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Context, quality and competitive structure in Test cricket

not-venn-page-001Cricket, out in the middle, is a visceral sport. Its language captures the physicality that is its essence. Seam, crease, splice, toe, tail, cut, sweep, edge, drop, stump. Concise, direct, as close to concrete as English nouns will get.

To supplement these words, perhaps because of the multiple levels at which the game can be appreciated, abstract nouns become adopted, semantic shift occurs and great significance becomes attached to them.

Spirit.

Momentum.

Two recent examples. Both show the perils of imprecision innate in abstract notions. Appropriation and assumption lead to dispute and confusion.

A similar process may be happening to the term ‘context’. The word has attained a heightened status in debates about how international cricket can preserve and even develop a broad public appeal. These are important matters to those ardent for the game. Enhancing the ‘context’ of fixtures, in the sense in which the word gets used, may just play an instrumental part in international cricket enduring as a sport with mass appeal.

The vast majority of international cricket is played in bilateral series unattached to a wider competitive structure. Results are jammed into a simple algorithm to create official rankings, but they are treated partly as a thing of curiosity and partly as an irritant.

The ‘context’ argument runs that each match, and cumulatively the sport as a whole, would attract more interest if it had extrinsic value outside of the series currently in progress. Every result should feed into a transparent and finite tally of performance. The absence of this tally is what is meant when international cricket is said to ‘lack context’.

I agree, in that most narrow definition of context. But I disagree with the statement that international cricket lacks context, when the word is given a broader and more natural meaning. And I am unconvinced that feeding every result into a tabulation of teams will do much to alter for the good how cricket is perceived more widely.

International cricket is replete with context. Traditional rivalries need no further explanation. More recently established and rarer contests can quickly gain compelling context. The Oval in 1998 , Chittagong 2016 – famous first victories over England. Each fixture that follows is enhanced for knowing that the traditional order has been upset and will be again. Even drawn matches can be enriched by the history of great rearguards that have dug sides out of intimidating deficits.

Cricket may be unusual for having so little of its interest hanging on the final match result. Individual performances and great passages of play can lodge deeper in cricket’s collective memory than where the match spoils went.

I watched three days of play at Lord’s in 2016. One was heavily animated by the narrow version of context recommended for international cricket. The other two – days three and four of the 1st England v Pakistan Test – were not. There was intrinsic pleasure from the quality of play. On day 3 England’s seamers pushed and probed at the Pakistan batsmen. Day 4, led by Yasir Shah, Pakistan prevailed once Rahat Ali had knocked over England’s top three. And context elevated the spectacle:

  • Cook matched Moeen Ali against Misbah, who had batted so freely against him in the series in the UAE the previous autumn. To his second ball, Misbah slog-swept to the Tavern, where Hales completed that most crowd-pleasing activity, the running catch. Remember Brearley running under a skier towards that same boundary 37 years earlier in the second World Cup Final? More context.
  • Yasir Shah wasn’t just a leg-spinner baffling England batsmen. He demanded recollection of Abdul Qadir, Warne and  Mushtaq who had also floated leggies and googlies past our best batsmen. And there was the context of England’s then looming tour to India and trial by spin.
  • The whole match was suffused with the context of Pakistan’s prior visit to Lord’s, Mohammad Amir’s return to Test cricket and Misbah’s career nearing its end.
  • From a personal point of view, I had the context of watching day three sitting with my father and older son – a landmark in my cricket-spectating history.

My remaining visit to Lord’s was for the final day of the County Championship. The destination of the title hinged on that day. In support of the narrow definition of context – as the relationship of the match to a wider competitive structure – it drew Lord’s largest crowd for a county championship fixture in decades. It also motivated both teams to pursue a result and so provided a climax fitting for the large crowd.

But the wider competitive framework into which this match fitted, created a day that progressed from combative play where neither side conceded anything in the morning; to a post-lunch drift; which abruptly switched to buffet bowling and unimpeded boundary hitting as the target was set; and ending with both teams throwing everything into achieving a result.

