Thursday, April 17, 2008

On the Death of County Cricket

Canterbury's other cathedral

It is that time of year therefore I'm going to lecture you at some considerable length about religion cricket, so you, you and you at the back can stay, the rest can go and have an early lunch. Please don't run on the grass or tease the caretaker's dog.

The final day of this game was the first live cricket match I watched. I was 11 years old and went with my friend Andrew and from that day I was hooked. I already knew a little bit about the game although until then I'd only ever played it in the garden. It had always appealed to me because I liked hitting things. And catching, too - largely because the ability to catch cricket balls is the only natural talent I possess. There are very few bowling and batting achievements from my playing career I can remember vividly but some of the catches are lodged permanently: the leg trap Ralf the Mouf and I set up at Sparrow's Den against Addington when the batsman couldn't believe I'd caught him, for instance, or the 40 yard sprint round the boundary, full stretch dive and one-handed take at Crockenhill. I got another skier at midwicket in that game, one I misjudged completely so had to stretch my left hand back over my head (I'm right handed) in order to catch it. I got stick for that.

I was lucky in that I grew up in Kent, where there's still a strong love of the game and I saw lots of my cricket at the St Lawrence Ground in Canterbury. By common consent it is the most beautiful of all county cricket grounds, although to my mind the Crabble Ground at Dover, withdrawn from service in the 70s after a certain DL Underwood proved to be rather too efficient there for some counties, was even more so as it was a natural amphitheatre snuggled in the valleys of the North Downs above Dover. Mote Park at Maidstone's not too bad, either. Although I was a member and therefore allowed to sit in the pavillion, nothing could beat sitting on the grass just outside the boundary rope. You'd get to field the ball occasionally and be able to hurl it back to your heroes (although that would have been excessive for me as my own hero was - and still is - APE Knott and he would have been a good 70 yards away). At lunch and tea, while the adults strolled out to look at the state of the wicket, we'd all race onto the outfield with bats and tennis balls and set up our own impromptu games, many of us secretly hoping that a county official would see our abundant talent and draft us immediately into the second XI.

Now I go all Boycotty and Truemany; you don't see that any more. Kids aren't allowed onto the outfield because they'll muck the sponsor's logo up and anyway, you'll probably have had your bat and ball confiscated on the way in as offensive weapons. Being able to mingle with our heroes and tread on the same ground was part of the big game's charm. Now there isn't even a proper Canterbury Week with seven days of cricket to watch. Cricket, especially county cricket, is being administered, sponsored and corporately facilitated to death.

My Kent team featured legends. Apart from that most potent of wicket taking pairings in Knott and Underwood, a Kent XI could possibly also include at the same time, Brian Luckhurst, Asif Iqbal, John Shepherd, Bob Woolmer, Bernard Julien, Mike Denness, the best fielder never to play for England Alan Ealham and if you were lucky, Colin Cowdrey who was at the twilight of a brilliant career (I was fortunate enough to see his 151 n.o. when Kent beat the Australians in 1975). That is some team sheet. If they were playing today, they'd all be on central contracts and not allowed to play for the county unless given dispensation, just in case they got injured. That probably goes for the overseas players as well.

Central contracts? Don't make me laugh. It's meant to be a guarantee of quality for the national side by guaranteeing them an income and protecting them from being over-exploited. In effect a central contract guarantees a player doesn't get to practise against opposition fired up by playing against a big name and there's little incentive for spectators to watch without the thrill of a top star playing.There's one player who has been scoring a huge amount of runs almost at will for the last few seasons. He's already scored a championship century this year in the first game of the season, his 98th first class one. He's still hungry and delighting in embarrassing the game's so called heirarchy yet most know him for winning a dancing competition on the telly. Mark Ramprakash couldn't quite cut it ten years ago but he has an outrageous talent that is being criminally ignored, even though he's only just the right side of 40. The irony is, the advent of central contracts means that English first class cricket won't see the like of Mark Ramprakash again. Never again will anyone ever get within a mile of scoring 40,000 runs or taking 2000 wickets because they just won't be playing the game enough. Show early promise and you'll be whisked away into the central contract padded cell where you'll be lucky to play 200 first class games and maybe take 500 wickets or score 10,000 runs. There will be shooting stars but no suns. Andrew Flintoff is a rare talent in the English game; genuinely fast and with the delicious thrill of expectation that potentially explosive batsmen always have yet only the privileged - those able to afford the best part of £100 for a test match or ODI ticket - get to see him play. His occasional forays into county cricket are usually under doctor's orders not to stretch himself lest he crock himself again. It's all very well creating stars at test match level - they might well make a living from it but the trickle down of interest as well as money to the grass roots won't happen if the stars aren't allowed to get closer to their people.

Now there's the prospect of 20/20 taking over the game and players forsaking the county championship in favour of riches from the subcontinent. There's even talk of a similar all-star league taking place in the middle of the English domestic season as well as the home 20/20 championship (of which Kent are the current holders. I was so happy). This is pure greed, it's not done in the furtherance of cricket's interest one bit. Don't let anyone kid you that 20/20 is cricket because it's not. It's to cricket what draughts is to chess and it's become popular simply because it's brutal and over in a couple of hours, like an evening of wrestling. Instead of trying to attract a new generation of fans from the legions of the X-Box shoot-em-up brain dead by shortening the game and increasing its violence to their tastes, get the fans to appreciate its nuances instead. You might even find that society benefits as patience and craft is relearned There's a complete lack of subtlety in 20/20; innings are built on chance and wickets taken through the batsman's recklessness, not guile. I despair at the likes of Michael Vaughan and Kevin Pietersen defending the IPL on the grounds of opportunity - cricket's never had a popularity problem in India, it's over here that it needs to bolstered and that can't be done if the big stars of the game aren't here.

