KEEPING LORD'S WORLD CLASS
Founded in 1787, Marylebone Cricket Club is the most active and famous cricket club in the world and owner of Lord's Cricket Ground - the Home of Cricket.
© Copyright 2015
22 July 2002
Mr President, Ladies and Gentlemen, I'm honoured to be asked to give this lecture - and I thank the MCC for it.
If there are three reasons why I feel particularly honoured they’re called Cowdrey, Dexter and Benaud.
Cowdrey - not just because this is the Cowdrey Lecture - but because Colin’s friendship meant a lot to me.
He supported and sympathised with me in those frustrating years when I was blocked from “doing my thing” on the world stage - and he kindly contributed the foreword to my autobiography.
Incidentally, there is a myth about Colin, and that is that his gentlemanly manner reflected a man who was perhaps too gentle - he was, to put it bluntly, a bit soft.
Well, I have memories of Colin being knocked off his feet when playing Andy Roberts at his frightening best, and calmly picking himself up and preparing to take renewed guard without a flicker of fear - and I remember him going out to Australia in his 40’s to take on Lillee and Thomson at their most terrifying - and never flinching in the face of the onslaught.
Colin showed that you can be brave and competitive and win the respect of your opponents without being abrasive, let alone abusive.
That’s why a “Spirit of Cricket” lecture in Colin’s name is such an inspired idea, and I’m so pleased that we’re joined tonight by members of his family.
Then, of course, I’m honoured by the involvement of Ted Dexter, because you, Ted, are not only President of MCC and our host tonight, but also another of the great names of our sport.
Ted, you also played with style - and in the spirit that the game should be played - I only wish I could have played golf as well as you!
Ted has always been a visionary, a man who both respected the traditions of the game and yet was always looking forward - his ideas have been proved in practice time after time.
And then, of course, there is Richie Benaud, because tonight I follow in his footsteps. He was the first Cowdrey lecturer and following him has been a daunting prospect.
I remember the first time I played the legendary Benaud, I was a 17-year-old schoolboy. It was at The Oval and I was well set with 30-odd when he came on. I hit two balls for four and was beginning to think there was not too much to him.
Then he bowled a flipper.
Now I had never seen a flipper.
Come to think of it, I still haven’t seen that particular flipper - because it was rolling me over while I was still shaping up to pull it.
Needless to say, Richie said little but gave me a little nod and wink to let me know quietly who was boss - as he still does in the commentary box today.
Colin Cowdrey, Ted Dexter and Richie Benaud - how much we can learn from these three, and it’s noteworthy that as well as being three of the outstanding players in post-war cricket, all three became equally renowned for their sportsmanship and for their ongoing contribution to the game. Once more I say it: class and decency can, and usually do, go together.
Mr President, as you know, I have been involved in this game we all love for many years - I’ve been a player, I’ve been (and occasionally still am) a coach, I’ve been an administrator - and I still am a commentator, all this over a period of some 38 years since my first class debut, so it’s hardly surprising that, like many of you, I have deeply held views on what’s happening to it.
I welcome the fact that you, Ted, have always interpreted the MCC’s Spirit of Cricket initiative widely, to cover the shape and style of the game as well as the Laws and behaviour, because I want particularly to enter that wider territory tonight.
Some of my thoughts may be controversial, and I don’t pretend to have answers to all the questions I raise. My aim tonight is to provoke thought as much as it is to persuade but, even if you don’t share my views, I hope you will accept that I speak out of affection for and loyalty to our game - and, above all, out of hope that it will continue to prosper and be played by generations to come.
I want to address three questions:
First, how can we make our sport sustainable in the 21st century?
Second, how can we strike a balance between preserving its best features and yet at the same time make changes to meet the challenges of a changing world?
And, third, is the current imbalance in the performance of the cricketing countries part of a historical cycle - after all, there have been ups and downs in international standings before - or are we facing a more fundamental problem that calls for more fundamental action?
Let’s start with the context, for no activity can be viewed out of the context of the world we all live in, to obstinately pursue an activity year after year, and even decade after decade, without changing that activity to reflect the way the world itself is changing, is inevitably to condemn it to antiquity and ultimately to obscurity.
That goes especially for leisure activities that are dependent on each generation taking them up and taking them forward.
In the 38 years since I first played first-class cricket for Natal in 1964 the world has changed beyond recognition.
