22 February 2018

Can cricket survive in the age of disruption?


It is only February. Too soon, you might think, for thoughts to turn to cricket. The first snowdrops may be flowering but cricket — even three-jumpered early season cricket — still seems far away. And yet, already, there are intimations this will be a new season unlike any other; the first in a new era in which past assumptions and previously unquestioned certainties no longer apply.

Consider the cases of Alex Hales and Adil Rashid. In recent days both Rashid, the Yorkshire leg-spinner, and Hales, the Nottinghamshire batsman, have announced their retirement from first-class cricket. Both have signed “white-ball only” contracts with their counties. Their appearances will be limited to the limited overs formats of the game. Their ambitions to play Test cricket — still notionally the pinnacle of the game — have been put aside.

Neither Hales nor Rashid enjoys veteran status. Both are in their prime. Neither is concentrating on Twenty20 cricket because their bodies are not strong enough to cope with other, more traditional, forms of cricket. And both have chosen to limit their careers for reasons that are entirely understandable and even, perhaps, persuasive. This is a new world and neither Hales nor Rashid will be the last to wander down this path. Financially, Hales and Rashid have made a rational choice. Being a white-ball specialist is a lucrative business.

Disruption, so much in vogue everywhere else, has come to cricket too. And, as elsewhere, the game’s establishment, which is to say its governing authorities, is struggling to come to terms with a new era in which old certainties no longer seem to apply and the future is both dizzying and, in certain respects, troubling.

At root, the challenge for cricket is much the same as the challenge facing the media, the automobile industry, banking, healthcare companies and any other sector where change is unavoidable and change seems to be happening at an accelerating rate. Namely: how best to embrace a fast-changing future while preserving all that was best and most valuable about the game’s past? Like other established hierarchies, cricket’s has struggled to meet this challenge.

The rise of the Indian Premier League, now aped by Twenty20 leagues in every other leading cricket country, has irrevocably altered the game’s economy. When players — at least some players, anyway — can earn a million dollars for a few weeks’ cricket in India, cold April morning in Derby or Cardiff suddenly seem rather less appealing.

Notionally, English cricket aspires to be a world-leading power in both the traditional five day Test format and in limited overs cricket. Increasingly, however, one suspects that success in one may come at the expense of the other. The idea that one day cricket could, in effect, subsidise first-class county and Test cricket, is fraying. The longer forms of the game are, in England at least, being shunted to the extremities of the season with the prime summer months of July and August instead being devoted to the abbreviated forms of the game. Money talks and, even in England where enthusiasm for Test cricket remains stronger than elsewhere, that means privileging the interests of the short game.

Cricket, in other words, is trying to achieve two goals that may prove mutually exclusive. Players, who have a living to make, will increasingly be forced to choose between red ball and white ball cricket. Playing all formats in the manner of England’s Test captain Joe Root will become increasingly difficult, not least because as Twenty20 develops the skills required for success in the short game diverge significantly from those required for success in Test cricket.

That is already apparent and seems a trend likely to continue. Specialisation is more efficient but, in cricket as in much else, it comes at a price. It hardly seems entirely coincidental that the rise of Twenty20 cricket — all blast and fireworks — has corresponded with a discernible decline in the number of batsmen capable of knuckling down, as the longer form of the game often demands.

Like other revolutions, this one has a long history. England, often erroneously considered the ground zero of cricketing conservatism, pioneered limited-overs cricket more than half a century ago. And it was in England, too, that Twenty20 cricket was born; a recognition that the sport needed to work harder to maintain its existing audience, let alone earn a new one.

Cricket’s recent history maps neatly onto wider trends. The International Cricket Council moved its headquarters from London to Dubai; a reflection of the game’s centre of gravity shifting to the east. Indeed, the 21st century has witnessed cricket’s second era of globalisation (the first began in the Edwardian era). India is not the coming power; it is the power that has arrived.

Purists have reason to be concerned. The waning attractiveness of Test cricket is apparent everywhere except England and Australia. There are good reasons for thinking that, in perhaps just a decade, England vs Australia will be the only meaningful Test cricket played. The West Indies have gone as a serious Test-playing country; New Zealand and, perhaps, Sri Lanka and even South Africa may soon follow. Already, the ICC is permitting four day Tests, though the thinking behind this experiment seems less than persuasive. If five days is considered too long for today’s satisfy-me-now audience, will four days really be all that more attractive?

Throughout its history cricket has, hitherto at least, contrived to evolve while remaining much the same. A modern-day spectator transported back through time to the 1930s would recognise the cricket played then much more thoroughly than they would recognise the 1930s iterations of association football or rugby union. That thread connecting the past to the present has been one of cricket’s greatest strengths. It is now in danger of being snapped, perhaps irrevocably.

This is not a question of Test cricket being better than limited overs cricket. Twenty20 cricket can be a riotous and explosive entertainment. It deserves its audience. But it is a different kind of game entirely.

Cricket lovers — or “tragics” in that rather winning Australian phrase — have reason to wonder where it will all end. If the players, or a sufficient number of them anyway, give up on first-class cricket why shouldn’t spectators do so too?

One clue to how this might be resolved lies in the past. When Kerry Packer, the Australian mogul, challenged the establishment in the 1970s, that establishment moved quickly to meet him half-way. World Series cricket — floodlit and pyjama-clad — gave greater economic agency to the players who had, until then, been miserably rewarded for their efforts. Without the players, Packer realised, the game’s authorities had nothing. Whoever controlled — that is, rewarded — the players would control the game.

For a while, the Packer revolution looked as though it might cause an irrevocable breach. The authorities, wisely, appreciated that Packerism had to be accommodated. What followed, in the period lasting from approximately 1980-2010, was a second golden age. Cricket boomed, aided by the arrival of successive generations of superstar fit for comparison with anyone else who had eve graced the sport.

Some similar accommodation needs to be reached now. Few people can really deplore the choices made by Hales and Rashid even if we also allow that the trends evident in these decisions are concerning.

Often, however, you have the impression that cricket’s ruling-class knows the price of everything and the value of very little. Test cricket is notionally the pinnacle of the game but little is done to preserve, let alone enhance, its status as the supreme proving ground. A meaningful Test championship remains as elusive as it is much-talked about.

Weaknesses are the flip side of strengths. This is as true in sport as it is in politics or business. Cricket sometimes seems to take a too apologetic approach to Test cricket saying, in effect, “Yes, we know it takes five days but please give it a chance”. This mistakes matters entirely. The strength of Test cricket is that it is a drama played out over 30 hours. That is a feature, not a bug. No other form of the game is as subtle or as capacious as Test cricket; no other is quite so thorough a test of mental strength as well as skill.

The ebbs and flows of a five Test series — 150 hours of confrontation — have the potential to be more compelling than almost any other sporting drama. Only, perhaps, the Tour de France, equals it. And, of course, the apparently absurd length of the Tour de France is the defining point of the challenge. It is the pinnacle and that is acknowledged even by those cyclists whose skills are better suited to the gruelling — and often tremendous — one day classic races.

Cycling, then, shows how cricket may evolve. Just as the contenders for the great stage races — the Tour, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana — are only infrequently challengers in the one day classics, so cricket seems likely to become comparably specialised. The trick will be maintaining the importance of Test cricket even as the game allows other, more commercially successful, forms of the game to thrive.

Doing so means, however, taking Test cricket seriously. If the game’s authorities follow the players in giving up on it then something precious will be lost forever. Modernity must be allowed but cricket, like so much else, must change so that things may remain the same. That is the perennial conservative challenge and here too, as in so many ways, what is true of life is true of cricket.

Alex Massie is a political commentator.