad joke. You cannot have decimal points on a league table and expect to broaden your appeal, a vital consideration when total county membership stands at a perilous 128,000. Like a fingernail with its DNA, the Championship tables carry the imprint of cricket's fudges and fussings. Relegating three counties out of nine is recognised as too many everywhere but the First-Class Forum. The column some of the media list as "ded" is ugly and puzzling (it stands for deduction, or points docked for slow over-rates). And bonus points are one of the worst ideas ever to last 35 years, even in cricket. Imagine a world in which the only points on offer were three for a win and one for a draw (it's easy if you try). How would the Championship look? We applied it to the last two years' tables, and it made no significant difference. The champions were the same, and the relegations, and the promotions. A couple of teams swapped places, but in mid-table. And each line contained seven or eight digits, rather than as many as 18. Being easily understood, it'll never catch on.

A star is Vaughan

© Getty Images

In Roget's Thesaurus, cricket appears in the same section as dancing. Sport and dance aspire to the same beautiful aimlessness - light-footed, swivel-hipped, free-spirited. But you wouldn't know it from the recent history of English batsmanship.

For a decade the dominant influence has been Graham Gooch, a batsman admirable in almost every way but not noted for twinkling toes. Gooch's method disregarded the feet in favour of shifting his weight, and that of the boulder he used for a bat. It worked for him and seeped into the technique of a couple of his opening partners, Alec Stewart and Mike Atherton, who had a spring in their heels but edited it out as the arteries hardened. Stewart and Atherton in turn opened with Marcus Trescothick, who was Gooch in a mirror: tall, strong, and stiff as a toy soldier. Now Trescothick's partner is Michael Vaughan, who became, in 2002, both a top-class player and a one-man reversal of this trend. He pirouetted to pull respectable deliveries; he went right forward, with a high elbow and a mean look in his eye, to send the ball skimming past cover; he went back to late-cut as if in a sepia newsreel. He reminded John Woodcock of Len Hutton. Best of all, he went down the wicket to loft world-renowned spinners over mid-wicket. With his quick feet, hands and wits, he could not have been nimbler if he had been wearing white tie and tails.

Vaughan's hundreds at home came on flat pitches, against modest seam attacks, but then he did it all over again on his first Ashes tour, in cricket's hottest kitchen. Asked to name the best moment of his career, he said the Ashes - scoring his three centuries. Asked for the worst moment, he said the Ashes again - losing them 4-1. So he has balance as well as talent. He is, with all respect to the two durable gentlemen in top hats, a worthy cover star for Wisden.

Vaughan was as automatic a choice for Five Cricketers of the Year as Bradman was for Five Cricketers of the Century. So was Matthew Hayden, another who has come in from the fringe to make huge runs at high speed. There were seven strong contenders for the last three places, which went in the end to Nasser Hussain, England's most influential figure in a generation; Shaun Pollock, one of the world's top two seamers, as well as a stylish batsman (and a now ex-captain, who won 14 Tests and lost only five); and Adam Hollioake, the outstanding county captain of the past few years. The choice of Hussain and Pollock may raise eyebrows, as both led national teams to heavy defeats in Australia, but if we ruled out players who get hammered by the Australians, we wouldn't have many left.

© John Wisden & Co