Cricket and the curse of conservatism

Ian Davis sees the ball fly during a a World Series Cricket limited-overs match in Sydney Adrian Murrell / © Getty Images

Aversion to change has long been the curse of cricket. Arch conservatism dogs its every step. In England, even those who like to imagine themselves as revolutionary offshoots of Che Guevara are likely to admit that when it comes to cricket they develop an immediate weakness for picket fences and Cherry Bakewells.

Every development that has helped to keep the game alive by attuning it to the mood of the times - be it T20, coloured clothing, floodlit cricket of any sort, World Cups, promotion and relegation, professionalism, fielding circles, DRS, helmets - has been met by a resistant movement. Whatever you care to name, cricket has been able to assemble an army who prefer the game went to the grave clinging to its traditional garb, congratulating themselves that they, and only they, upheld its true values, kept the faith, held the line.

It is typical of cultural conservatism that we are not content with enjoying the delights that cricket can offer but we seek to preserve it for future generations in exactly the form in which it exists today. For sure, that caution sometimes protects the essence of a game, recognises its limitations in terms of appeal, the qualities that sustain it and the values it represents, but as far as cricket is concerned, the fear of change has routinely been excessive.

Nowhere has cricket's resistance movement awoken more in the past month than in the suspicions surrounding the first floodlit Test. You would have thought the pink ball was made of Kryptonite, such was the devastating effect it was about to unleash on a generation of Superman batsmen long favoured by big bats, flat pitches and fast bowlers blunted by heavy workloads.

Detractors will not have been pacified by what followed. The Test did not make it into the fourth day and there were only 821 runs in the match. But lessons will be learned, the balance between bat and ball slightly adjusted. And there was a savage irony in the fact that the pitch that the ICC marked as poor was Nagpur, provider of another three-day Test, this time only 652 runs, as India played to their strengths on an underprepared turning surface in traditional daytime hours.

The statistics that really mattered in Adelaide concerned audience engagement. Not just the attendance of 123,736 over three days but record-breaking TV audiences in Australia that came close to 2 million for the first two days and peaked at more than 3 million for the climax on the third day. Test cricket had life. If batting was harder, the public quite liked the notion.

Michael Atherton, the former England captain, writer and commentator, got it right. "A game with no live audience has no future," he wrote. The sooner everyone in cricket understands that, the easier the acceptance of change will become," he said. It was a message that should be pinned up in every committee room worldwide. The first rule of any professional sport should be to fill the grounds.

Some statisticians will not be pacified. They ignored the large, responsive crowds packing into Adelaide Oval and bemoaned the fact that Test match records had somehow been devalued. Even Kevin Pietersen, not previously thought of as a potential future chairman of the Association of Cricket Statisticians and Historians, added his voice to those fretting that Test cricket - "the pinnacle of the game" - would be devalued by lower scores. "You've got to change all the statistics," he opined, implying that floodlit Test cricket, by virtue of being harder for batsmen, was an inferior form of the game.

"Cricket, first and foremost, is a sport, not a vehicle for statistics or aesthetic contemplation. The statistics of cricket are incidental, and so is the beauty of cricket"

The opposite could easily be argued. Test cricket has most been devalued by pitches so benign that spectators have been expected to sit there for five days, admiring little else other than admirable levels of batting concentration. Admire it by all means, but a spectacle for the masses it does not make.

The statistical objections to the floodlit Test were particularly absurd. Cricket lovers have always been a strange amalgamation of the statistically inclined and those moved by the aesthetic beauty of the game. One group logs a cover-driven boundary with relish; the other group sighs with delight at the stroke. One group seeks to ascertain if there have been more runs in the final session that season; the rest wonder if there might be a glorious sunset. This is most true of low-level county cricket, where it is always a relief to find somebody who cares passionately about the result.

Cricket, first and foremost, is a sport, not a vehicle for statistics or aesthetic contemplation. Those statistics are often compelling, arising from the capacity of a simple cricket scorecard to be analysed in countless different ways. The beauty of cricket is also unsurpassed among team sports. Whatever football thinks, cricket is the real Beautiful Game. But the statistics of cricket are incidental, and so is the beauty of cricket. They are merely a by-product of the game itself. And the game needs its heroes, its debate, its controversies, a wider appeal more than ever. The health of the game insisted that a floodlit Test had to be embraced.

Equally, the contention that floodlit Test cricket undermines the game's statistics relies on the absurd proposition that the game has been unchanging since England and Australia first walked out for a timeless Test in Melbourne in 1877, when even those with the scantest knowledge of cricket's history will realise that when Charles Bannerman recorded the first Test century he did it on a worse pitch, against lesser bowlers and with a bat that could not have been more divorced from the modern age of power-hitting. And even now, the longer the most powerful Test nations refuse to play the weakest, the more artificially inflated the averages of the weakest will be.

It is the variables in cricket that are a major part of its appeal. Were that not so, we would have sought to improve the data by moving enthusiastically to artificial pitches, equipped batsmen with identical bats, and if funds could be found, roofed the stadiums so that Tests could be contested at a constant temperature, perhaps with a slight cross-breeze provided by a giant-sized A/C system.

We don't because that would be a path towards eternal boredom. Instead, we should treasure the infinite variety of the game, a game played internationally across three formats, in daylight hours and under lights, between countries and - increasingly - between clubs, a game that offers the public more choice than ever before and, if it escapes its conservatism and its elitism and seeks to adjust intelligently to the preferences of its audience, can have a long and glorious future. Change is the law of life, as John F Kennedy once put it. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.