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David Hopps

Is the game going to the dogs?

Cricket's future lies with the young, but that future is an uncertain one, as the latest furore over mankading shows

David Hopps
David Hopps
Veterans' tournaments are good for nostalgists, but how much do they really matter?  •  Getty Images

Veterans' tournaments are good for nostalgists, but how much do they really matter?  •  Getty Images

It begins for most people as they progress through their fifties: the recognition that they are no longer connecting as reliably with the mood of the times. Every week cricket's unplanned economy looks ever more cluttered and chaotic. Market forces direct the game where they wish, while the administrators provide no guiding hand on the tiller.
There is now even a thing called the Masters Champions League, which no doubt is a welcome addition for those who like to catch up, on the telly, with those they have loved, but which strikes me as a competition where nobody much cares who wins or loses and where there are likely to be more conversations about money than at the average hedge-fund reunion.
Orson Welles wrote that it was an artist's duty to be out of step with the times, which is a comfortingly highfalutin way of looking at it for us jobbing journalists, although I'm not sure whether Orson thought it mattered if we are ahead of the times or behind them while we write the requisite number of words in an acceptable amount of time, without attracting too much condemnation on social media, before wandering down the pub.
As an assiduous reader of a certain age might have noticed, I am beginning to sound at times like EM Wellings, whose haughty, condemnatory views in Wisden Cricket Monthly when I was a young adult caused me utter bemusement. Born in Egypt, Wellings was a voice of Empire, a representative of a time and class that I did not understand nor much care for. Suffice to say, he often concluded that the game was going to the dogs.
Attacks of EM-itis represent a slurry of despond that has to be escaped at all costs, so I found refuge in ESPNcricinfo's highlights of the Under-19 World Cup. Here surely was where the game was at its most uplifting. Young players awash with ambition, possessing an intriguing mix of talent and naivety, careers still to be forged, names jostling to implant themselves in the public consciousness. This was cricket that mattered - cricket with a future - and it was good to see it available to a wider audience.
Others could seek the nostalgia of retired players assembling in the Middle East for a decent Masters payday. Some participants talk unconvincingly of comebacks, but this is a tournament essentially about the backstory. Sport does not take easily to back stories - apart from golf which is the only sport where the kit looks more appropriate the older you get. Old films may date, but their intrinsic qualities remain unimpaired. These days rock stars can perform right until the grave - literally in the case of David Bowie - but cricketers decline with age, and for every player who gives an occasional frisson of times gone by, another will not have aged so well. That has not stopped the sponsors flocking in.
Yes, it was the U-19 World Cup for me, with its constant sense of discovery. Business tycoons do not jostle here. But here was the uncovering of a new country. Here was somewhere to keep age at bay more successfully than the nostalgic reissue of comforting old brands.
Then came the mankad.
Keemo Paul, bowling for West Indies against Zimbabwe, sought victory and achieved both victory and notoriety as he ran out Richard Ngarava without ever contemplating anything as complicated as a delivery stride. Until then, the U-19 World Cup had been a refreshing interlude, but in an instant I metamorphosed into Wellings again, except without quite the same social circle.
The most optimistic conclusion is that at least the ensuing fuss proved that the U-19 World Cup matters, whereas if somebody pulls off a mankad in the MCL, it will probably be because they got an attack of cramp and stumbled into the stumps. There would be a chance that the batsman's pulse might race a little, but there will be no impassioned debate about the future of the game
The past is an old country, a safe refuge in which to cling to memories; the Masters League knows that. The game's future lies with the young. But that future is an uncertain one and in an instant Paul underlined that the one certainty about the next generation is that it is liable to do much as it pleases.
That Paul should not be vilified because of cricket's mixed messages on mankading is an argument of some validity. That he was not the first is fact. That his action was within the Laws - whether you read the Law for the amateur or professional game - is also beyond question.
I plan to have a word with Stuart Broad. The plan when the World T20 comes round is to mankad Suresh Raina and Virat Kohli, without warning, in successive balls
But mankading is not just about the Laws. For many of us a prior warning remains an issue both of convention and of civilised behaviour: not just about the spirit of cricket but of the habitual conduct of cricket. If mankading is both legal and hunky-dory and is allegedly an acceptable vision of a brave new world, then why does it happen so rarely? The obvious answer is that residual guilt remains over its underhand nature. For a young West Indian seeking to make his way to be brazen enough to cut through that guilt came to many as a terrible jolt.
According to an ESPNcricinfo poll, 63% still believe a mankad should not be attempted without prior warning. They are right to fear the anarchy that could descend without that tradition. But only 13% oppose a mankad under any circumstances. If convention is now to be rubbished as outdated - which may be where we are heading - then the requirement for a warning must be written into the Laws. That will suit nearly everybody. The MCC and ICC should awaken to the pragmatic, compromise solution.
I can feel Wellings nodding with approval at my shoulder even now; he may even invite me to a sherry party or two beyond the grave, where EW Swanton can also be relied upon for some trenchant judgement, although I am far from convinced I will attend. For one thing, I have always used my full name in a byline; it would not feel right to mix with those who rely only on initials. For another thing, they are probably against mankading full stop and are unlikely to let me get a word in.
Paul, like several before him, has uncovered a conflicted world, and on Twitter there was a strong sense of cricket's underlying political power struggle. In England, many who support mankading do so as some sort of rebellion against what is perceived as the upper-middle class moral hold on the game, as a vision of a democratic future when cricket is unafraid of playing to win in whatever form it takes.
In other parts of the cricketing world, it is not long before the debate lapses into mention of Empire, of the rejected ways of colonialism, and of a new order. Mankading is championed partly because it is seen as a rebellion against English convention. Postcolonialism shows no signs of fading and will outlive me by a distance.
So vexing was all this failure to examine the real issue - what would cricket look like for the coming generation with an unabashed licence to mankad? - that I went out for a stress-relieving jog, it being the first time for about three months in northern England that it had not rained, stopping on the way at the post office, where, emboldened by Twitter, I imagined my black-hearted self, freed from behavioural dilemmas, jumping the queue for the counter while an elderly lady daydreamingly flicked through the Valentine's Day cards.
"That's not very civilised."
"There's no law against it."
The mankad debate carried forth into the world.
The temptation was resisted. But armed with this new philosophy, freed from the yoke of convention, free to undertake whatever methods I wish, I plan to have a word with Stuart Broad. The plan when the World T20 comes round is to mankad Suresh Raina and Virat Kohli, without warning, in successive balls.
Broad doesn't know of the plan yet, but it might be just the sort of thing to appeal to his confrontational streak. That way, as the next generation takes up the mantle, we will see whether cricket can happily mankad at will or whether we would face years of recrimination and disillusionment in which case, in the words of Wellings and his ilk, the game really would be going to the dogs.

David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps