wicket ways

Cricket is a Zen activity; the whole point is that little happens
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The Independent Online
My cricket phase lasted about as long as my religious phase, though it happened several years later. The summer was warm, I hadn't much to do and Botham was at his zenith. I went to a match or two, decorated a house while listening to a Test series, and knew the names of the Middlesex team by heart. For that short period, the pleasures of this peculiar sport were somehow lent to me.

It didn't last. And, as I read about this week's gloomy editorial in the 134th edition of Wisden's Cricketer's Almanack, I found myself recalling why I fell out of love so rapidly. The editor, Matthew Engel, laments the decline of the game in England. "In England," he writes, "football has always been more popular than cricket. Ten years ago the gap was a narrow one. It is now a yawning chasm." Why? Partly, according to Engel, because of the decline of the national team, whose petulance and incompetence are making it hard for youngsters to associate with the sport.

But, he goes on, this is only part of the sad story. The true crisis is much wider: "The blunt fact is that cricket in the UK has become unattractive to the vast majority of the population. The game is widely perceived as elitist, exclusionist and dull."

He is quite right. The attempt at mitigation by Christopher Martin-Jenkins in yesterday's Daily Telegraph (where elitism, exclusionism and dullness are all much admired) that "only on Wednesday night Lord Runcie said that there were more cricketers in Yorkshire than in Australia", merely makes Mr Engel's point.

It is surely not helping cricket that this country has not produced a truly great cricketer since Ian Botham. Such long, tedious intervals between short bursts of excitement reminds one of trench warfare and adolescent sex. A rational person would choose neither as a pastime.

I think that the game itself is the problem. People find it dull as a spectator sport, because, compared with almost all alternatives, it is exceptionally dull. In Nineties Britain, our declining leisure time can be filled with the Net, metal-detecting, American football, advanced cookery, extreme sports - and all of them offering completion in a fraction of what a cricket match requires. On a Saturday, most of us now expect to be able to watch one thing and accomplish two ourselves. We will not settle for less.

So is cricket doomed? Let me tell you a story. In the mid-Eighties, I was watching a match between Surrey and Warwickshire at the Oval. For five hours, I sat there, puzzled and strangely unsatisfied. Then I worked out why - I couldn't see where the ball was. Ever. In soccer, you can always see the ball, and it helps.

A cricketing friend of mine felt, however, that this ball-blindness was not a problem. "It doesn't matter," he said. "It's all in the action. The bowler's speed and arm movement tell you where the ball is likely to be going. The reaction of the batsman allows you to deduce how well he has met the challenge. You can still work out whether a good shot was played or a good ball bowled."

"In that case," I replied, "why not do without the ball altogether? Especially since it is both hard and dangerous. The umpire can judge where the ball should have been, whether it was hit and how well it was fielded." My friend demurred on the grounds that the physical ball was still useful in deciding what had actually happened should there be any dispute.

But this exchange points to an important truth about cricket, which the sport's desire to compete with others may have obscured. It is a Zen activity. The whole point - the beauty - is that little happens. To complain of its dullness is like moaning about the fact that not much happens during meditation. The mistake has been to market it as exciting. The answer is to take Wisden off the sports shelves and to make it the biggest attraction in the New Age and Personal Growth section. Chill out, Mr Engel!