Eoin Morgan’s achievement at setting a new England one-night stand blackmail record of £35,000 almost went unnoticed this week. It took eagle-eyed statisticians in the Tasmanian police force to draw the cricket public’s attention to this feat.
Retired cricketers were quick to downplay the significance of this new high score. “These days, the lads jet all around the world, rarely spending more than one night in the same city. It’s very different from the game we played. Month after month, we were at home with the wife and kids. It’s just not fair to compare performances between the two eras.”
It doesn’t just come down to opportunity according to one England great of the recent past. “The equipment had transformed things. Take the size of beds. Swinging in one of these whoppers, well you’re bound to get lucky.”
Mike Gatting, whose record Morgan superseded, was keen to praise his Middlesex colleague. “Eoin is second to none in the pyjamas. He has that X-rated factor.” Gatting found one aspect of Morgan’s new mark unexpected. “Knowing what an unorthodox player Eoin is, I was a little surprised that it was a straight single that brought him the record.” Gatting couldn’t help musing on the changes three decades had brought. “I mean, how much would a roll with a barmaid in Brum be worth these days, what with the Internet and all?”
Head Coach, Peter Moores, saw it as a warning for the so-called experts who have been taking every opportunity to find fault with the England team. “They keep saying we’re not fancied. The skipper has shown that the people of Australia, the hosts of this World Cup, look upon our guys very favourably.”
In other news, England’s new record ODI run scorer, Ian Bell, was reticent about discussing his own achievement, apologising for distracting the team and its supporters from England’s upcoming elimination from the World Cup by scoring a run-a-ball hundred in a warm up match. He reasoned, “Obviously, it’s embarrassing. But at the end of the day, the lads failed to defend 300, so it shouldn’t have done too much damage to the unit.”
In a pointed remark about the recent impotence at the top of the England order, Bell added: “Obviously, for an opener having two balls at the start of the innings can help.” This begs the question of the particular handicaps that England’s previous opener was playing under.
Subtitle: And we wouldn’t watch it if you did.
The Melbourne Big Bash derby goes to the final ball, needing the third umpire to scrutinise five different camera angles on a scrambled single before awarding the match to the batting team.
SB Tang captures the excitement of viewers
Further away, Backwatersman calmly muses
A day later and the broadcaster is trying to drum up interest in the upcoming three-way ODI series, asking its viewers, “What can we expect from the Aussies?” Matt Webber can imagine:
I identify with all three statements. These are the views of cricket purists, knowledgeable and protective of the game. We want matches that stretch the imagination more than any writer would dare. But we want no artificial ingredients that add non-organic spice to our sport – although many less exacting followers of the game would settle for that. And we deride formulaic play that tends to emerge when cricket is boxed in by limits on time.
Cricket, left to the forces of nature may be pure, but it isn’t necessarily of a high quality or exciting. It involves far too much uncertainty. Even in the circumscribed arena of T20, uncertainty rules. The compelling drama of the conclusion to the Melbourne derby must coexist with the game three days later (Renegades v Heat) decided in 31 overs, with the outcome hardly in doubt after the initial five overs.
Overt scripting is not an option for cricket’s administrators. Instead, searching for a format that, more often than not, will delight its audience, they concoct playing regulations that promote preferred narratives. They place constraints on action and tactics that encourage bowlers to aim for the batsman’s hitting zone and batsman to aim for boundaries. The players surge or struggle with these biases, like actors required to improvise to music.
But recognising the limits of their tweaking, that some games will fall flat, there’s a secondary tactic: distraction. Son et lumière, celebrities and hyperbolic pundits.
For a small number of people around cricket, the desire to shape the outcome of the contest remains strong, the rewards plentiful. Scripting cricket could even be a euphemism for fixing. Sticking to a script doesn’t come naturally to many players, however, so close observation has revealed instances of players taking cues from shady playwrights. We don’t know, though, if some players are very good actors and pull it off under our noses. We speculate and agonise, but for the time being, remain tragically committed.
Quite separately, there is a wholly innocent practice of scripting cricket. It is the work of individuals who are not trying to influence the outcome on the field, but create an experience in the theatre of the mind. Fiction writers theoretically have no limits to what they write about sport, but story-tellers in the realist mode are constrained. Their tales must have a solid core of the familiar to earn the audience’s trust, which is balanced with the daring, shocking or imaginative elements that make the work distinctive.
Scripted, fictional cricket is different from the real thing. Fictional cricket has a moral, a message or an agenda. A dropped catch, a bowling change aren’t just part of the accumulation of incident that goes towards a match’s unfurling, but must have significance. In my own sole and short effort at fictional cricket – The final delivery of the 2015 World Cup – I wanted to tease out the possibility of a bowler banned for an illegal action, then rehabilitated, reverting to the illegal action at the moment of greatest tension. What would happen? Does cricket have the wherewithal to cope with a transgression at such a key moment? And seeking the reader’s acceptance of the familiar, I cloaked this speculation in the format of a (pre)view of the tournament.
The post found its warmest reception amongst Pakistan fans, which suggests to me that, despite my agenda, readers found their own pleasure in the piece. I was no more successful with my fiction, than Hansie Cronje and Salman Butt with their script-writing.
There was no agenda or authorial message behind the final over of the Stars versus Renegades encounter. You couldn’t script it, but if you tried, it might appear something like this.
The best end to a cricket match – EVER!
EXT: THE MELBOURNE CRICKET GROUND – EVENING (UNDER LIGHTS)
The Stars need six runs from the last over to defeat local rivals, the Renegades, skippered by FINCHY, who has expert death bowler, RIMMO at his disposal.
