Thursday, 31 August 2017

How to save Test Match cricket

I recently wrote about the impact of the cult of satisfy-me-now on cricket and how this ridiculous attitude was killing the virtues of Test Match Cricket. How then to solve this? 

Firstly, I think it worth commenting on the notion of “the shorter the better,” which frankly I think is ridiculous. If a piece of music is great, let’s hear it for longer! By that I don’t mean just repeat the same guitar riff or vocal hook as that would soon get boring, but try and find a way of extending it in a way that complements the existing passage. This is why classical and progressive music exists across so many forms. If you visit a magnificent restaurant, you don’t want to wolf down a Big Mac and chips, but relish more courses and take your time. When film producers decide they want to turn Lord of the Rings into a movie, they make three volumes instead of trying to cram everything into the shortest possible framework – the same thing goes for the likes of Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad. You get the idea: if you’re onto something good, make it last rather than being puritanical and condensing it into a micro moment.

When thinking about the impact of T20 cricket on the Test Match format, it is worth considering the period of “timeless tests” during the twenties and thirties in which many series would climax with a test removed of the limitations of time in the event that both teams were draw level at that point. The final one of these was played in 1939 and was abandoned as a draw after ten days as England would have missed the boat home (frustratingly England had reached 654 for 5 in pursuit of a victory target of 696). Now I am not advocating a return to these for a number of reasons, but there is something epically wondrous about the idea of being able to go out and bat forever should skill and mental fortitude allow this to take place. I’ll never forget the games of cricket in the school playground whereby, having fantasized during the morning math’s lesson of batting forever at breaktime, I would carelessly get bowled first ball and then have to wait for the entire group to have their turn at an innings before I would get another chance. Knowing full well that this could take multiple playtimes (perhaps even a week if someone got in and stayed in) I would naturally protest that it was a no ball or that it was just a practice go – to no avail. Cricket is both timeless and instant in its very nature and it has to have a weighty enough platform upon which to show off its epic grandeur.

Back to international cricket then and I firmly believe that the three formats of the game need to be coordinated in a way that gives sufficient weight to the longer form and brings them together. All series should comprise of 3 20:20s, 3 One Day games and then either 3 or 5 tests, depending on the status of the teams involved. I have no problem with the concept of a two-division format, although promotion and relegation would need to be managed over a certain length of time in order to sufficiently plan ahead for future tours. More importantly, tests should be scored in order to create a meaningful ranking of teams, so that there is a clear positional table with a “winner” at the end of each year or season. The scoring needs to reflect the complexity and nuance of the game, with more batting points on offer if runs are scored in challenging conditions (i.e. a hundred in a low scoring game is worth more than if a side reaches over 500) and the overall points should definitely be worth more if a side performs well away from home. This is crucial in order to incentivize domestic teams to produce players capable of performing in conditions other than what they are used to on a weekly basis in their own country. We need sufficient motivation in order for English seam bowlers to find a way of taking wickets on hard pitches that offer no swing or seam and for sub continent batsmen to be able to handle a green top surface. Only then will more series be competitive and sides avoid the sort of spineless collapses that mean yo-yoing series in which matches are over within three days.

Part of the challenge here is to calibrate and co-ordinate these fixtures so that every country is able to play their best players throughout the year and for that reason the ICC need to deal with fixture scheduling properly – that means tackling the IPL, Big Bash and other franchised global 20:20 leagues. These can exist, but personally I would remove first class status from them in order to create a more balanced context for players to judge their own stats (Yes I can make a load of money, have a great time and meet other professionals but my runs and wickets won’t count in my overall record). I would have perhaps 2 or 3 short windows throughout the cricketing calendar in which these tournaments can be held, but it is then up to players to decide on whether to participate as by doing so they risk burnout due to forgoing their natural rest breaks. As a consequence, more players will identify perhaps only one or two of these in the main part of their career with the final participation being towards the end in order to garner a perfectly reasonable pre-retirement payday (aka the Top 14 rugby completion in France). 