I felt the contrivance sapped the spectacle of meaning. It elevated one context above any others. It could have been the day that Somerset won their first County Championship title, 125 years after joining the competition. They probably would have become champions had the Middlesex v Yorkshire game run its natural course; had the wider competitive context not overrun all other considerations on its final day.

International cricket would gladly welcome record attendances and final day finishes as vindication for upsetting a fashion of organising Test cricket that has developed over more than 100 years. I do not oppose the upsetting of tradition by, in this case, bringing more structure to the game. I also recognise that the context that excited me at the Test at Lord’s is drawn from 40 years of following the sport. Competition, points, positions and qualification can give an additional layer of meaning and make the game more accessible. But bringing those features to Test cricket also presents a risk. I describe three situations, none of which will be the norm, but when they do occur, cricket followers, established and new, are likely to find them unappealing.

England and Australia are tied going into the final Test of the Ashes series. England, owing to results elsewhere are guaranteed a place in the Test Championship play-off; Australia have been eliminated. Both sides approach the match as a dead rubber, which in terms of the overarching tournament, is what it is.

India find themselves in a ‘must win’ match for their hopes of a play-off appearance to stay alive. Pakistan have a grip on the game and set India 440 to win on day five. The match is over by mid-afternoon as the Indian players throw away their wickets in a futile chase rather than opt to battle for a draw against their traditional foe. 

South Africa rest key players from the deciding game of a series in Sri Lanka because the points they need to progress in the Championship will be more readily gained by fielding a full-strength team when they return home to face New Zealand.

The competitive context of a Test championship could, at times, damage the competitive value of individual matches. Battles will be sacrificed so wars can be won. There is also the concern that the championship itself may leak credibility owing to its structure. This is most evident in terms of the advantage of playing in home conditions, a benefit that teams have consolidated in recent years. Under the format currently favoured by the ICC, each team will host four series and travel away for another four. While the even balance of home and away play helps the competition’s case, the way those fixtures fall could still drastically skew teams’ prospects. Consider how India’s chances could be affected by these alternative itineraries:

Option 1 Option 2
H v England A v England
H v New Zealand A v New Zealand
A v Pakistan H v Pakistan
A v Sri Lanka H v Sri Lanka
H v South Africa A v South Africa
H v Australia A v Australia
A v Bangladesh H v Bangladesh
A v West Indies H v West Indies

In option 1, India would play just a single series outside of Asia. In the alternative, all their away fixtures are in nations where their players have traditionally struggled to perform to their potential. How credible would a world championship be when a major nation can be given such a leg-up, or be so shackled?

I made the point earlier that the appeal of cricket centres much less on the final result of matches than is the case with other sports. Quality cricket requires no context. Context, in the form of competition, acts as a prop for interest in lower quality fare. As an example, football’s World Cup qualifying campaigns feature many dreary matches, despite the incentive of a finals appearance. “Never mind the performance,” we’re reassured, “it’s the result that matters.”

If those words become associated with the Test Championship, we may look back fondly at the days of bilateral series leading nowhere in particular, but exciting us there and then.

The cricket blogger survey – one year on

WordItOut-word-cloud-600385Late last year, 104 current and recent cricket bloggers completed a survey. The results enabled me to write about the background and motivation of cricket bloggers; blogging activity and types; and views on future prospects for the pursuit. I had ventured that there would be a fourth post: my own thoughts on future directions for cricket blogging. That has remained unwritten, although some of my ideas will emerge later in this piece. Firstly, though, what has happened to those unpaid cricket writers?

In late 2014, about one-third of respondents felt they would increase their blog frequency and another third expected it to remain the same – chart below. This I argued, was evidence of energy in the sector, although concerns many mentioned about time available to write made me caution that the plans might not come to pass.

post intention-page-001

One year on, and it is clear that good intentions have been hard to follow through. The chart below shows a snapshot for the first week of December 2015 of when the most recent post was published on the blog mentioned in the survey response.

recency-page-001

Publication frequency in 2015 (for those blogs I was able to locate), compared to that reported for those blogs in the survey is shown below. The blogger attrition rate is 31%, which is over twice the rate expected by survey respondents, with another 20% dropping in publication frequency. (NB this may exaggerate the extent of reduced publishing: I am comparing self-reported frequency in 2014, with counts of posts published in 2015; and bloggers may have based their 2014 self-reports on peak season, not annual averages)

frequency-page-001

As I emphasised in the survey results posts last year, this is a diverse activity. For some, blogging is a stepping stone to a career. At least four of those whose ‘writing for free’ activity has declined, are involved in professional cricket coverage. Of the 25 who appear to have withdrawn completely from writing about cricket, some are continuing to post on different sites (I am aware of several bloggers who have done this).

