BOOK REVIEW / He doesn't like cricket. He loves it: 'Betrayal' - Graeme Wright: Witherby, 16.99

Click to follow
WHEN Graeme Wright came across the picture on the front cover of his excellent and anguished piece of cricket soul-searching, we can be sure that he let out a whoop of delight. It is an unflattering rear view of a tubby guy in stupid sky-coloured pyjamas having his middle stump broken in half.

Wright's book is a sustained critique of the forces that have infected, and threaten to ruin, the game he loves; and this bright snapshot refers to nearly all the anti-cricket demons he holds responsible: the stump has been weakened, we can see, by the painful insertion of a television camera, which now dangles sheepishly from its exposed wire.

The picture says a little about profits, and plenty about loss. It shows us a sport willing to alienate a patient audience for an impatient one; a sport demeaned by the urge to make an elegant game seem kitsch, and a measured game seem frantic. In effect, it's a picture of lamb dressed up as mutton.

Wright is a former editor of Wisden, and he knows that the beauty of cricket is the way it sublimates its adversarial aspects by placing them in a grander context: bowlers and batsmen enjoy private duels in the shade of a larger argument. Nothing could be more calculated to affront fans than redundant, pseudo-confrontational coloured clothing. Apart from anything else, cricket is too slow a game to live up to a thwack-thwack image: in the time it took Gundappa Viswanath to compile a patient 200 against England in 1982, 75,000 Indian babies were born.

Yesterday's events at Old Trafford confirm - as if confirmation were needed - that English cricket is not exactly on fire just now. But Wright is not much concerned with the ins and outs of particular games and players. Betrayal is a history of the forces that want cricket to swap the sunny gravity of a game for the sober frivolity of commerce.

In essence, it is an elegy about the rise of professionalism, written on the assumption that a modern professional is more or less what we might call a cheat: someone who is willing, in football terms, to chop his opponent's legs off rather than let him have a shot. Modern professional cricketers are little more, in this account of their recent past, than a surly closed shop: a bunch of gum-chewing tradesmen working to rule, dishing out foul-mouthed obscenities to any opponent in hearing range, dashing off to South Africa, Kerry Packer or any other lucre-peddler at the drop of a helmet, diddling the umpires like mad and disregarding everything that made them like cricket in the first place. In treating the game like a job, in seeking to tame the game's unpredictable element of playfulness, English cricket faces a long day in the field.

In outline, this might sound like an easy-to-satirise bit of blimpery, but Wright's thesis carries tremendous conviction. His prose resembles, perhaps, Gooch's batting: upright, determined, a bit shambling and gloomy, with a crisp and well-timed crack every now and then. And he is not blind to the financial crunch to which all these ugly gambits are a response.

Nobody goes to watch county cricket in England - the game is almost entirely subsidised by international matches. What to do? Wright argues that the professional cricket circuit is only worth keeping if it figures out a way to play a game that people might want to see. He has little faith in its ability to do this.

As he lists the blinkered, money-grubbing plans that have gone awry, the truth dawns. The game's administrators have tried everything they can to make the game bring in more loot: scuzzy costumes, sponsored sight- screens, white balls, ra-ra advertising, limited overs, limited bowlers, limited field settings, limited run-ups, unusual new balls, the same load of old balls, and God knows what else. There's only one thing, in all this limiting, that hasn't been tried: beautiful, adventurous cricket.

That - Wright is clear on this point - is the players' fault. It is too easy to throw brickbats at the muddle- headed nobs who run the game. Wright sees them as well-meaning, but confounded at every turn by the players they are seeking to support. Wright is not a Boycott fan, and seems to enjoy reminding us that Boycott's annus mirabilis - the year he averaged over 100 - was Yorkshire's most unsuccessful season ever.

He notices how many alterations intended to promote attractive cricket have been spiked by negative county captains. When the boundaries shrank to 75 yards to encourage more boundaries, captains simply stopped bowling spin bowlers. Unbelievably, Somerset once declared a Benson & Hedges innings closed after just one over, purely to deny Worcestershire the chance of improving their scoring rate when their turn came to bat. What the crowd thought, the eager devotees who stumped up for tickets . . . oh, don't be so bloody old-fashioned, for Christ's sake.

Meanwhile, what about cricket's soul? Only fans will be able to identify with the author's easy acknowledgement of cricket as a metaphor for life, but the spirit of the game is probably best expressed by its willingness to produce draws. The finest recent Test match was the one in which Gooch scored 333, Azharuddhin responded with an amazing century and a half of his own, and Kapil Dev avoided the follow-on with a flurry of dashing sixes into the pavilion. It was five days of fluctuating, bold and gifted cricket, and at the end the sides retreated, like two boxers with bloody noses, agreeing that honours were even, and that they'd have another crack at each other next week.

Thrilling stuff, and a wild exception to the general trend of a game that seems hell-bent on casting itself as win-or-lose. As Wright says: 'If we entertain the precept that cricket holds the mirror up to English nature, what kind of Englishness is it that says there can be only winners and losers? Has cricket educated society to the fact that there is no longer an alternative?'

Grasping players on the one hand, foolish administrators on the other - Wright sees few grounds for optimism. If Satan himself turned up at Lord's and asked for a net, he seems to think, the TCCB would buy him an Australian lager, put him in some sponsored leisurewear, stick a camera up his nose and call it DevilVision. It mystifies and saddens him no end. Even Mephistopheles wanted something in return.

Still, Wright may be wrong. The soul of cricket might keep its head down in the county dressing rooms, but every weekend, all over England, it gets out its old willow bat. Club captains spend Friday nights on the phone desperately seeking a wicket-keeper for Sunday. And they usually find someone - even if it is the guy they swore they would never ask again. After all, why would you pay to watch bad- tempered clots in bubble-gum pyjamas when you could spend the afternoon hanging around in the rain at deep fine leg, occasionally rubbing the bruise on your finger, the one that reminds you of that catch, you know, the one you dropped just after tea?