The goal here has got to be about building positivity and mystique around the game, rather than forever talking about it in a negative light (i.e. what is wrong with it or what needs amending). The great series of the past should be actively discussed and promoted with the outstanding players, performances and matches taking on legendary status – again I would liken this to the Lions tours in rugby where as much of the excitement is down to the esteem that rugby fans hold past series and the myths that go with them. It is crucial that children are exposed to this without financial barrier, which is why I would let in under 16s for free on the last day of a test match (you’ll get the money back by their lifetime love for the game and potentially their participation) and if attendances start to increase then ground capacities can be expanded further, along with the benefit that wider TV audiences would bring. The remuneration should extend to the players and it is imperative that financial rewards for Test Matches should completely outweigh those for the limited over’s format. I include as part of this, sponsorship deals for the leading batsmen and bowlers, who should also have their performances incentivized financially.

Test Match cricket is all about those intense, spectacular moments that take place within the broader tapestry of the five day window. Let us cast our minds back to the greatest series of them all in 2005 when England finally win back the Ashes urn after 26 years. The first four matches were action packed, with wickets and runs flowing on a consistent basis and with it the momentum of the series, but actually the final match at the Oval bucked that trend. With Simon Jones injured, England won the toss and batted with the intention of trying to force Australia out of sight. They only half managed that but as a consequence of having struggled so much against England’s pace attack, the Australian top order took so long to score their runs that the match essentially reached the end of day four with two innings completed and England having to survive a day to force the required draw. By comparison it had been a relatively turgid affair (though admittedly involving great discipline from England’s bowlers and resolve from Langer and Hayden). Then at the final hour, the climactic scenes burst forth and who could have expected what came to pass on that last day? A flurry of wickets and England looked as if they were going to crumple and fall at the final hurdle, having worked so hard to be in a position to win the series. I watched aghast, clutching at the arms of the sofa, not wishing to believe that the match would be lost, only for Kevin Pietersen to launch an astonishing assault on the Australian bowling attack and make a magnificent debut century in the face of defeat. That century would have been astounding had it been in a limited overs format, but the fact that it came in the context of the match and the series, gave it a level of credit that only Test Matches can generate.

That is what we must fight to save. 

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

The left breaks away: the cult of isolationism

Laura Pidcock, the Labour MP says she could never be friends with a Tory: 'Whatever type they are, I have absolutely no intention of being friends with any of them.'

Never mind the fact that Parliament is supposed to work for the greater good of the country, irrespective of political affiliation. That’s not to say that all MPs are supposed to agree on issues – quite the opposite (and even if they do the opposition exist to call the government of the day into question and hold them to account) – but they do have an obligation to work together on certain issues. The most notable are when security is called into question with the outbreak of war or terrorism; and also on cross party measures and initiatives. Very often, you would find a socialist Labout MP chatting with a landowner Tory MP at the bar over a whiskey – evidently that is something the new generation are keen to avoid.

The thing I find ironic is that there are a great many on the left who condemn the divides we face in society in the wake of the Brexit vote and yet here is one of their MPs essentially calling for an even greater divide. In other words, if you represent the other lot we’re not talking to you – you’re the enemy. I’m sure the majority of Tory MPs are sufficiently thick-skinned not to let this upset them all that much, but how does this approach cascade down the ranks of society? Does Laura Pidcock only represent the people who voted for her? Will she regard all non-Pidcock voters in her constituency as the enemy, especially those who voted Tory? How then does she intend to win their vote if the dialogue is abandoned and the drawbridge pulled up? I am assuming, of course, that she actually wishes for a discourse, after all many socialists are against free speech and the art of debating. 

In Labour’s landslide victory in 1997, many people who had voted for Maggie Thatcher in the eighties, voted for Tony Blair. In order to obtain their vote, he had to reach out to them, to understand them, their aspirations, values, passions and suchlike. How on earth would he have achieved that if he had simply regarded them as the enemy? It is possible of course that if the Tory party were to continue its lamentable performance from this year’s election campaign over the coming 12 months then Corbyn’s Labour party could get voted in (god help us), but even then it would be a fairly narrow squeeze and in order to establish itself both in longevity and more importantly in order to force through legislation, it would still need to reach out to non-voters as a means to win more seats. Were this not possible, they would have to co-operate with other parties and this is where Pidcock’s puerile attitude really starts to come unstuck.

