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What makes cricket special

Earlier posts: Intro , 1 .

Earlier posts: Intro, 1.
Amit Varma’s preliminary remarks are unexpectedly poignant, as some of us in Australia have been experiencing Rip Van Winkle moments of late. A month or two ago, the ABC’s barely-watched pay channel replayed at length the 1984-85 Worrell Trophy series. Past masters strutted their stuff anew: Lloyd, Richards, Greenidge, Gomes, Dujon, Marshall, Garner v Border, Wessels, Lawson and, all too briefly and forlornly, Hughes. It seemed both only yesterday but, in the character of the play, also long, long ago. Bowlers enjoyed the ascendant. The ball moved and bounced. In order to reach boundaries set right on the fence, batsmen really had to find the middle. I felt a wave of nostalgia, in fact, at the sight of bats that were obviously favourites of their owners, exhibiting heavily marked middles and signs of repair.
It was actually a better series than I remembered, with a strong sense of contest and commitment. There were letdowns too: the slow bowling was nugatory and the fielding was ordinary. But the contrast with what was on show in Australia last summer, when runs were in plentiful supply and bowlers bore a hunted look, could hardly have been more acute. If you studied modern average tabulations, I dare say you’d not only find a higher proportion of batsmen averaging 50 than at any other time in Test history, but a higher proportion of runs being obtained in fours and sixes. And in one-day cricket, as Bob Woolmer suggests, the ante seems to be upped weekly.
The 872-run extravaganza at Wanderers was if not the greatest of ODIs, surely one of the strangest, at times resembling the children’s game T-ball, that variation of rounders where the ball is belted off a stationary tee. But it was neither the start nor the finish of a long-term process.
For the game has been a long time coming. Jam-packed international schedules are good for batsmen, offering a profusion of opportunities, and bad for bowlers, condemning them to a regime of increasing toil: the temptation is to ‘bowl smart’, within oneself, from a shortened run-up with a minimum of experimentation, risking nought where injuries are concerned. The transformation of Shaun Pollock from a head-hunting tearaway to a 125kmh corridor bowler is about more than age: it is a recognition of what it takes to endure in modern cricket.
There are other forces at work too. As our culture grows more aggressive, acquisitive and exhibitionistic, so does our sport. Batsmen are physically stronger and mentally bolder, playing more short-form cricket, both 50-over and Twenty20, which reduces the bowler to a drone and a drudge. Bats have improved colossally in their power-to-weight ratios. Thick edges travel for six; mishits clear in-fields. The game has changed even at grass roots level. Being a sentimental soul, I have all the bats I’ve used in my thirty-odd years as a club cricketer. I pick up the old ones and wonder how I ever used them. My latest is 2Ib 7oz, but picks up lighter and hits much further: I am game to hit over the top now in a fashion I would never have attempted even five years ago. As a slow bowler who must cope with the cosh from others, though, I reckon I deserve it!
What to do? It is expecting too much that bats should be made somehow less powerful, and the insistence on wood alone is, at least for the moment, probably a sufficient of an inhibition. Something vanished from tennis when the wooden racquet disappeared, and has not reappeared with the increase in the size of the ball, but no one speaks of turning the clock back: we are a generation that likes power in sport, and a little brutality as well, to get the adrenalin going, to engage the casual sports browser, to keep the networks happy.
What seems beyond dispute is that boundaries are too short. ridiculously so. In fact, the whole idea of standardizing the size of the cricket field seems as pointless as standardizing the design of golf courses: it is just something for ICC apparatchiks to do, when they’re not measuring the size of logos on players’ shirts and handing out plastic bats to Eskimos. It is not simply that short boundaries advantage batsmen: it is that short boundaries advantage a particular kind of mediocre slogger, introducing greater uniformity into the game. The skill of working the ball into gaps, turning the strike over by placement and industry, is in decline, because boundaries have become so absurdly easy to hit. And in the end, nobody benefits. When bowling poses no threat to batsmen, batting loses meaning. It is not even really possible to be great, merely productive and effective.
What we are overdue, however, is a generalized consideration, by administrators, players and press, of what makes cricket special, different, unique - which we are sometimes not very good at articulating. The modern assumption seems to be that the bigger, wilder and louder the spectacle, the better. But that is an imposition of TV’s values on cricket, and they are not the same. Cricket seems to me to have two priorities that we should be doing our best to nurture and promote: preservation of the equilibrium of bat and ball, and maximizing of the variety of its skills. The current direction of the game seems antagonistic to both.