In terms of blog type, the largest drop-out rate is found amongst those whose blogs:

  • feature essays (i.e. ranging across subjects, often based upon the writer’s personal experience)
  • are topical
  • had existed for less than one year or 3-4 years
  • benefited from fewer than 100 views per day

It is possible that those writers who have given up the pursuit have been replaced by others. A high level of churn is to be expected. I suspect, but cannot prove, that there are fewer independent, unpaid voices. This turnover probably hasn’t curtailed the quantity of blog-type material read on the web. Cricket blogging doesn’t have a very ‘long tail’ (in the Chris Anderson sense), but the turnover has had the effect of docking a few ligaments and sundry strands of the tail. Consolidation within the large sites – particularly cricinfo which continues to add new writers – keeps writing on the web healthy.

Finally, some personal thoughts on what can make a durable cricket blog. Starting with an obvious point: most of the very best writers are still writing. Great prose that describes fresh insight into the sport is the strongest guarantee. More interesting though, is to consider what might make a long-lasting web presence for a keen, if not outstandingly gifted, writer.

My sense is that specialisation has been under-employed. Topical cricket writing is well catered for in the professional media. The personal essay style requires particularly strong writing skills and the ability to connect specific experiences to a general audience if it is to stand out.

I have six suggestions for specialist cricket blogs that I would read. Each requires more refined knowledge that the generalist, and probably some access to sources, but I believe could be written as a dedicated amateur.

Spin bowling – Amol Rajan’s Twirlymen showed the depth of writing this topic can foster. A blog dedicated to spin bowling could meld news (performances of leading players), technical analysis, statistics, history and maybe interviews with players below the mainstream media’s radar.

Umpiring – again, an opportunity for a blog that brings together topical issues, statistics, law interpretation and, surely, high quality anecdotage?

Afghanistan – the most exciting story in international cricket? With a few sources, could there be somebody well placed to collate news, profiles and background stories on this country’s cricket?

Coaching – the importance of work on the practice ground and off the field has never been greater and has never had so many practitioners. Coaching guidance and recommended drills would be welcome, but a site with a broader purpose, debating and promoting the coach’s role would be a strong draw.

South Africa – from the fans’ perspective. I am thinking of something along the lines of, the recently retired, The Full Toss: passionate and opinionated about play, organisation and coverage of the national game

Cricket books – the paper publishing industry careers along. A dedicated blog would have no shortage of willing interviewees, not to mention free review copies.

If the quality of advice is to be judged by the practice of the advice provider, you might want to disregard the above. Declaration Game continues neither because of any notable success, nor owing to expertise in a particular area, but because, as so many bloggers noted in their survey responses last year, writing is reward enough.

Quick single: Early lead

There’s much to be commended in going out and celebrating your team’s victory. Soak up the success; prolong the elevated mood by reconstructing the achievement, bouncing favourite moments off fellow fans.

At home, not quite alone, I am looking forward, as much as backwards. Like the anxious, partisan football fan, who sees his side take an early lead, I think, “No. Too soon. So much time for that other team to mount a come back.” There’s basic psychology at work: a lead means there is something to be lost. Being defeated, without ever being ahead, doesn’t have the discomfort of dashed hopes, the humiliation of squandering an advantage – particularly when, before the contest began, as is the case with England in this Ashes series, I held very slender hopes.

I wanted England to compete, to push the Australians. I hoped this summer that a new bowler of international class would emerge, and two of England’s fresh batsmen would solidify their places. I wanted Cook’s captaincy to be resolved (by which I mean, ended).

Now, though, a vista of opportunity has opened up. But the broader the vista, the deeper the holes into which we can fall. All because of this early lead.

