Cricket and the mobile phone

One of the wonders of the digital age has a bad name in our world of cricket. The mobile phone is the device a prominent England player used to communicate some scurrilous, maybe seditious views about the team’s hierarchy to friends in the opposing camp. He could have scribbled them on scraps of paper and had an innocent member of the ground staff slip them under the opposition team’s dressing room door. But cricketers’ ink and pen writing has for some time been limited to signing bats for good causes (possibly including, depending on your point of view, benefit fundraisers). The ease of writing afforded by mobile devices had made us a most literate age; and rather forgetful of the adage, if you wouldn’t want your Mother/boss to read it, don’t write it down.

Twenty years ago, mobile phones had no associations with the written word. They were talking devices. But even in this mono-functional form, they developed a bad reputation in cricket. Brian Lara was revelling in one of the plumpest runs of form any batsmen anywhere has ever enjoyed. Starting in April 1994 with his test record score of 375 against England in Antigua, he moved onto Warwickshire (as a replacement for Manoj Prabhakar, who was filling in for Allan Donald, never let it be forgotten). There he put together a string of scores, including the world record first class score of 501 against Durham.

Lara, young, imperious, indefatigable, bright of eye and mind became a target for sponsors. He was seen wearing a three-piece suit, awkwardly I was told, helping a finance company sell something or other. Gladstone Small recalls his next marketing mission.

It was here [Taunton] that he took delivery of his mobile phone. On the last morning, just as we were about to take the field, his manager phoned him up. When the call ended, Brian was halfway on to the pitch, so he just pocketed the phone. After a few overs of being egged on by Keith Piper and myself, he pulled it out and made a quick call. He got a lot of stick for what was intended as a jape.

The mobile phone had sullied our new hero.

Then there’s the story of Allan Lamb, Ian Botham and Dickie Bird. Different sources have Lamb or Botham giving Bird the phone at a Test match, county game or B&H tie. A call is made about horse-racing, Lamb’s batting or as Botham is in his run-up. I’m sure it did happen, just as sure as I am that it was funny at the time.

So phones appeared as stunt items on the field of play, but their next role in cricket was much less visible, but wholly malign.

In 2000-01 accusations of cricket match and in-match incident fixing burst into the media, many dating back into the previous decade. A handful of players were banned, most spectacularly, Hanse Cronje. Paul Condon, appointed head of ICC’s brand new anti-corruption unit, drew together the threads of the allegations and investigations in his report of 2001. Amongst the causes of corruption, Condon concluded, was the lack of security around international cricketers, and the ease with which they could be contacted by the corrupters. This meant mobile phones. He addressed this risk with two recommendations of his report.

The ICC responded with its Minimum standards for players and players’ support staff areas in international matches, which requires mobile devices of players to be surrendered and safely stored before they come to the playing venue; visitors to the players’ areas must hand over their mobile devices for safekeeping.

The portable phones’ next stumble into cricket controversy came with third generation mobile networks cross-fertilising with web 2.0. July 2009 and Australia’s young prodigy, Phil Hughes, was lasting at the crease no longer than it takes an app to download to a smart phone. On the morning of the third Ashes Test, Hughes tweeted, “Disappointed not to be on the field with the lads today…” breaking news of his dropping to the world, hours before the team was to be announced. The Australian management were charmingly non-plussed. If cricinfo is to be believed, Coach Tim Nielsen commented, “I now know of what Twitter is.”

Hughes apologised and explained that he had sent a text to his manager who had tweeted it from India, ignorant of time differences. Hughes had hinted at the potential of Twitter and soon cricketers were optimising its potential to damage their reputations. In 2010, young England cricketer, Azeem Rafiq , blurted a tweet full of abuse of the England management after he was dropped. And so it has continued, to the extent that many commentators on Pietersen’s predicament have wrongly assumed he tweeted, not texted his comments about Strauss.

This is entertaining for cricket followers. With a digital wireless network and the mass-production of the devices, we have become always connected. Cricket, its action unfolding over hours across the day is so well suited to this always connected device. I wrote a first draft of this post heading north to Scotland by train, following England’s first innings at Lord’s by logging into Cricinfo every 20 minutes – but then, I’m old-fashioned. With a stronger more reliable signal, I could have tried my Sky app and watched the match. The mobile phone has become an essential platform for the cricket enthusiast who can’t be at the match: providing live pictures, live commentary or at worst, ball-by-ball written description or twitter stream.

Having that potential, of course, creates an expectation. As holidays in Cornwall, Devon, Norfolk and Northumberland have shown me, life on the edge of a 3G connection provides little pleasure and much anti-social wandering, peering at a small screen, willing the appearance of the little lines that indicate the presence of the invisible connection.

Cricketers have used mobile phones to clown and corrupt and unwittingly expose their selfish thoughts. Technology’s impact is not inherent but takes the shape of its users’ intent. This wet summer of 2012 provides an example of the mobile phone assisting cricket.

The British Universities & Colleges quarter-final tie between Bournemouth University and Oxford University had twice been thwarted by rain. A third attempt at play was called off the night before, leaving a bowl-out to decide the fixture. The teams repaired to sports halls – different ones, in their own home towns. There, supervised by umpires in contact with each other by mobile phone, the teams bowled their ten deliveries. The scores were even and a tie-breaker arranged with a coin-toss by phone then alternating sudden-death deliveries. Bournemouth won. The press report doesn’t record whether the opponents then gathered around the phones, set to speaker, and chanted:’Three cheers for Bournemouth/Oxfored, hip hip hooray..”

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About chrisps

TouchlineDad to three sporty kids; cricket blogger and coach; and the alpha male in our pride.

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