Then, my home country of South Africa was rightly being more and more isolated because of its apartheid regime until, in 1970, we were cut off from international cricket - yet now South Africa has majority rule and is about to become host to the cricket World Cup.
Then cricketers in this country had just stopped being divided into gentlemen and players. Now the game is highly commercialised - everyone’s a player. (Whether everyone’s a gentleman is another matter!)
Then, television coverage in England had only just begun and was in black and white and virtually restricted to one camera at one end. Indeed, when I was a boy my contact with international sport came from the radio or books - now people all over the world can watch cricket (or any sport) on TV in their own homes as it’s happening, in colour, and with the benefit of astonishing technology - thus we have Hawkeye, the red zone, and slow motion replays from every angle.
Beyond the world of cricket, society as a whole has over those years been changing too, with old hierarchies disappearing, new lifestyles evolving, leisure activity becoming big business, and technology increasing the pace and pressures of life at an astonishing rate.
And, above all, people have more choice.
On any one day now in the UK you can watch sport on five dedicated sports channels, and in some countries there are many more.
In any one place now you can choose from scores of alternative leisure activities.
Sports, once reserved for either summer or winter, are now played all the year round, with the emergence of high quality professionals entertaining millions via television, leading to three particular changes.
First, top players, who carry the responsibility for winning converts to the game, are both sportsmen and commercial beings, rightly expecting to share in the considerable financial returns for their skill and endeavour.
Second, more people now choose to enjoy their sport as spectators instead of as players.
Third, people have began to abandon support for a particular sport - maybe the sport of their fathers, or of their local community, or their school - and started to shop around for entertainment and excitement.
With the technology and the changing lifestyles has come a generation accustomed to things happening at a far greater pace … a generation demanding action, colour, drama, spectacle … a generation raised on sensation.
Let’s face it, our dear old game was not fashioned for all this. And it’s beginning to lose its place.
Once the second most popular sport in England - and definitely the most popular summer sport - cricket, “the summer game”, is now slipping down the list.
Let me for a few moments concentrate on this country alone. It may be possible to sit in corporate boxes at a packed Lord’s on a sunny Saturday of an Ashes Test or a one-day match such as the marvellous final between England and India recently and persuade ourselves that there’s not that much wrong with our modern game, but if we consider the game beyond those special occasions … if you look to what we used to call the grassroots (now, alas, largely barren ground) … it’s clear we face a problem … I would even say a crisis.
It’s bad enough that in this country - the home of the game - county games take place before a tiny sprinkling of mainly elderly spectators …
…or that many exciting Tests - and there have been some terrific ones recently - are played out before less than full houses …
…or that the quality of performance below the top level is falling as the player base dwindles …
…all that’s bad enough, but the real cause for concern, if we really love our game, and if we really want it preserved, is that youngsters who in the past would have dreamed of playing Test cricket at Lord’s or Old Trafford are now much more likely to dream of playing at Highbury or Anfield. Maybe they always did in winter, but now they do in summer too.
Football is now the number one year-round sport.
By the only test that matters - numbers playing and numbers watching, and the numbers of youngsters playing regularly - we can come to only one conclusion: despite the arrival of one-day cricket, despite more comprehensive and entertaining television coverage, despite an increase in the pace of the game as reflected by Test match run rates, cricket is in danger of not adapting fast enough.
When it comes to winning a fresh generation to the game, cricket is in danger of being left behind by sports that are better at keeping pace with the world we live in.
Now let me stress once more that I am not calling for any change that reduces the need for the basic cricketing skills or undermines its tradition of sportsmanship. As I said earlier, I love this game as much as anyone … and I particularly reject the idea that anyone who proposes change has no sense of history or tradition.
… nor am I taking an over-gloomy view of today’s game. As we’ve seen recently, particularly with the one day game, at its best it can still fire the imagination; the challenge we face today is how to change the game to attract another generation while at the same time preserving its best features.
We must attract youngsters to play it and youngsters to watch it. Because, without them, the game will die.
We can, of course, all point to some - some youngsters, some clubs, some schools - and suggest that youth cricket is still alive. But …
What is the average age of the spectators at a county game? Or even a Test?
What is the average age of players competing on club grounds or village greens on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon?
How many people under the age of 30 buy Wisden? What even is the average age of viewers of the cricket coverage on Channel 4?
Incidentally, Channel 4 recently surveyed 14-24 year-olds and found a disturbing indifference to cricket.