What really complicates things for me is England’s new positive approach to, in particular, batting. Clinging to a one-nil lead throughout a five Test series is not feasible. It used to be. India achieved it in 1982/83 over a six match series: wrangling a first Test victory on a poor pitch and holding out for draws for the rest of the series on pitches where “conditions were so heavily weighted in favour of the bat” (Wisden, 1983). This series will have at least two more results.

I would like England to bat conscious of their lead. I want to see consolidation and conservation applied to their innings. I want context to be recognised and respected.

At the moment, the England middle-order (and one of the openers) seems to believe that attack is the answer to each and every challenge. It worked at Lord’s against New Zealand, and again in both innings at Cardiff.

And it did a thrilling job in the ODI series with New Zealand. But playing without fear isn’t a tactical choice, but a necessity, when it becomes obvious that scoring at seven runs per over is what’s needed to win the game. That’s not the case in Test cricket. While England have found success from playing audaciously on a few occasions, on others they will not.

So far, they have benefited from surprise. If it becomes the default response to the loss of a few early wickets, the Australians will be ready for it and England will show all the calculation of the gambler who doubles his stakes after every loss. England have also been lucky, notably at Cardiff. Root played and missed, edged and squirted the ball past the close catchers. Bell, excluded from the ODI jamboree, appeared determined to show he belonged. His innings featured his classy off-drives – none of which we would have appreciated had any one of his early shots that looped past fielders fallen to hand.

To win a five Test series, a team needs to master a variety of tempos. As a batting line-up, England seem enthralled by a pacey approach, that will soon speed them to defeat, if not used selectively. That’s what I believe – just as I believed in 2005 that Vaughan was reckless and should consolidate gains in that famous Ashes series. My approach to Test cricket was stuck in the past then and maybe similarly out of date now. There’s only one thing for it: can someone take me out to celebrate?

Quick single: Australia touch down at Gatwick

In the 1990s, it used to be said that English optimism for an upcoming home Ashes series would last all the way until the Australian team climbed down the steps of their Qantas plane at Heathrow.

Some things have, of course, changed. Australia have not won a series on their last three visits to the UK. The team’s arrival this week barely made a mark on the news – even the sports news. And within hours of them climbing down those steps from their Jumbo jet on Wednesday morning, English cricket experienced a surge of optimism from completing their highest ever successful run chase in an ODI – against the World Cup finalists, too. The Australia team doesn’t even arrive at Heathrow any more.

Other things, however, seem more in tune with the recent past. In 1993, the Austalian bowling attack comprised: Merv Hughes, Craig McDermott, Brendon Julian, Paul Reiffel, Shane Warne and Tim May. Four years later Julian and Warne returned and were joined by Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Michael Kasprowicz, and Andy Bichel. This year’s crop of Australian bowlers potentially has more menace, if a little less guile (although Ryan Harris has that aplenty), than those predecessors of 17 and 21 years ago. Mitchell Johnson, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle, Nathan Lyon and Fawad Ahmed.

It’s for the best that England cricket fans are kept occupied this week, rediscovering an affection for limited overs cricket, rather than brooding on what these new arrivals to the country may do to their Test team.

Short pitch: Play the game to be a better spectator of the game

When I first coached young cricketers, I used to get frustrated that some of my team would forget where they were supposed to be fielding.

Then on one of the occasional weekends that I had time to play, an availability crisis and the need for a scorer (no.1 son), saw me elevated to the second XI. It was my first county league standard cricket in twenty years. We fielded first and it felt as though afternoon had already passed into evening by the time the fifty overs were done. During that innings, while a left hand/right hand combination was at the wicket, I had had to be reminded of my fielding position five times. I was culpable of the very thing that irritated me when coaching kids who were brand new to the game.

Since then, I make the point to those of my coaching colleagues who don’t play regularly at the club, that playing a match, even just every now and then, is an important part of understanding what to expect of the kids for whom we run matches and training.

