James Lawton: Cricket should not be fun – Twenty20 has stripped it of intrigue and brutality
Real men shouldn't dress up in garish outfits and prostitute a game of sublime potential
Tuesday 09 June 2009
Cricket "purists," for want of a better dirty word, are constantly being told it is time for them to wrap themselves in old army blankets, lie under the stars and await their admission to that happy hunting ground where their heroes do not dress up in pyjamas and lunge, with extreme predictability and ugliness, at almost every ball bowled in their direction.
However, the suggestion has rarely been as compelling, surely, as on Sunday, when England beat Pakistan in a Twenty20 match of such banality it was quite often hard to look.
The late Harold Pinter once declared, "Cricket is the greatest thing that God ever created on earth." It wasn't on this occasion. It seemed more like evolution in reverse.
Twenty20 contrives its thrills in a crayon-drawn format so pre-ordained, so soul-grindingly repetitive, that its defenders declare it foolproof, but then what happens when one of two allegedly competitive teams has neither the form nor the inclination to make a match of it? We saw it at The Oval on Sunday night. It is a hideously jerked-up formulaic parody of the real game, the one that delighted such as Pinter and Samuel Beckett and was once lauded by a visiting African chieftain, a guest at Lord's of the Foreign Office, as the finest, most elaborate and still most subtle rain-making ceremony ever devised. Twenty20 is about as subtle as a ram-raid.
Any idea that all the hype in the world might just sustain for cricket a rather higher status was somewhat shot through by the beaten Pakistani captain Younis Khan when he declared, "We didn't field very well and it is a problem for us at the moment. But Twenty20 is a fun game. It's meant to be fun, that's all." If only it was, Younis.
The problem is that it is supposed to be so much more than that. It is the straight-faced projection of the salvation of cricket. It is the way, we are told, to prise the kids away from King Football and maintain, more effectively than ever more, the downward motion of the game's nose in the great trough of television.
This, of course, wasn't quite the image being projected by England's captain Paul Collingwood, who declared, "I'm loving the captaincy now but I wasn't loving it on Friday night" (when a Dutch debt collector heaved two sixes at Lord's by way of match-winning momentum). "I know I have 11 good men in the dressing room who have backed me up. They wanted to go out there and show what they could do and they did that. They showed their character and it shows we have real men in the dressing room."
Real men don't eat quiche. In a perfect world nor do they dress up in garish outfits and prostitute a game of sublime potential. However, we know it's far from perfect and no-one is saying that free men shouldn't be able to pursue the richest possible living. However, some day the golden penny may drop that Twenty20 is not a game but a fad, a brief and foredoomed exploration of cricket's most sensational possibilities. The trouble with sensation is that you can have a little bit too much of it.
In separate parts of his excellent new book, And God Created Cricket, TV analyst Simon Hughes writes hauntingly about the misplaced appeal of the old game – as so magnificently demonstrated in the 2005 Ashes series – and the appeal of Twenty20. With a nice touch of ambivalence, he writes of the latter, "There were inevitable reservations from the purists, a euphemism for the short-sighted and the hard of hearing, suggesting that Twenty20 wasn't a proper contest between bat and ball (actually, I might have said that).
"But the compensations were huge. The 5.30 start benefited everyone. You could see all the skills of the game – even the forward defensive and the shouldering of arms, occasionally – compressed into two and a half hours, sipping wine and sitting next to Julia from accounts, and still be able to go out for dinner/get home in time for supper afterwards.
"The players, ground down by the monotonous routine, revelled in the concept and the public response, and in only having to report for work at 4pm – and knock off at 8.30 – and their enjoyment was infection. Twenty20 made cricket fun again – and almost cool. I said almost."
Whoever said cricket had to be fun? Cricket is supposed to be thrilling and absorbing, attritional and brilliant, intriguing and brutal, and always filled with the possibility of moments of great beauty and power. Twenty20 seeks to make every hack slogger look like Viv Richards. Sometimes, as it was when the Pakistanis fretted and jabbed without a glimmer of hope, the impersonation is both cheap and about as enjoyable as a session of canal work at the dentists.
If the Oval action had somehow left you still the right side of a coma you merely had to switch channels to watch a study of West Indian cricket at the apex of its glory. It ran on the BBC, which used to cover live, real cricket, and some of the images were quite haunting: there was Gary Sobers, bowling, spin and seam, and batting like a god, hitting six sixes in one over, and there were the young Viv Richards and Brian Lara, dissecting the field with shots which might have been fired from a rifle.
If that was the past, and the gunk we saw on at The Oval was the future, yes, indeed it may be time to reach for that old blanket.
Setanta's struggles suggest football is no longer in its own league
So according to the ledgers of Setanta television, it seems that outbidding all your rivals for a big football contract is not necessarily a licence to set up your own mint. Now this is a twist, is it not?
That the life-threatening crisis of the Irish TV company should come in the same week that we learned of Liverpool's problematic financial future must, at the very least, provoke questions about the banker assumption that the game will always be besieged by eager paymasters, and that in the meantime all the normal requirements of good business practice can be be put on one side.
The most optimistic scenario is that the appeal of the world game will always operate in a captive market, whatever the degree of wider economic strain. The nightmare, on the other hand, is that football will, like everyone else, feel a sharp pinch indeed. And then upon what does it fall back? Unfortunately it is not years of hard-headed management and an understanding that any league is, ultimately, only as strong as its weakest member.
They do say that pride always comes before the fall. Ditto, the ungovernable arrogance to believe that for some reason you are quite separate from the rest of an embattled world. This no doubt is still enshrined in the working philosophy of the upper echelons of English football. However, if anyone is going to blink this is probably the time.
Reality bites at last for lucky Lewis
As Jenson Button luxuriates in the success that took so long to come, and lavishes praise on his engineers, it seems that the reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton is beginning to grasp some of the realities of a business which didn't require him to wait hardly at all.
Hamilton talked of the need for patience after guiding his ailing McLaren into 13th place and declared, "I see my role from now on as helping the team to cure the problems with this year's car and to make next year's car the best it can possibly be. When the team gives me a car to win, I will win."
Yep, that's the deal Lewis. You put in the hours in the pit, you glean a fraction of second here and there, and maybe you get to to be the fastest of them all again. Ideally, you also reflect on the fact that if, say, Robert Kubica or Nico Rosberg had started out with a machine as fast as the one you were given in your first season there might still be everything to prove.
Meanwhile, Button sets a splendid example each time he revisits the podium. He reminds us that if Formula One ever wants to create a genuine sense of a truly competitive drivers' challenge it still has quite a bit of levelling to do.
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