Why are counties sourcing players under the Kolpak ruling? Half of them are unknown so it's not on the grounds of them being crowd-pullers - it's because there's a dearth of talent over here. Of course here I should say that one of the main reasons for the lack of promising players is due to schools not having the facilities anymore after the bitch who ought to be enduring a painful living death by now forced schools to flog off their playing fields so they could buy exercise books. I was dismayed to see the other week that there is a warehouse springing up on one of my old school fields.

Am I stuck in the past? No. I don't think I am. You change the look of games at your peril. The only changes I can remember to the way football has been played over the last 50 years have been goalkeepers' "steps" and a very subtle change to the offside law. Attempts to make the game more interesting to people with short attention spans and the lack of brain power to appreciate "the bigger picture" (Americans) by eliminating the draw have foundered due to common sense. Can you imagine the outcry if baseball games were shortened or something done to American football to turn it into a proper sport? Cricket has changed much over 200 years and bears little resemblance even to the game that Thomas Lord was familiar with. It's already been tinkered with far too much and the elements - not just the physical ones - that have already made it a popular game are now in danger of being eroded for ever. What cricket has lost in this country has been an appreciation of the culture surrounding the game and the county game has suffered most through this. One shouldn't go to a county championship game expecting a spectacle, it's a day out in the open air. Take binoculars and watch the sub-plots evolve between players. Watch them having a net and appreciate their skill at close quarters. Watching a pace bowler slinging down a few looseners at a brisk medium is quite frightening and most club players would be surprised at the speed of a spin bowler. Seeing that at close quarters can increase your appreciation no end. Short games sacrifice that skill, it's easier to flail and hope you connect enough to get the ball over the inner ring of fielders instead of judging each ball. Yes I'll readily agree it can appear boring at times but that's also part of the game. It's also why cricket grounds have bars and museums and why men have a natural interest in statistics.

Back to that picture of the St Lawrence Ground at the top. The go-ahead was given last year for hotels and associated crap to be built overlooking the playing area, financed by selling off other open areas around the ground. This is called diversification and is believed by the club to be the only way they can make serious money. Anyone who has ever experienced the marquees and beer tents of a traditional Canterbury festival start trading on your memories because that's all you'll have. Canterbury isn't the only ground to be redeveloped so committees ought to be asking themselves why they need to make money. Because the crowds aren't there. Building hotels or bigger stands won't bring them in and keep them coming back and they'll soon tire of a diet of kwik-fix cricket. Championship cricket is unique in that it's the only major sport to be played during office hours so it expects low attendances, especially when there are so many other draws on our time but that's no reason to further reduce its appeal by shipping the stars out.

That is all.

5 Vegetable peelings:

Blogger Dave said...

I wrote about cricket today too. Not at such length, mind you.

I entirely agree.

6:32 am  
Blogger The Birdwatcher said...

I remember going to Bath during their festival,it would have been 1967 or 68. Kent were playing on a Sunday and of course Somerset had set them the pathetically easy task of getting 126 to win. Cowdrey was due in at No 4. After Somerset's pathetic effort the only reason the large crowd hung on was to see the great man bat. He didn't bother, Kent won with five wickets down. It was my first lesson in the cynicism of the grown up world. I seem to recall that he was instrumental in keeping Roy Virgin out of the England side. But its all along time ago and we move on don't we?

10:33 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Well, to be fair Roy Virgin had a disastrously low average for an opener, rarely out of the 20s even during his purple patches, so that may well have had something to do with it. I always thought that the Virgin and Willey opening pairing at Northants was one made in pun heaven.

12:30 am  
Blogger Malc said...

The demise of county cricket has been inevitable in a society where the cheap thrill will always win over the quiet enjoyment of something gentle and of genuine substance.

Always preferred New Road to Canterbury (just), but then I was a Worcestershire member for ten years. They've built two concrete stands at the Diglis End to cater for the 20/20 craze. Of course, the finest ground in the country is Bishop's Castle in Shropshire - you can see Cader Idris on a clear day.

Can't agree with you about Ramprakash. He had chance after chance for England and consistently let the side down - every bit as much a flat-track bully as that other England flop Graeme Hick.

1:33 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Oooh...Fight! Interesting that their test debuts were in the same game. Hick never really got any better but I believe Ramprakash did. Hick's weakness was found out and he never recovered from it. Ramprakash's nerves (or the weight of expectation after the top order had messed up) got the better of him too often. I'm pretty certain he could cut it at international level now, despite his age. I don't really go with flat track bully accusation either. If it were that easy, every batsman would do it, yet they don't. Either way, both batsmen were on a hiding to nothing under the England set-up at that time. Rob Key should be replacing Michael Vaughan right now. He was discarded far too early, and you can't say he didn't perform at international level when he was first asked. England's loss, Kent's gain.

6:37 pm  

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