Which cricket?

The brilliant tumult that was the recent Cricket World Cup underlined the distance traveled by this most extraordinary and arguably most traditional of games. The cricket Down Under and in New Zealand epitomised the almost alarming dynamism of a particular strand in the sport, clattering expectations, redefining (as they say) The Possible.

Fifty overs used to mean an ‘opening’ period where watchfulness and caution, even, were bywords for batters. It used to centre more on cunning than clout or blast. But as the brutal swordsmanship of the Warners/Maxwells/McCullums demonstrated, a new era of glorious carving has superceded that which has gone before.

And I do mean gone. My sense is that given the revolutionary essence of this new genre – the fact that in particular the bowling was characteristically met with a new breed of irresistible violence – we can barely identify pre- (let’s say) 2014 short-format cricket as the same animal. Cricket World Cup 2015 stamped upon our consciousness the separation – the lurch away, the blast-off – from the familiar/the proper/the old. (Delete according to prejudice.)

Though we knew it was coming, this was the moment the dirt was wistfully then swiftly dribbled in over the coffin of yaknow… Richard Hadlee; Ian Botham; the Chappells – cricketing icons that played a patently different game. The gaudy, incremental hikes through T20 Blasts and IPL Extravagorgies seem done; now the World Cup is carnage of a uniquely modern or post-modern sort. It’s official; things have changed.

Relax. This isn’t I think the preamble to some reactionary exposition on the authentic or the true. Truth is I can barely unscramble the various repercussions or likelihoods following Aus/NZ but I am sure enough I don’t simply and categorically oppose this dramatic new beast. It was too… riveting. It was, despite the shocking newness, recognisably sporting drama – elite sporting drama. For all the doubts, that makes it undeniable.

Plus… the argument that cricket cannot afford to suppress in any way that which might be its saviour (economically if not spiritually) does hold some weight. Even those of us love or work in the game have to concede that the demographic/driver wotsits that the office folks concern themselves with point to a shrill and urgent need to engage with those maybe forty years younger than yer average Lords Member. (Apologies if I slander here but you get my drift?) In the no-brainer age it’s a no-brainer that the ‘see ball hit ball’ core of all this gets a heavy shot of chilli.

Rightly or wrongly the bulk of the Youff of Today are turned off by stillness and quiet seduction (Alistair Cook v Any Spinner) but MFI when it comes to orgasmic adrenalin-showers. They love – they are bred, they are pressured, they are educated to love – the whiff of death, the full-length dive, the cliff-edge climax. So who wouldn’t be drawn to the expectation of a denouement featuring twenty runs an over or an explosion of stumps?

Whilst nobody is suggesting that 13-30 year-olds are sole heirs to anything, they are, of course key to TV and stadium audiences and (more crucially?) to the player base itself. And they want… this. Something that is fascinatingly post-Pietersen. Something really pumped.

My own club has set up an Under 19 team who will wear bright blue clobber and play other young dudes of an evening whilst ‘sounds’ form a backdrop to the ‘scenes’. It will probably be epic… and… or but… we need it. I think it’s great.

But despite the multifarious wonders of the game, zillions of teenagers – boys and girls – do drop out of playing and lose interest or fail to develop their interest in cricket. The very existence of short-format is a response, in no small part, to this issue. (Fair comment that the over-riding and marginally less wholesome urge to make pots of moolah also contributes to the emergence of the IPL and various T20 tournaments around the globe but that need to grow or prop up the game somehow means the greater authorities as well as men of independent means support, in their various ways, the boomathons.)

I’m both stirred and disturbed by the prospect of sorting out or gathering in this game – cricket – that seems to be expanding apart like a floppy-hatted cosmos.

The idea that this vital, ungovernable sprawl could somehow be controlled makes me smile. Not sure I’m optimistic, mind. Even if it were clearly desirable to collect in the various competing elements to some co-operative or sustainable whole I’m not sure the models of authority for the game are there. Blissfully, currently, that’s someone else’s problem.

On a local/national level the environment I work in has shifted to one where targets for growth within the amateur game (in Wales) have had to be scaled back… because growth is not realistic. This may not matter; for one thing it may simply be impossible for a team sport to expand its share of the ‘market’ against the increasingly diverse and often individually-centred competition – be that computer-based or kosher game-based. (Incidentally, I heard recently, in a gathering of sports professionals, that the only sports to be succeeding in terms of numbers gained are cycling and running; both essentially individual pursuits.)

Even an amateur shuftie at the philosophy of all this gets interesting. Start by considering the following; that growth may be inessential to the health of a sport. Why can’t a game that is loved and which retains its support and balances numbers of retiring players with new players be sustainable – be wonderful, even? And if growth is abandoned as a luxury beyond contemplation does that perhaps increase the possibility for retaining cherished essences (sorry, that word again) which may otherwise be subsumed beneath the charge for popularity/exposure/gold?!?

Again I’m being more agent provocateur here than campaigning against the new. However the confluence of challenges around how cricket is demands our attention; the presence of apparent antitheses – tradition/revolution Test/Blast etc etc – are either a recipe for remarkable diversity, diabolical conflict, or something hopefully intelligently poised between. Could we accept that some of the energy which goes into the abstract – this concept, growth – might be better expended into the corporeal – physical support, actual support – for the cricket experience?

The very fact that short-format cricket is either packaged or lumbered with circus imagery or post-POP-ART kerpoww-dom speaks volumes. About what it is and of the increasing gulf between 50 or 20 over action and the Test Match. In our dizzying new world the issue of whether it can be possible to accommodate, never mind grow cricket feels a less appropriate question, suddenly than… which cricket?

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