The way people play sports is progressive and liberal, but conventional wisdom about them tends to conservatism
Innovative but nostalgic, ingenious but fearful, competitive but protective: the way people play sports is progressive and liberal, but conventional wisdom about them tends to conservatism. Just after the first spear was hurled on the savannah, someone doubtless objected that the game was far better back in the good old days. Golden-ageism is as old as the game. Sport's body is youthful but its temperament is pipe-and-slippers, never-would-have-happened-in-my-day.
And yet, innovations that were fiercely resisted by sports at the time quickly became part of the established rhythm of the game. Very fiercely resisted, in fact, and very quickly established.
At The Oval on August 26, 1862, English bowler Edgar Willsher was no-balled six times in succession by umpire John Lillywhite. Willsher and the other eight professionals stumped off the pitch in a huff. Willsher's crime? It was the first spell of deliberate overarm bowling.
When Kerry Packer challenged the cricketing establishment in the late 1970s, his critics objected not only to his audacity but railed at the product itself. Lights? Coloured clothing? This was sacrilege - "pyjama cricket", in the phrase of Christopher Martin-Jenkins. But while the schism of Packer cricket took time to heal, the innovations were an instant hit. Fans loved day-night cricket, as even the naysayers had to admit. The theatre of the lights, the convenience of after-work hours, the modernity and the sense of adventure - it breathed life into the game.
Players don't always know best about what's good for the game. In 2003, I attended the AGM of the English Professional Cricketers' Association. The English governing body had a new proposal for us. With attendance at grounds declining, gate receipts reducing and newspaper interest dwindling, a task force had devised a new form of the game designed to rekindle England's latent passion for cricket. It was to be called Twenty20.
And what was the reaction? Excitement and optimism? Not in my row of seats. I was sitting next to a bunch of seasoned senior county pros. They weren't impressed: yet another competition, a gimmick, wouldn't catch on. IPL anyone?
Even the relatively minor innovation of the Decision Review System was regarded with widespread scepticism. Objections to the practical implications - a lack of continuity and interruptions to the rhythm of the game - were just the beginning. The DRS, apparently, was also a potentially lethal blow to the sport's moral compass - as though the on-field umpire had to retain legal status as infallible, like a sporting Pope. In fact, the DRS simply helps to reduce the rate of the mistakes, umpires being human, after all, just like the players.
When television production companies embraced the logical and unavoidable decision to broadcast footage alternatively from both ends, rather than from one fixed single camera (half of all lbw appeals were effectively impossible to see), cricket's conservatives grumbled about feeling disorientated.
To be fair to cricket, it is far from the only sport to resist change at almost every turn. In the 1930s, the long-form drama of baseball became increasingly attractive to radio stations. Presumably the owners of baseball teams were delighted with the added interest and publicity? Not a bit of it. "They [the fans] won't come to the ballpark if you give the game away" was the standard argument. It was wrong. Yet it was radio, even more than the printed word, that helped define baseball as America's "national pastime".
The same arguments were rolled out when TV got into the act. Red Smith, the celebrated sportswriter, called baseball on television a "peep show". The "video version of baseball" could never be more than "a makeshift substitute for the real thing". In 1947, the first full season of broadcasts, the president of the National League described television as "another big problem for us". It didn't work out that way, and every sport, of course, now scrambles for every minute of airtime it can get.
All of which brings us to the current debate about the upcoming day-night Test match. Later this month Australia and New Zealand will contest a five-day match in Adelaide, under lights, using a pink ball. Objections have been numerous. Will the durability of the pink ball be adequate? What about the affront to tradition? Might it skew cricket's precious regard for the integrity of statistics? (Arcane arguments still rage about the status of the 2005 Super Series between Australia and the Rest of the World.)
There are no guarantees, of course, that day-night Test cricket will work. Change always entails an element of risk, no matter how small. But what is the alternative? That Test cricket - hands in pockets, head down, eyes closed - sleepwalks towards gradual decline?
Tradition and familiarity are indeed central to Test cricket's deepest appeal. The paradox of successful traditions, however, is that they rely on constant adaptation and subtle change. In The Invention of Tradition, the English historian Eric Hobsbawm showed how apparently iconic national traditions were, in fact, skilful constructions, creations of opportunism and salesmanship as well as the stock of collective memory.
Not many traditions are strong enough to stand dead still. An experiment with pink balls and day-night matches is not much of a risk. Doing nothing is the real risk facing Test cricket.