Perhaps what this demonstrates is that the fundamental difference between the left and the right you tend to see when perusing Twitter profiles is that by and large, those on the right tend to talk about the things they are passionate about and the beliefs they hold in a positive light. That’s a generalisation of course and there are many exceptions, but typically it will read, “Love Europe, Brexiteer, love my country, wine-drinker, free speech, sports fan” – something of that ilk. Typically someone of the left will have “Hates the Tories, anti-Brexit madness, stop the NHS from being privatised, hates privilege...etc...etc.” Where is the solution? The genuine positive intent? By that I don’t mean the destruction of something but some sort of creative objective or purpose? 

That’s right, it doesn’t exist.

What it really boils down to is that the likes of Pidcock just want to put their hands over their ears and scream until people they don’t like go away. Debate, reason and justification are now merely trivial matters that get in the way of evangelical beliefs. And that is why we have ended up with students protesting every time someone “upsets their feelings”, authorities are looking for the next statue to pull down, lest it offends someone and the police are more concerned with painting rainbows on their cars rather than arresting criminals. 

Monday, 21 August 2017

Death by on-demand! The spiral towards instant gratification and certain oblivion

My late grandfather was a blind cricket fan and as such listened to countless audiobooks, many of which involved the subject of cricket. Once he grew bored after repeated listens, he would often give them away and as such I came into possession of a handful, including one BBC set comprising of highlights from “A View From the Boundary.” AVFTB is a feature of every home Test Match where upon the late Brian Johnston (and subsequently Jonathan Agnew) interviews a famous cricket fan at lunchtime on day three. In the duration of that particular audiobook there were interviews with John Cleese, Michael Parkinson and Christopher Lee, all of whom waxed lyrical about their love for the game and their own playing experiences. But it was Ben Travers who was the pick of the lot. At the time of the interview in 1980 he was well into his nineties and had as a youngster actually watched WG Grace and Jack Hobbs play together. Moreover, he was also present at the famous Oval test in 1902 where Gilbert Jessop made a match-winning hundred off 76 balls (at a time where you had to hit the ball out of the ground to register a six, not to mention taking into account a poorly-weighted bat and larger boundaries). To those who love the game it is an absolute treasure-trove of memories and insight into some of the golden eras of that past.

Then last week, Jonathan Agnew invited Richard Osman into the commentary box at Edgbaston and it is fair to say that the stock of AVFTB took a major nosedive. It was rather like exploring through a magnificent ancient wine cellar, packed with thousands of priceless dusty bottles and related tasting notes, only to find that someone had, without any degree of irony, stowed a bottle of Asda-own Lucozade in one of the slots. Within minutes, it had been established that he was not someone who has ever played the game (which is absolutely fine – many are not), but contrary to his image as a “deep thinker” far prefers the shortest form of the game. Moreover, he has no interest in the nuance of the sport, but only the final result. In fact, when pressed further on the matter, he announced that in his view the shorter the game the better and “if you could get it over and done with in ten overs” that would get his vote. Clearly taken aback, Agnew presses him for his thoughts on the Test Match format and how he would go about preserving the status of the game and all Osman could offer was that once all of the marketing efforts  have been thrown behind the T20 format and to a lesser degree the 50 over game, you might get the occasional child showing curiosity towards Test Matches if they becomes so obscure and shielded from view that a bizarre kind of dark fascination emerges from the shadows. Agnew described this as “reverse psychology” but in truth Osman was describing a form of extermination in which Test Cricket remains as a museum-piece that those of us odd enough to still find it fascinating can toddle off and watch.

It was honestly the most nauseating pile of excrement I’ve ever heard served up in a cricket interview.10 overs a side? Why not just have one batsman toss the ball up and see how far they can whack it before dashing off for a MacDonalds and a selfie session? Osman’s constant line was that children today have no attention span and that the generation of the sixties and seventies only watched Test Matches because they had nothing to do and their lives were boring. With television now being so instantaneous and short-form, every type of entertainment (and by extension that includes sport) has to follow suit. As if the interview couldn’t get any worse, he then proceeded to use music as an example to illustrate his views. Apparently he had been to the Proms and found that it dragged on compared with a “3 minute pop song on the radio” which condensed music into something he and most others could fit into their hectic schedule. At this point I had to stop myself from hurling my ipad against the wall and I simply deleted the rest of the recording before suffering a complete breakdown that such a complete cow pat of an opinion had been given airtime on Test Match Special.

