By the time you read this, the first match in the latest Cricket World Cup will just be finished. Yet as we go into the premier tournament of the sport I love, I’m feeling very uneasy about its future. To explain why, I want to give you a parallel with political philosophy.
In the early 1990s, conservative intellectuals like John Gray and Roger Scruton started to cast doubt on the virtues of Thatcherism. Yes, Lady Thatcher was a Conservative Prime Minister, and had effected great change during her decade in power. But, they argued, the spirit of market fundamentalism she unleashed had been antithetical to the ways of life cherished by conservatives. Whereas they believed in settled communities, and favoured evolution over revolution when it came to social change, Thatcherism came with a cult of hypermobility, which sped up history and destroyed the fabric of society.
Something similar is going on in cricket today, and, unusually for me, I find myself siding with those who fear the future. A spirit of market fundamentalism is abroad. Over the past few years, Twenty20, the shorter, brasher, louder version of the game, has unleashed a revolution.
And it has created endless benefits. Above all, a vast new, young audience is engaged in the sport. New revenue streams are generating huge sums. Techniques have evolved – above all in my favourite area, spin bowling. And perhaps at last India, which is the lodestar of this phenomenon, has overcome the spirit of colonial conquest which was cricket’s foundation. And yet the costs have been huge too, above all in two of the purest forms of the game: first, Test cricket; and second, the stuff that I grew up on, in beautiful grounds either side of the A3 in Surrey. The latter, like a stubborn opening batsman who won’t give up his wicket, are soldiering on. But five-day Tests in India and New Zealand are often played out in front of empty stadiums. West Indies have gone from world beaters to shrivelled farce. And India has coarsened the spirit of the game, injecting corrupt practices and villains into its upper echelons.
Cricket, in other words, is at something of a crossroads. Yogi Berra said when you come to a fork in the road, you should take it. Over the coming weeks, I hope the millions who tune in are dazzled by a sporting spectacle like no other. And I hope that, after that’s done, they decide the only thing better than a 50-over thrash is the first day at Lord’s, or Sabina Park, or Eden Gardens. Or, even better, the sight of the ancient trundler on the village green, and the prospect of sweet milky tea and wet cucumber sandwiches in the local pavilion. Somehow I doubt it, but then there are some goods that no free market can put a price on.Reuse content