Taking slides in the great roof debate
Sunday 29 June 1997
This is the seasonal equivalent of the summer soccer debate that we'll be having when we're up to our necks in snow and ice next January, but it is fascinating, none the less. Even those who take only a passing interest in tennis have felt bound to ask why the All England Club didn't bother to slip in a sliding ceiling when they were building the new No 1 Court at a cost of pounds 20m. There's one at Melbourne Park, home of the Australian Open, that works very well and they are starting to mushroom in Germany following the success of a retractable perspex roof that can slide over Halle's 12,000-seater court in 90 seconds.
It would be wrong to accuse the All England of being oblivious to this particular manifestation of the modern age. One of the committee who decided against a roof insisted, "A huge amount of thinking went into our decision", thereby confirming that a distressing number of our sporting leaders continue to judge the quality of their thinking by the amount of time they spend doing it.
We are also told that the debate went all the way up to the club chairman, John Curry - which is roof level, sure enough - and that it was considered from all angles, not least the interests of the players. It wouldn't be fair, they say, to those players whose matches could not be accommodated under cover.
It is impossible to resist the temptation to comment that if it's a fairer world they seek there may be more appropriate places to start than this palace of the overpaid but let's not dwell on a subject that is not going to be resolved until BSkyB eventually get hold of the Wimbledon television contract whereupon roofs will be sliding from every direction at the first sign of a black cloud. Our satellite and pay-per-view friends won't be content to squander prime time on games from the archives.
But there were more than just a mean bunch of rain clouds rumbling around the sporting heavens last week. Celestial agitation of a far more serious and portentous nature was darkening the skies and you wonder if there has ever been a midsummer that carried so heavy a threat of our main sports being drenched in discord against which there is no defensive roof.
Rugby union is just one example. It is a paradox that in South Africa our rugby players should have acquitted themselves in so dashing and delightful a manner while, at home, many of the game's administrators are engaged in squalid struggles for power. The sundering of the Rugby Football Union involves squabbles so bitter and complicated only the Daily Telegraph seem to understand them; but I doubt if their readers do.
All may become clear at the RFU's AGM next month when the warring factions have to step into the open and should be a little easier to scrutinise. You'd have to go to the High Court to keep a check on the machinations that have soured Welsh rugby. The only discernible progress being made is that registered by the needle on the lawyers' meters. With the season seven weeks away, Cardiff and Ebbw Vale have both been involved in legal actions against the WRU.
Rugby league hasn't reached that stage yet but following the recent series of matches against Australian clubs - shortly to be renamed the World Pummelling Championships - the game is not in encouraging shape and, with the league's chief executive Maurice Lindsay still being forecast as the future chairman of the Tote, is perilously close to upheaval.
With even Manchester United managing to buy a player at last, football would seem to be in the heartiest and most stable state of all our top games. On Thursday, however, the first intimation of trouble ahead came when the Premiership indicated that they will be seeking to reduce from three to two the number of clubs featuring in promotion and relegation with the First Division of the Football League.
The League clubs have reacted in alarm to what is obviously the first sign that those safe on board the luxury Premiership are intent on pulling up the rope-ladder. Now that the stock market is heavily involved, the top clubs are anxious to avoid the instability that three down, or even two down, will inflict on their share prices. When this proposal hardens up it could split the game even wider.
Cricket's critical moment will come much sooner. On 5 August, the England and Wales Cricket Board, under the chairmanship of Lord MacLaurin of Tesco fame, will announce their blueprint for the future of domestic cricket which is certain to include a radical change to the County Championship format. Opinions have already been sought from county players and umpires and 7,000 questionnaires are being distributed to county and club members to involve the grass-roots in the decision.
We were denied a glimpse of cricket's likely future when last week's deluge also swamped Surrey's attempt to stage the first official day-night match in Britain. Traditionalists would have breathed a prayer of thanks towards the dark heavens. Surrey Lions v Nottingham Outlaws under floodlights, each batsman played to the crease with his own signature tune, with a lion's roar to greet every Nottingham wicket that falls ... you get the picture.
There may well be room for a jazzed-up version of the game in the calendar but I trust the ECB realise that there are less extreme ways to entice spectators and that there is a rich market to be tapped among the older, less gimmick-demanding part of the population. The cricket crowd of the future doesn't have to be packed with young men chanting "Barmy Army" for five hours at a stretch.
Even allowing for the rain, it is hard to recall a summer so replete with exciting sporting action. But behind the scenes there is a worrying absence of a firm and reliable hand on the rudders.
ANTE-POST betting is a familiar part of racing but my colleagues on the Independent racing desk last week revealed that ante-natal betting is now with us. Coral bookmakers are offering their clients a 150-1 chance to become expectant punters by placing their cash on a horse that won't be born until next year.
It's the mother and father of a brave bet. But the mother concerned is Flakey Dove, who won the 1994 Champion Hurdle, and the sire who has put her in the family way is Alderbrook who won the same hurdling classic the following year. You can't get better breeding than that and Corals have had plenty of interest in the bet even though it could be seven years before the offspring gets to the starting line.
Meanwhile, there's all that pacing up and down outside the delivery room, years of worrying about coughs and strains .... I think I'd want more than 150-1 to endure that sort of parenthood. Still, as they say, a foal and his money are soon parted.
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