In Richard Osman’s defense, he is not alone in his views. I have read on countless forums and social media platforms the views of so-called cricket fans who wax lyrical on the 20:20 game only to deride Tests because they “don’t have the time to watch something that takes five days. In other words, cricket (as with many other sports) has become something which needs to adapt to suit the needs of incredibly busy (because aren’t we all so important these days) people who can’t possibly give up more than a couple of hours to following a sport or pastime. The flaw in this argument is that whenever did anyone have the time to dedicate to watching an event that spanned five days? Test cricket has almost always been five days – in fact if you go back a century many were “timeless” (i.e. did not have a fixed length) and even those I recall from when I first started watching it had a rest day on the Sunday that mean that four out of the five days were played during the week when most people were either at school or work. I suspect that very few people in the history of mankind have actually bought tickets for all five days of a Test Match and yet that has not stopped tickets being sold, nor has it prevented people from engaging in the game. I have never attended more than one day in any single Test Match and yet I have found a way of following the rest of the game via a combination of radio commentary, television coverage, highlights and in more recent times, BBC newsfeeds. In 2005, during what is commonly described as the greatest series of all time, I began watching the final test at the Oval in a hotel bar in Taunton whilst on a cricket tour with my old club. I missed some of the second day whilst we played a match then listened in on the radio on the way back home. I caught up with the highlights and then followed the BBC feed whilst at the library doing some work, before finally watching the final days play at home. Rather than flick a V sign at the inconvenience of its duration and spite myself with my own self-importance, I found creative ways to stay in the loop and I now have fond memories of that summer based on where I happened to be during key moments in the series. Likewise I recall waking early during the winter months and listening to TMS commentary in the dark during winter tours in the early 1990s at a time where England would frequently be hammered abroad and so when they finally triumphed away in Australia during the snowy winter of 2010/11 the night time commentary was a dream come true (especially given that we were frequently up in the night with a non-sleeping baby).

The only people who are able to offer the five day format their full attention in person 100% of the time are the players, the coaches, the commentators and those professionally involved in the game. That does not prevent it from maintaining its relevance in today’s world – on the contrary, it is an antidote to the instantaneous garbage that we are served up in so many channels of life. This idea that the three minute pop song is the only format that kids can possibly digest is also a load of garbage. Having been subjected to “One Last Time” by Ariana Grande on every radio station and TV channel for the past month I would suggest that by limiting music to such a bland set of boundaries is more likely to put people off than engage them (especially if the result is as desperately tedious as that particular single). Are we saying that no child would ever be engaged by something a little longer? Or something that wouldn’t normally be played on the radio? Imagine if we just threw all the output from the history of classical music, prog-rock, jazz and heavy metal into the bin and simply stuck to a radio-friendly formula? What sort of regressive artistry would this be? The same goes for literature – why bother with the likes of Lord of the Rings in which entire new worlds and languages were developed for our indulgence over decades, when we could quickly scan the synopsis of the latest Jordan autobiography during our lunch break? 

There is a mindset that has developed, mainly from the shift in the way that media has been generated and consumed over the past twenty years, in which people are no longer encouraged to seek out the great treasures of the world, but instead feel that they should be able to simply press a “subscribe” button and sit on their fat, lazy arses to be spoon-fed sanitized components from the elements that the zeitgeist algorithm generates based on their own personal preference-centre. Perhaps it starts with a caramel latte, followed by an episode of “Bake Off”, then an “X Factor” audition, before an Instagramed lunch, a quick T20 competition, followed by Snap Chat and clubbing? If we didn’t pander to this weak, self-indulgent mentality and actually spent our time and effort focusing on ensuring that the sport and the arts remain high-quality in their output then I believe it would die off as the trend towards instant gratification would die off. Instead, we are indulging this approach by asking what can be done to sanitise everything according to these constraints. 

And I believe that everything can be turned around. Test cricket is the greatest format of the game and probably the best game there is on the planet. Likewise, as bad as that interview was, it too could have been turned around. After his opening comments, I would have applauded and cheered had Jonathan Agnew replied: “Well thanks for that interesting view Richard. Now kindly get the fuck out of my studio. I never want to see you here again, you complete cretin.”

You see, it’s that easy.