I also believe that playing cricket, even at the recreational end of the spectrum, helps the viewer, the follower, the blogger better appreciate the sport. I don’t mean it gives a better understanding of the technical side of the game. I do think it ought to develop an awareness of the tactical dimension. But the facet I’m thinking of is more nebulous and I can best sum it up with the statement that ‘a cricket match rarely follows a straight path’.

I have played matches where our opening bowlers are zipping the new ball past the edge of bats, but where the edges that are made fall to ground or the pads that are rapped are not quite in line. After a tasty ten overs of upbeat fielding, the same batsmen are still at the crease and starting to middle the ball they hadn’t looked capable of finding.

I have seen slow bowlers hit to the boundary three times in an opening over and made to look impotent. Gradually though they gain a foothold and then a stranglehold, so by the time they are toying with your tailenders that first over seems to belong to a different game.

These are entirely routine occurrences and don’t describe the more extreme swings of fortune that will happen in a match. What playing the game shows you is that the change doesn’t come about because of an heroic intervention. It takes hold with a combination of good luck, nouse, application or perhaps a change in the wind or a bruising of the ball.

Watching professional cricket there is a preference for explanations of agency: cricketer A did this with match-winning effect. There is also a narrative habit that chooses a particular point as the outset: from that position, mid-afternoon, team B should have scored 600. Of course, what has gone before must influence what happens next on a cricket field. But if you play the game, you are so aware that every ball is a new contest and that the state of the game at one minute is at best a partial predictor of what may happen later. Playing the game can make you more patient, more philosophical, more prepared to wait to see how things pan out in the game you are viewing.

There’s one other type of appreciation that playing the game gives the cricket follower. Sitting now, typing this post, after an afternoon of cricket, much of it simply spent crouching at gulley, I am nonetheless very aware of how physically demanding and exhausting cricket can be.

Quick single: Who’s winning?

“Well..” I start to answer.

No.2 son, who’s posed the question, has tracked me down to a quiet corner of the house. I’m hunched over my iPad, watching the early stages of a Test match. In my head, I’m turning over possible answers. Responses that convey complexity and unpredictability, that don’t rely on formulations like, “you can’t tell what a good score is until both sides have batted.”

“Oh, 180-5. That’s a good score, isn’t it?”

“Well..” This one’s easier, I could remind him that a batsman once scored 400 in a Test match. Yet, on a tricky wicket, it could still be a ‘good score’.

“Is that bowler good?”

“Well..” It’s clear he’s a marginal international cricketer, although I shouldn’t decry someone who’s succeeded at every other level and will have a far more fulfilling playing career than I could ever have dreamed of. But he has just wasted three overs with the new ball.

“Do you like Alastair Cook?”

“Well..” Should I respond about the batsman, the captain, the straightforward man, the guileless interviewee that I’ve mocked on this channel?

“Will you play football later?”

“Well..” and no.2 son has gone. His father’s inability to answer a string of straightforward questions left hanging in the air. I sink back into the game on the screen. A game that defies easy answers, that offers many suggestions of meaning, lots of false trails and rebuttals of hasty conclusions.

The ambiguity of a Test match in progress qualifies and limits its appeal to the young who are accustomed to contests being settled by celebrity judges, phone-in votes or penalty shoot-outs. If I am left feeling hesitant and inarticulate by my failure to give clear strong answers, I have evenings of cricket like today’s at Headingley as justification for equivocation.

England 215-1 New Zealand 350.

“Who’s winning?”

“Well.. Ballance hasn’t looked very secure recently.. Lyth may find it hard to keep his concentration all the way to the close of play after the elation of a maiden ton.. the weather could close in to help the bowlers.. Root is in good form, but nobody succeeds in every innings.. the new ball is due.. but England do look set for 600.”

Quick single: political parallels, convergence with cricket

Weeks ago, in the early days of the election campaign, English politics seemed to share a predicament with this country’s cricket. Earnestly, passionately pursued and debated by some, it went unregarded by most. Its constituents were older and more comfortably off than the country at large. While it had some youthful devotees, that interest marked them out, because generally it failed to excite and engage the young.

This parallel between two complex, potentially rewarding pursuits, that struggled to convince people of their relevance, was the first I detected. As the campaign progressed, more emerged.

