The strange death of English cricket

28 April 2018

9:00 AM

28 April 2018

9:00 AM

In 2005 I published a book called The Strange Death of Tory England, and a long article called ‘Cricket’s final over’, lamenting the decline of the game. The book appeared shortly before an election in which, although Labour easily kept its majority, the Tories gained seats, presaging a great revival, or so Charles Moore later claimed while genially deriding my book. The piece on cricket appeared, with even more faultless timing, in the September issue of Prospect, at the very moment when England had just regained the Ashes, with the victorious team, including a gloriously hungover Andrew Flintoff, touring London in an open-topped bus and inevitably bidden to meet Tony Blair, while a wave of enthusiasm swept the country. This time it was Jim Naughtie-but-nice who gently teased me on Today, as I tried to take it in what’s called good part.

Looking back, I’m not sure I was so very wrong, in either case. Having dominated most of the 20th century electorally, the Tories have won a parliamentary majority only once in the past six general elections. They then managed to throw away that one majority, and at present they look a pretty good rabble. Has there ever been a more, leaky, fractious and fissile cabinet, or one which has less idea what it was doing?

As to cricket, if I thought it was in trouble more than 12 years ago, I couldn’t have imagined what was to come. My gloomy forebodings then have been outstripped by events. It was only when I received my bright red Marylebone Cricket Club member’s pass the other week that the full enormity sank in. Sixty years ago there were 18 cricket matches — real cricket, first-class matches, played over several days, with two innings a side — at Lord’s during June and July. Thirty years ago that had shrunk to five. This year there’s just one, Middlesex playing Warwickshire in what’s left of the county championship at the end of July.

Otherwise it’s a monotonous diet of one-day matches and ‘T20 Blast’, the infantilised game of Twenty20Trash, a parody of cricket and a perfect parable of our age, with a subtle and elegant game sexed up and dumbed down. As if that weren’t enough, a week ago we learned the latest horror from the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), to whom the MCC long since ceded control of the domestic game. For years the ECB has been engaged in a deliberate campaign to destroy first-class cricket; now it proposes ‘The Hundred’, an eight-team tournament played in larger cities, with an innings consisting of 15 six-ball overs and one of ten, 40 balls fewer than T20T, and each so-called game expected to last no more than two and half hours.

To call this infantile might seem rhetorical, except that its proponents agree. Last Monday there were several letters in the Times deploring the latest news. As one correspondent put it, ‘The limited-over format has no beauty attached to it and should not be called cricket. Please do not allow the cricketer’s utmost challenge to be destroyed by this travesty of a great game.’ In the pseudo-cricket played with a white ball by men wearing garishly coloured pyjamas, the batsman who knows how to pace an innings, now playing aggressively, now defensively, is a discount against the slugger, the spinner who buys wickets with flight and guile, against the medium-pace dullard who can contain batsmen. Much more revealing and damaging was a report in the sports pages in which Andrew Strauss, not very long ago an excellent batsman and captain of Middlesex and England and now the England director of cricket, explained the thinking behind The Hundred: ‘What we’re trying to do is appeal to a new audience, people that aren’t traditional cricket fans and, in particular, looking at mums and kids in the summer holidays.’ He added superfluously that ‘We want to make the game as simple as possible for them to understand.’ In other words, this is cricket for people who don’t like cricket, and the new formats are deliberately intended for spectators with a mental age of ten — even the names of the T20T competitions, ‘Blast’ in England, ‘Big Bash’ in Australia, might have come from the Beano of my boyhood — and with very short attention spans.

Meantime, first-class cricket continues its seemingly terminal decline, with the ECB playing the role of Dr Bodkin Adams or Dr Harold Shipman, eager to speed the passing for mercenary reasons. There was a time when the county championship, and the domestic season, ran for little more than the four months from May to August. Now the relic of the championship is relegated to April and September, by people evidently unfamiliar with the English climate, or English poetry. In this, the cruellest month, ‘Aprill, with his shoures soote’ ensured that the first match of the season, when Essex, the reigning champions, visited Headingly to play Yorkshire, was abandoned without a ball bowled over four days. When there has been any play, it has been near farcical. Wet and windy spring weather at Chester-le-Street meant that Durham were bowled out for 91 and 170 and Kent won by nine wickets within two days.

