Sunday, June 14, 2015

It's Just Not Cricket

Evolution is a wonderful thing. In the animal kingdom, it produces all sorts of varied fauna and flora, perfectly adapted to its environment. Without it, we wouldn't be here as a species with our capacity for language and innovation.

Even sport is not immune from the effects of evolution. As sport comes to the realisation it's part of the entertainment industry, it adapts and changes to ensure it can continue to attract the important spectator and sponsor income essential for its survival. Is it possible though that some sports have pushed the process too far, to the point where the sport itself has become lost?

The essence of cricket is the contest between bat and ball. The batsmen are trying to avoid being dismissed while also looking to score runs, while the bowler is trying to keep the runs to a minimum while taking wickets. In their attempts to engender entertainment though, have the administrators of the game pushed that balance past its tipping point?

Cricket has equated entertainment with one thing only - runs. The art of bowling well, whether that be the giant pace bowler sending down 90mph deliveries, or the spinner bamboozling the batsman with flight, drift and turn isn't regarded as what the spectators want to see. 

Every boundary struck is greeted with a Pavlovian burst of disco music, fireworks and cheerleaders, accompanied by the crowd waving the plastic signs provided for them by the sponsors. In contrast any wicket - particularly of the home side - is greeted with silence irrespective of the quality of the delivery that brought it about.

In an attempt to generate more "entertainment", laws and playing regulations have been tinkered with. Boundaries have become smaller and smaller, so even miss-hits and top edges fly over the ropes. Bowlers are given a much narrower window to aim at for a delivery to be legal. They are restricted on how many short-pitched deliveries they can bowl in an over. Captains are prevented from setting fields to stem them flow of runs by the number of fielders they can have in different positions.

Even that would perhaps be manageable, as the bowler still has one element in his armoury that he can call upon for assistance - the pitch. However, even these are now being increasingly tailored towards assisting the batsman. Lifeless, beige strips of turf that offer neither sideways movement nor excessive pace to provide hope for the bowler. In baseball, a pitcher can still throw a 90mph curveball irrespective of the ground beneath his feet. In cricket, the fast bowler can put in all the effort he likes but if the pitch sucks the pace out of the ball life becomes easier for the batsman.

Seven or even eight runs per over is becoming the new normality in the shorter formats of the game. If this continues though, then even that will be greeted with a "ho hum" response from spectators, who will want more and more. So what do administrators do then? What cricket has done is equivalent to football doubling the width of the goals to make it easier to score.

At the recent one-day World Cup in Australia, they used some of the largest grounds in professional cricket such as the SCG in Sydney and the MCG in Melbourne. Boundaries weren't brought in significantly, which meant batsmen had to work hard to hit fours and sixes and slower bowlers in particular got some protection from being slogged out of the game.

There needs to be a rebalancing of the game of this type between bat and ball, whether that is a relaxation to the fielding restrictions or guidance issued to groundsmen about the kinds of pitches they should be preparing and the size of boundaries. As it stands, the one-day game may be entertainment, but it's really not cricket.

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