Note: This column is so vehemently indifferent to the world's most popular ballgame it refuses to spell out its name - f***ball more than suffices, occasionally "effball". The following confession is therefore made with the utmost reluctance: the stage that gave us Joao Havelange, Sepp Blatter and - coming horribly soonish - a World Cup in Qatar is the official sponsor of this month's offering.
"Ly-chester"… "Ly-cester"… "Lyster…" The succession of comic mispronouncements felt too trite not to have been stage-managed. Yet somehow, the grim concentration and earnestness on the faces of the American golfers on Sky Sports convinced otherwise. And somehow, weirdly, "Lychester City" actually wound up sounding grander than "Lester City", and hence even worthier of planet-wide admiration and gratitude. Besides, why be churlish when a team from one of the most multi-ethnic corners of lil' ol' Limeyland makes headlines on CNN not only for pulling off a 5000-1 coup but doing so in a sport that until only recently the natives had deemed about as interesting as long-distance tiddlywinks?
True, it was for winning the only sporting league on Earth more overflowing with self-regard than the NFL and the IPL. Granted, precious few of the contributors could be classified as English. Winning the English Premier League - for the town whose previous most prominent sons had been Sir Alec Jeffreys, the geneticist behind DNA, and Engelbert Humperdinck, owner of a decent voice and enough hair to single-handedly cure global baldness - will surely stand for some time as a benchmark for sporting improbability.
Ah, but what is the cricketing equivalent of Claudio Ranieri and his mischievously merry men? The short answer? There isn't really one. The long answer follows.
To Hove last Tuesday, where a batch of eager University of Brighton sports journalism students are sunning themselves in front of a sponsor's box and witnessing a stoical match-saving century by that admirable Sussex stalwart Chris Nash. They have just interviewed Mark Davis and Zac Toumazis, home team coach and chief executive respectively, wise fellows with plenty to say. A day, one might imagine, for the scrapbook.
"At its highest level, cricket is played by a smattering of sides; it also has no proper league system, nor even a fixture list bearing much resemblance to symmetry or even parity"
There was, however, but one question on those young minds. Not whether a proper Test championship was feasible, or whether making tossing (tee-hee!) an option rather than an obligation was a bright idea, but this: what did their fitfully esteemed lecturer rate as a comparably improbable feat to Leicester's triumph? The answer was swift - James "Buster" Douglas shattering Mike Tyson's aura of invincibility in Tokyo a quarter of a century ago. Yet as soon as it emerged, the lecturer knew that the two couldn't possibly be compared.
Leicester's enriching accomplishment was the result of nine months' sweat and growl, not an evening's work. In addition to rubbishing the economic odds - as they did every time they defeated a wealthier club (i.e. a large majority of their rivals) - they maintained their uprising throughout a 38-game campaign. Greatness is only attainable over time, not on the whims and capriciousness of a single contest. That's why it's so difficult to bring cricket into this debate, and also why the game has one outstanding contender that eclipses all challengers.
Cricket is so tricky to analyse in this context, not only because at its highest level it is played by a smattering of sides; it also has no proper league system, nor even a fixture list bearing much resemblance to symmetry or even parity. The ICC rankings? Come, come. How many other leagues are decided by a points system too complex for even the most scholarly to comprehend at a glance?
All the same, the one indisputable measure of true, lasting, collective cricketing greatness remains West Indies' unbeaten run in Tests from 1980 to 1995. Incorporating 20 series wins and nine draws, this achievement was rendered triply extra-heroic by the fact that the players 1) represented a clutch of nations with different identities and currencies; 2) dominated despite the bitter disputes with the cricket board that dog the islands to this day; and 3) were comprised entirely of members of a race long ridiculed and patronised by the white elite.
In team sports you can almost invariably trace the foundations of the most successful representative collectives to advantages in economics and/or population base: the US, USSR and, latterly, China at the Olympics; Brazil, Italy and Germany in effball; England, Australia and, latterly, India in cricket. Uruguay (winners of two FIFA World Cups and two Olympic f***ball titles between 1924 and 1950) and New Zealand (for more than a century, the All Blacks have personified rugby union excellence) are wonderful anomalies. The same applies double to cricket in the Caribbean.
