Holding out for something.

Rashid. Hales. T20, *I*T20, or not? Fifty overs, forward defensive, The Olympics(!) or not? Spin bowling – or not? Everything Changes & it’s all, frankly, a worry. Or not.

I’ve been living and maybe living off the adrenalin and alround crest-of-a-wave newness of all this for what feels like years. The tumbling towards, the surge and the grasp. Sure I know and have felt the awesome weight and quality of the strategies in place but I‘m nearly ready for some quiet, some relief from the centrifugal force; from the barrage of opinions & corporate messaging; from the sense of divergence.

These cricket revolutions, eh?

Where are they taking us?

It feels clear that we may gain a new audience; this, plainly, is the thrust of the white ball/city-based/All Stars/Cricket Unleashed agenda. But what are the costs, in what I’m tempted to call ‘human terms’, arising from that? In gaining new fans, new families, do we lose diehard county cricketpeople? We would, certainly, if in five years there is no county cricket to watch.

We would, too, if the game retained its longer form but in a way traditionalists received as insulting: if it felt irrelevant in a swashbuckling matrix of colo(u)rific slashes and carves. The protestors would walk.

That, of course, is the extreme case scenario. Maybe there’s no way, despite the widespread fears, that either the County Championship or Test Cricket itself are really threatened. In extraordinary and polarising times, though, with what some feel to be ominous lumps of energy behind the gathering carnival, you can understand the angst and the vituperative urgency.

Part of me wishes we could have our infuriatingly sleepy processes back: decisions after a snooze, maybe? The relentless contortions of today’s tag mud-wrestle (and yes I am talking about the administration of cricket, here!) seeming as incongruously anarchic and therefore un-directed as they are stirring. Nobody seems to know where we’re going or how things might be resolved.

This can’t entirely be true, of course. There is strategy which will survive the clammy interference from Furious of Bodmin.

To be fair, despite the undeniable charge behind white ball action, plenty of ‘ECB Men’ do love county cricket and surely are looking towards the ideal scenario, whereby boomathons co-exist with (or effectively make viable?) the four day game. The lack of clarity is perhaps inevitable; a function of unknowable stuff resulting from accelerating change – from revolution itself.

What feels key is a) whether loyalties to county cricket will persist sufficiently or, more painfully and controversially b) whether it’s already been decided somewhere that County Cricket must be sacrificed.

I don’t think that’s happened… but I don’t know. There is after all, a pret-ty convincing case that County Cricket cannot sustain itself – crowds very often being shockingly meagre, for professional sport. (Ok, I get the argument that crowds in grounds aren’t the only measure of a game’s state of health or value but it would be borderline delusional to deny the issue here. Not enough people are watching live, at most fixtures).

The Big New Telly Deal and better attendances for short format fixtures could theoretically and surely will in practice subsidise red ball cricket. But… for ever? We can only imagine a reckoning must come – sometime.

In short we need a plan and I’m sure there is one and also not sure at all.

Will we/they conclude that County Cricket is a lovable financial nonsense which can and must be supported – by white ball cricket, if necessary – despite its own, fundamental failings? Or will Independent Directors – all the rage in administrations for the modern, accountable era – shorn of a lifelong love of cricket, bring a sharp, fatal dose of fiscal realism?

I may personally be hanging on to some quasi-religious dream, in which the holistic, historical and magnificently amorphous value of four day cricket wins out, triumphantly, against the shallow grain of the day. Certainly I’m holding out for something.

All of which brings us to Test Cricket.

Almost universally accepted, even now, as the *theoretical* jewel in the crown, Test Cricket may be unthinkable without County Cricket: that may be the saviour of them both.

How could players prepare for the epic grandeur of five days at Lords without four at Taunton, Old Trafford or The Oval? How does any batsman get into Test Mode, without first occupying X hours at the crease, honing (amongst a zillion other deeply specialist qualities) the patient brilliance essential for the task?

In brief, in other words, no Tests without County – and vice-versa.

This, though, despite the comfort it may bring to purists, is surely a dangerously brittle notion?

The time may come, for example, when four day cricket is cut completely and players and coaches simply have to engineer a way across that great divide between short forms and Tests. The unsympathetic or independently-minded – in or out of the game or in other sports – might argue that this is tough but do-able; just another elite-level skills challenge. If County Cricket is mad-disfunctional, it goes: players just need to flick that switch between the formats and get on with it.

There’s scope, let’s be honest, for a whole lot of hurt. Partly because people really love this game… and because not everybody (obviously) gets the finer/dafter/more ‘symphonic’/whatever they are points of attraction enough to slap a preservation order on it.

Lots about liking cricket is untranslatable, unexplainable but the deep reservoir of understanding for and loyalty to the game amongst long-term, long-form fans is a phenomenon. That feels undeniable. Mostly.

I personally know some truly outstanding and genuine people in places of real influence in the game. People who are ambitious but also deeply conscious of the uniqueness of Proper Cricket. Currently, the drive is on towards bursting the bubble, breaking the boundaries, bringing new blood into the sport. (The people I know are right behind this; they think we do need a new, ‘broader’ audience).

That drive is where it’s at at the moment. And I find little to argue with on that All Stars/Cricket Unleashed front. The ECB are going really BIG on raising the profile of the game – with youngsters, with new families. It’s the links that are understandably being made (by diehard fans) between this monumental investment and the incoming T20 that are problematic.

County Cricket People fear a betrayal, a dumbing down. I think they can tolerate All Stars (and expansion) but they fear the age of the boomathon for what it might bring to their beloved four day/five day cricket. None of us are sure; revolutions are happening – yes, plural!

While life continually throws up the most appalling examples of Morons in Power, I am hopeful. 1. County Cricket fans have and are giving a good account of themselves. 2. It’s obvious that Test Cricket is unique and powerfully influential in a way that goes right past mere fascination. It has a historic weight that must mean something. 3. There are some Good Guys at the top. 4. Change is gonna be challenging.

I am hopeful. As well as concerned.

 

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