Ever more gimmicky cricket would leave WG Grace stumped
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John L Sullivan the boxer, Old Tom Morris the golfer, Spencer Gore the tennis player . . . if any Victorian sportsman could see us now and watch the modern version of the game they played, they would be astonished by the changes: the fitness levels, the equipment, the kit, the organisation.
But they would instantly recognise what was going on.
It might be different if WG Grace turned up at Lord’s, though — especially if he appeared when English cricket’s newest invention, The Hundred, was taking place. What are those idiots doing where we used to play cricket? Oh, that is cricket, is it? Why aren’t they wearing whites? Why do they just keep slogging it? What’s that bloody music for?
No game, until recently, had more respect for its traditions than cricket. Yet, in recent times, no game has changed so much and so fast — often horrifying those who love it most.
At its most extreme, it has mutated into something else entirely.
Sure, many of the world’s most famous companies found success like that: Tiffany used to sell stationery, Nokia made boots, Wrigley soap, Colgate candles. Their bosses made legitimate business decisions to do something else.
But great sports have souls: they are intricate and delicate. You can’t just junk one product and substitute another.
Whose game is it? Is its main aim profit, or is the aim of profit to enhance and maintain the game? Fundamentally, is it a sport or a business?
There is no sign of anyone considering the questions, never mind finding answers.
Forty years ago, the then incarnation of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) had a staff of six and a half. The world game’s ruling body, now called the International Cricket Council (ICC), was run by the Marylebone Cricket Club’s secretary’s secretary — when she had a quiet afternoon.
Their successor bodies have vast bureaucracies, and the ICC is now based not at Lord’s but in that global Nowheresville: Dubai. No one in either the ECB or the ICC has a title as unpretentious as “secretary”.
In the 1980s, cricket across the world was essentially run by retired cricketers — mostly top-flight players, at that.
This did not make them incompetent with money — they were usually in business themselves, having earned damn all from cricket.
Indeed, it was their frugality that got them in two almighty messes: when their players were poached first by the Australian tycoon Kerry Packer and then by the South Africans, using government money to entice players to a country in purdah due to its apartheid policies. So the players’ pay began to improve.
But the next two crises had more lasting consequences. In 1993, India and its allies effectively seized control of the ICC by enlisting the support of the minor cricketing countries to overturn a previous decision and hold the next World Cup in the subcontinent rather than England.
The ICC was already changing and getting its own chief executive, the Australian David Richards. Henceforth, this body would have three areas of interest: cricket, business and geopolitics, usually in reverse order.
As happened in other sports — most obviously football and athletics — the power passed from pernickety behind-the-times white men in blazers to a class of worldly international go-getters, not all of whom could be trusted to pay you back the fiver you lent them.
Then, the next big step in the cricketing transformation came in 2008 when the Indian Premier League (IPL) — playing eye-catching short-form T20 cricket, full of six-hits and dancing girls — galvanised the country’s people.
The ensuing billions of unevenly distributed wealth created a moneymaking monster, enmeshed with the nation’s not always scrupulous ruling elite.
Thus, cricket’s administrators, whoever they were, lost control of both the direction of the game and of the players.
Old-time English cricketers might have played for a single county throughout their careers or just their county and country.
Now, with multiple imitative T20 leagues offering sweet short-term contracts even to unstellar names, an energetic cricketer can play for six different teams a year. Have bat, will travel.
English cricket’s contribution to this mess, The Hundred, is even shorter than T20. But its addition means the brief English summer now has to accommodate four forms of a single game.
Unsurprisingly, a confused England five-day Test team has just been massacred by Australia.
Will that affect the price of television rights? That is what might just worry the current unelected directors of the ECB — not one of whom has any stature within cricket, so much so that a former England captain, Sir Andrew Strauss, has had to be co-opted as a non-voting member.
It’s like vegans running a butcher’s shop. If the business of cricket keeps neglecting cricket, it will just race from one gimmick to the next and, eventually, there will be no business.
The author is a journalist, writer and FT Weekend columnist, and a former editor of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack
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