Here, after all, Barbadians united with Antiguans, Jamaicans and Trinidadians and Guyanese*, yet the dressing room - even in the recent past - had traditionally been a hotbed of inter-island rivalry. As Viv Richards often lamented, there was no single flag to fly, no standard to bear. That's why Clive Lloyd made a point of ensuring that room-mates, wherever and whenever possible, came from different islands.
Money, furthermore, has almost always been far too tight to mention: virtually all the members of those West Indies teams made their fortunes - a strictly relative expression - through their deeds for English counties, who paid immeasurably better wages. Now consider another obstacle. Of all the measures introduced by cricket's administrators, none was more nakedly designed to stop a single team than the 1991 decision to restrict the number of bouncers that could be bowled in an over. Never mind that Lloyd and Richards' bowlers were far from exclusively responsible for the damage done to batsmen's bodies and confidence; never mind that opponents were already preparing slower pitches. As Michael Holding reasoned, moreover, if bouncers were so reprehensible to spectators, why did they flock to see them?
Imran Khan, then captain of Pakistan, alone in consistently testing the marauders in maroon, also deplored the bouncer restriction: "England and Australia have been through a phase where they were being thrashed by West Indies. Instead of being fair about it, and trying to beat them on even terms, they are trying to handicap them." Not unreasonably, the r-word reared its head. In the Caribbean Times, Stephen Humbolt refused to pull his punches, asserting that it all "smacks of racism".
This did not, however, bring about any sudden U-turn. Not for decades would Graeme Fowler, one of just three England batsmen to score a century against West Indies in the 15 Wisden Trophy Tests from 1984 to 1988, express what so many had fought so tirelessly to conceal: "A lot of people who didn't like it were just jealous. And besides, it was Australia that started it, Lillee and Thomson."
Not until 2012 - when, as part of an apparently forlorn quest to revitalise the 50-over game, the ICC decided to allow bowlers two bouncers per over - was a quiet and unacknowledged line drawn under a measure born primarily of envy and fear. Not of an arriviste plaything for a Russian oligarch or Arabian prince but of an ancient, repressed and exploited people prepared to fight for respect and equality.
Back, then, to the glory of the sporting league, first conceived a century and a half ago by newspapers as a way to crown a county champion, a format wherein it was eventually decreed that each participant should play the same number of games - all play all, home and away. Yet while we sporty types congratulated ourselves that here was the immaculate conception, governments and states adapted and corrupted the principle, calculating and publishing regional crime figures or those for CO2 emissions, say, but with far more selective use of statistics and manipulation of categories than their sporting counterparts. How dreadfully ironic that the invention that gave us Leicester City has also wrought havoc with the English school system: the implementation of league tables inevitably bred a temptation, when marking coursework, to massage the figures, converting education into an invitation, effectively, to match-fix.
"The ICC is on the verge of electing its first purportedly "independent" chairman: may the new man be left in no doubt where the immediate priority lies: a credible world championship"
And so, with equal inevitability, to cricket's most significant failure of organisation/ imagination/ will/guts: that perennial inability to organise a Test championship remotely worthy of the name. The excuses used to be numbers, scheduling and format, but we've gone a long way past alibis.
In Hove, Toumazis graciously requested whether, come this week's ECB conflab, he could propose this column's motion to designate the final Test of a series as the ranking match in a rolling championship (which would have the additional virtue of killing a second bird with a single stone: no more "dead rubbers"). The winner of each series would also earn points, the result a league from which the semi-finalists would emerge at the end of a four-year period. Cue home-and-away semi-finals with bonus points available to resolve stalemates, followed by a best-of-three final - home and away, with a decider on neutral ground.
Admittedly, this will almost certainly breed an interminable rash of one-match rubbers, but we can live with that: the fewer long-form contests played by the uncommitted, the better. And just to head off any cunning plans to arrange a schedule with the minimum matches, further points would be awarded to those arranging series spanning at least three chapters.
Encouragingly, the ECB has belatedly taken this column's kindly advice and confirmed that the innovative scoring system for the 2014 women's Ashes will be employed for the menfolk's impending tussles with Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Next week's Headingley Test, then, marks the latest phase in a budding age of enlightenment. The ICC is on the verge of electing its first purportedly "independent" chairman: may the new man be left in no doubt where the immediate priority lies: a credible world championship.
11:10:29 GMT, May 12, 2015: *Corrected from "Guyanans"