Opponents locked in battle for weeks, committing their all, yet producing an indeterminate outcome.

The prominence of voices – accents – that aren’t English English. New Zealand, South African, Welsh and Scottish.

Of course, there’s Scotland. One of the nations of the United Kingdom, making its case for autonomy and international recognition. Politics here, cricket there.

image1On my twitter timeline: statistics – opinion polls and over rates; declarations of support – a party, a player, a candidate, a team; and deeper discussions of governance, laws, technique and tactics.

Finally, as what seemed irrelevant, gets some traction, conversations about staying up all night to catch the action, like we did to see Portillo, Pietersen; Blair and Vaughan – oh, haven’t they disappointed since.

Earlier this evening, these two parallel pursuits briefly converge. It’s happened before: John Major vacated No.10 Downing Street after his defeat in 1997 and went straight to the Oval to watch cricket. In my case, I went to cast my vote at my cricket club.

image1

Quick single: pitch predictions

The match preview on cricinfo for the Bangladesh v Pakistan 1st Test at Khulne, advised:

Spin has been king at the Sheikh Abu Nasir Stadium, unless someone with high pace creates enough chances. Batting will get progressively harder.

Over the last two days of the game 646 runs were scored for the loss of eleven wickets. Spin didn’t reign. 1,092 runs were conceded in the game by slow bowlers, who took 19 wickets.

On the day before the 3rd West Indies v England Test in Barbados, cricinfo forecast (comparing to the wickets prepared for the first and second Tests in the series):

the wicket in Bridgetown is anticipated to provide a bit more pace and bounce, which is good news for everybody. It is also a little drier so spin could play more of a part than the previous Tests of this series. In short, we might have a more sporting wicket.

At the end of the second day, the website’s reporter made the following assessment: “[England’s] advantage extended to 107 on a surface where every run was at a premium.”

A pitch anticipated to be ‘sporting’ had, within two days, hosted the most wickets (18) to fall in a single day’s Test cricket in the West Indies.

A couple of points about these two pitch predictions. Firstly, cricinfo deserves no more criticism for errant forecasts than any other source (and in fact, I could have found even grosser errors than these). Its match previews, although short, do tend to offer a more nuanced description of the conditions than the broadcasters, who serve up familiar formulations: “slow pitch”, “two-paced”, “breaking up”. Teams have been known, relatively frequently, to select bowling attacks unsuited to exploit the nature of the pitch.

Secondly, the predictions could be spot on, but the game forecast hasn’t occurred because of the players. At Khulna, the batsmen over-achieved versus the bowlers; at Bridgetown the reverse.

But I doubt it – so strong is our direct experience of the pitch conditions affecting the way a match is played.

There are inherent difficulties in predicting how a pitch will play. It’s an organic substance, affected by the climate as the match progresses. Analysis is literally superficial, focusing on colour, hardness, surface moisture and grass coverage. It may be that the pitch’s true nature lies a little bit deeper.

I just wonder whether we could do better at this game of reading the playing strip runes? And whether it would be a better game to play, or to view, if the players and the spectators were less surprised, less often by how the pitch behaved?

 

You couldn’t script it

Subtitle: And we wouldn’t watch it if you did.

Renegades Stars

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?

FINCHY:
It’d be your last, mate. Get that yorker working.

Ball 1: TRIFF on strike. Ball sliced past point. 2 runs taken.

     FINCHY:
Straighten up, mate. No room to swing his arms. Make it happen RIMMO.

RIMMO:
Slow bouncer?

FINCHY:
Yeah, and I’ll pull your beard out, hair by hair.

Ball 2: Full and at the batsman’s feet. No run.

     FINCHY:
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.

(To RIMMO)
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.

RIMMO:
Slow bou..

FINCHY:
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.

     FINCHY:
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!!

FINCHY:
Out! Out! You got him, RIMMO. These Stars are falling. Unbelievable. You’ve got the golden touch today, mate.

(To TRIFF)
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.

     FINCHY:
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.

(To TRIFF)
You lot aren’t Stars, you’re black holes.

RIMMO:
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.

     FINCHY:
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.

A game without heroes

presentation May14Striking 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.