For saying all this I shall be called a fuddy–duddy fogeyish old fart, and see if I care. But I would like to repudiate the charge of insularity or nativism. The innumerable people who have condemned T20T, let alone The Hundred, as ‘glorified baseball’ do a grievous injustice to baseball, which is (a long-distance Red Sox fan writes) a fascinating game of endless complexity. It has also produced at least as rich a literature as cricket, from the baseball stories of Hemingway and Ring Lardner to The Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn’s wonderful memoir about the Brooklyn Dodgers, and much else.

What’s really changed cricket isn’t so much T20T itself as its supreme incarnation in the Indian Premier League, which now completely dominates, and dictates to, the whole game. To criticise it risks sounding not only insular but post-colonial, as if the voice of an ancient reactionary lamenting the passing of the Raj. I can only say that one Indian friend of mine regards the IPL as conveniently embodying all that is most repulsive about his country today, with its tawdry glitz and glamour, its vulgarity and puerility even in the names of the teams (Super Kings! Royal Challengers! Knight Riders!), its sheer gross materialism and corruption. The India of the IPL is not quite the land the Mahatma dreamed of.

Did it really have to come to this? Writing on St George’s Day, I think of that other St George. Orwell has become something of a secular saint, and an emblem of Englishry. He loved cricket, but he said that, while it gave peculiar expression to England and how the English saw themselves, it was ‘not in reality a very popular game in this country’, not compared to football. But of course it wasn’t. Since the late 19th century when that other ‘game of 11 men against 11’ became the ruling passion of the masses in England — and then Scotland and Europe and Latin America, and just about the whole world apart from the United States and India — there has been nothing to touch it for universal appeal.

And yet cricket was a popular game once, Test and county cricket, that is, and in between those the tour matches which have now more or less disappeared but were once eagerly awaited. At the climax of the 1920 season, the last weekend of August, when Middlesex played Surrey and needed to win in order to win the championship also, Lord’s was packed for three days. When Middlesex did win, 30,000 people cheered their captain ‘Plum’ Warner, later Sir Pelham, as he was carried aloft from the field. Large crowds followed Donald Bradman’s Australians at all their matches against the counties in their triumphant 1948 tour, notably at Sheffield, when a glut of dropped catches might have robbed Yorkshire of the one chance to beat those Invincibles. During the ‘cricket, lovely cricket’ tour of 1950, the West Indians played Glamorgan in Swansea, where Everton Weekes made 147 in what my late friend Alan Watkins 50 years later said was the best innings he ever saw, and where 32,000 watched on the bank holiday Monday.

As recently as the late 1950s and early 1960s, quite large crowds watched county matches with teams containing local players, as Richard Williams of the Guardian has recalled, and I can too. I imagine that he was at Trent Bridge watching partnerships between R.T. Simpson and Arthur Jepson, both Nottinghamshire-born. Perhaps more surprisingly, something of the kind was true of Middlesex. At much the same time I was a schoolboy sitting in front of the lamented Tavern watching J.T. Murray behind the stumps taking the off-breaks of F.J. Titmus, both born within walking distance of Lord’s (Somers Town and North Kensington respectively).

Maybe that’s enough reminiscence. But even those who don’t share my memories, or my loathing of T20T, must see that it was always destined to be a Frankenstein’s Monster which would devour the real game. Although the ECB may be interested in nothing but money, a good deal of money comes from Test matches, and if domestic cricket goes, how long will Test cricket survive? We have already heard Chris Gayle — a West Indian captain, heir to Sir Frank Worrell and Sir Gary Sobers! — saying that Test cricket is finished and nothing but T20T need now be played.

Although the blame lies mostly with the ECB, the MCC cannot be exonerated. Next week at the club’s AGM various dubious proposals are to be voted on, but I might suggest another. The MCC’s subscription is a hefty £524 if you live in London, or £437 if, like me, you live fractionally less than 100 miles from Lord’s. Shouldn’t there be a much reduced subscription for members who don’t wish or ever intend to watch any Twenty20Trash? And then, after the very successful Campaign for Real Ale, what abut a Campaign for Real Cricket?

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