I have mentioned it before in these pages but cricket and I have been closely associated throughout my life.
As a badly bullied youngster at boarding school, cricket gave me an interest and a certain amount of much needed respect from my peers. I went on to play the game at every level apart from Test cricket and have played both with and against many well-known personalities in the sport. I have played three and four day matches but one of my few regrets in life is that I have never played in a five day Test – the ultimate achievement of any cricketer.
For me, cricket embodies all the good qualities a human being needs to do well in life. Not only a certain amount of skill but also strength (both mental and physical) courage, determination and coordination. It also needs the use of a technique that does not come naturally to most players. Cricket is often referred to as boring by those who do not understand its intricacies, but for the enthusiast, it and can provide excitement to the very last moment of the match. In fact, cricket is the ultimate contest between people on a sports field and five day cricket is its pinnacle.
In England, cricket is administered by the English Cricket Board and I am afraid that in their efforts to drum up cash to pay their large salaries, the officials of this august body have rather lost the way. Over the past decade, the emphasis has been on one day cricket rather than Test Matches and yes, England won the World Cup a month or so ago. It was a great achievement and was hailed as a national triumph but now the English authorities have to get their feet back on the ground. The national team is engaged in what is probably the oldest contest in sport, a five match ‘Ashes’ series against Australia. The sides are evenly matched but England are faltering.
Unfortunately one-day or twenty-over cricket requires different techniques and different mindsets to the grind of Test cricket, but the English players so far have not been able to adjust to the longer format. At the start of the series, they chose opening batsman Jason Roy and I groaned aloud. Roy hits the ball a very long way and is ideally suited to the short form of the game, but he just does not have the simple technique to cope with the Australian bowling. He has been encouraged over the years to play his ‘natural game’ which is full of aggression, but in Test match cricket, he is required to knuckle down and if necessary, bat for three days without taking a risk.
Roy – and indeed most of the English batsmen just can’t do that. They are like so many modern folk – in a desperate hurry to get somewhere – and it shows.
Last Friday, having bowled Australia out cheaply, England collapsed to sixty-seven all out, a desperate score by any standards. Yes, the Australian bowling was excellent but it was not that good damnit! These men are highly paid professionals at the peak of their careers, so why could they not knuckle down and fight for their country and their team.
That was the question asked by so many media reporters the following day. The players were hounded and castigated for their ineptness, but was this fair?
I don’t think so. Yes, the English batsmen looked pretty abject but the Australians were on fire. Success breeds success in cricket which is as much a mental game as a physical one. The problem lies not with the players, but with the greedy administrators of the game. Until 2005, the three day county game was flourishing and international cricket could be watched by the public on terrestrial television. In that year, England won back the Ashes from Australia in a titanic struggle that was enjoyed by millions. Rather than fan the flames of enthusiastic patriotism in millions of suddenly cricket-mad youngsters, the ECB sold off television rights to Sky, thereby ensuring that those youngsters whose parents could not afford Sky prescriptions were deprived of any international cricket. Not only was this short sighted, but to me it was immoral.
Those same authorities have exacerbated the situation since then by cutting short the County Championship, long a nursery for future Test cricketers and substituting fifty and twenty over matches with entertainment laid on. Yes this brings people through the turnstiles for a noisy evening out but it does nothing to improve knowledge of the game. Now they are bringing in a hundred ball challenge and calling that cricket too. How will future cricketers, no matter how talented they might be, learn to play the game as it is meant to be played. Like the hapless Jason Roy, they will founder in the deep waters of the longer game.
Yesterday the two Joes, Root and Denly showed plenty of old-fashioned grit and determination to give England a faint chance of winning the current game, which in itself would be good for the series. They were playing Test cricket as it is supposed to be played and in a series of five matches between two evenly matched teams (both have excellent bowling attacks and brittle batting line ups) mental application will ultimately prove to be the difference between winning and losing.
I despair for the game I was brought up with and pray that administrators will just put profit aside for a short while and concentrate on getting the great British public back to enjoying proper competitive Test match cricket.
Who knows, with a little bit of enlightenment – and common sense of course – they might forego huge profit and bring it back to terrestrial television. That way everyone can enjoy the wonderful Summer Game.
In the meantime, I wonder who will win the Headingly Test Match today.