FINCHY (Renegades skipper, T20 giant)
RIMMO, mate, a couple of dots here and they’ll be twitching. Good areas. The best ones.
RIMMO (Calm, expert death bowler)
Slow bouncer, FINCHY?
It’d be your last, mate. Get that yorker working.
Ball 1: TRIFF on strike. Ball sliced past point. 2 runs taken.
Straighten up, mate. No room to swing his arms. Make it happen RIMMO.
Yeah, and I’ll pull your beard out, hair by hair.
Ball 2: Full and at the batsman’s feet. No run.
That’s a beauty, RIMMO. Just like I said, there’s no-one better.
(To the batsman)
Twinkle, twinkle little stars. Can’t move your feet?
Ball 3: Full, straight ball, edged away for a single.
FINCHY: (To KEATHY)
This isn’t a star, it’s a constellation. It’s Taurus, the bull.
We’ve got three runs; three runs to play with. He’s gonna swing. Tie him down, RIMMO. You can suffocate them. I’m backing you, mate.
Get outta here!
Ball 4: KEATHY on strike. Low full toss swung to midwicket.
FINCHY: (to the fielder)
They’re turning STOKESIE, hammer it in
STOKESIE misses the ball. Batsmen turn for the third and winning run.
Dozy Limey-Kiwi-Limey, fruit salad!
RIMMO: (to the fielder)
Bowler’s end! Speed of light. I’ve got him!
The return is to RIMMO’s right. He collects the ball crouching and swings his arms to his left and collapses the stumps.
RIMMO: (to the UMPIRE)
How is that!!
Out! Out! You got him, RIMMO. These Stars are falling. Unbelievable. You’ve got the golden touch today, mate.
Stars? You couldn’t even light up a Christmas tree.
Ball 5: One run to win. The ball is bowled full and straight. RIMMO falls in his delivery stride and finds the firmly driven ball in his hands. RIMMO’s up and back to the stumps to run out the non-striker.
RIMMO, it’s written in the stars. This is your moment, mate. You’re going to win this on your own. You’re taking wickets when you can’t stand up. Squeeze the life out of them.
You lot aren’t Stars, you’re black holes.
Okay, okay. I’m calm. We’re nearly there. I’m bringing us home.
Ball 6: One run to win. Another full ball to TRIFF, who stabs it to the right of the fielder, FERG, stationed close to the non-striker. FERG dives and still sprawling, back-flicks the ball at the stumps. RIMMO has fallen again after delivering the ball, but is up and smartly back to the stumps, fractionally before FERG’s throw; itself marginally before TRIFF’s dive to complete the winning run.
Golden arm, RIMMO. You’ve won it! Incredible! Defying the laws of gravity.
As the Renegades players throng to celebrate their achievement, one Renegade drifts away.
RIMMO looks at his arm, lauded by his skipper, his teammates and the fans. It’s the arm that has cost his team the game.
Striking a ball with a bat and propelling the ball at a target are both instinctive activities. Children, new to the game, revel in these basic physical challenges. Around those simple actions, cricket has assembled a dense patchwork of custom and law. Youngsters, enthralled by the essence of the sport, throw out challenges to its conventions. As a junior coach, I know that some of the required answers will not satisfy.
Take who gets the credit for dismissals.
‘Well done. Three wickets today.” I’ll congratulate a youngster on a successful debut.
‘No,’ I’ll be corrected, ‘I only bowled one out.’
‘Don’t forget the two catches your sister took off your bowling.’
‘But they don’t count as mine. I did get another one, though, when I ran out their opener’
Cricket’s laws governing the scoring of runs are perplexing. A boundary hit should be a bonus score, on top of the runs completed by the two batsmen trotting from one end to the other. When children realise one cancels out the other, some tend to settle for standing and watching the ball they’ve struck. Nonchalant if the ball reaches the boundary; wasteful if it pulls up short.
And mentioning boundaries, they’re not places a child would choose to field. Posts in battle haven’t been deserted as readily as by nine year olds told to sweep at deep backward square leg.
Fresh eyes bring a piercing clarity to some of cricket’s ethical dilemmas. Run out backing up – unequivocally out to the player who would extend no mercy to the opposing batsman whose stumps are broken while he has his laces tied by the umpire. A bowling arm that isn’t straight – patently unfair to the child who’s been working and working on her own action through indoor practice and chilly spring evenings.
Cricket’s laws and conventions only make good sense to those whose frame of reference is cricket. It is encouraging that children continue to come to clubs to play cricket, learning the techniques and thrilled at the challenge of the game. But fewer and fewer have already experienced cricket as a live spectator, or as a television viewer.
Cricket is drifting towards a status held by rounders or even British Bulldog. Pursuits for the playground and playing field, but not the living room or days out to matches with Mum and Dad.
While football anchors skills in its youngsters’ minds with references to the star players – the Iniesta two-touch, the Ronaldo step-over – most junior club members have only a hazy view of the cricketers they could be imitating. Spending time with young players convinces me that cricket risks becoming a sport without heroes.
Organised cricket may be a recreational choice of more UK primary school children than ever before. Many will carry on playing into their teens. But shorn of free to air TV coverage and overwhelmed by other electronic past-times, the game is losing its cultural position. Once the habit of watching, debating and obsessing about the game of cricket goes, so will the crowds at international match days, the big company sponsorship and eventually the essence that elevates cricket from a mere game, to a sport.