I believe you know in your hearts what the answers to all those questions are likely to be … Our game is increasingly sustained by an ageing generation, its history and traditions increasingly irrelevant to the young.
Of course, we could say: “Why bother? If coming generations want to play other games, do other things, so be it.”
But what would we have missed if our fathers and grandfathers had done that?
How would our beloved game have survived all these years except for the devoted determination of one generation after another to pass it on?
I don’t believe anyone present tonight would be happy to abandon the sustainability of the sport to fate.
That being the case, the issue then is: what will attract those youngsters to the game? And, above all, what will attract them to play it regularly … for there is little point in lighting fires only for the flame to momentarily flicker and then die out.
There are, of course, issues of available facilities and play space, and even weather, but time does not allow me to go into those tonight. Nor does it allow me to discuss the issue of opportunity, although I do of course acknowledge those efforts that are being made - for instance, the MCC’s progressive ticket pricing intended to encourage more younger people to come to major games.
In any case, I don’t believe that any of these are the key factors - at least not in this country. The fact is that the young have been educated by their life experience to expect to have fun as participants and to be entertained as spectators.
As I said earlier, when they turn their attention to any sport they want action … pace … spectacle.
And the irony is that we know we can give it to them.
There are still few more thrilling sights in sport than a sparkling Tendulkar cover drive, a Lara pull, or a Trescothick hook to the boundary …
… or wickets flying from a 90 miles an hour ball from Gough or McGrath …
… or a brilliantly-judged diving catch from a swirling ball hit off a canny Warne …
… or a superb pick up and throw to the stumps from a Jonty Rhodes.
What we have to do is create opportunities whereby youngsters can experience this in the context of their own lifestyles and in the time they are given … and, if we do, if we do create the brief and entertaining tasters for cricket that a variety of limited overs concepts offer, perhaps they will develop an appetite for more, and want to come and see the serious, longer Tests - especially if we make some changes there too.
So I welcome the 20-overs games, although why introduce them so cautiously? In my view if we feel compelled to change to survive we should do so wholeheartedly, with confidence and style. To the sceptics, I would say that two of the best games of the summer were the two curtailed one-day games at Headingley and The Oval. To those who fear our more orthodox top players could have their game damaged, I would point to rugby sevens; these increasingly feature a separate set of players with special skills and are marketed differently and often attract a new following. But it is still a following for rugby. This brand of cricket should not be seen as an end in itself, but as an introduction to a sport many young people, in particular, are currently missing altogether.
Mr President, I posed the question at the beginning: is our game sustainable? I believe it is, but only if we work together to change it. We can do begin by considering some even more radical ideas …
… should selectors encourage more attacking cricket by giving players the kind of (at least short-term) security that encourages them to take risks, play shots, without fear of not just instant dismissal by the bowler but by the selectors as well?
… should there also be a bonus element for fielding? (Fielding, at least at international level, is much better than it was, but it should become an equal third factor in the game - batting, bowling and fielding.)
… should we also be building into the scoring system a bonus element for entertainment value?
… should we take more action to speed the game up, including dealing with slow over rates, as you, Ted, suggested in your recent speech to the ICC.
… should we downgrade the importance of averages and statistics so as to discourage performances that look better in Wisden than they do on the field?
I feel particularly strongly about this last point: this is a game overwhelmed by stats. Yet do they tell the whole story? Will they reveal in later years the difference between 100 scored by a crowd-thrilling Adam Gilchrist or 100 scratched out over twice the time by a lesser entertainer? Does it matter? I think it does: it is the Gilchrists who will bring the young back to the game. It is that style of play we should encourage. And it’s not just about talent, although Gilchrist is, of course, highly talented. It’s about attitude. The fact is he doesn’t care what the record books show; he wants to play with flair and win the match. In the words of the MGM musical… “That’s Entertainment”. And entertainment is what we should encourage, not just because it brings in the crowds but because it is, anyway, the best form of cricket. The Australians are the most entertaining team in world cricket - is it any coincidence that they’re also the best?
My second question was, how do we strike a balance between change and preserving the best features of the game? I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But I believe they lie in combining traditional Tests, albeit updated by variations in rules and use of technology, with a variety of entertaining crowd-pulling variations aimed especially at the young. And they lie in the way the game is played … aggressively, entertainingly, and putting crowds and the image of the game before self-interest.
Australia has shown it can be done - setting a minimum target of 300 or more runs a day even if it means losing wickets, insisting that their bowlers attack, and raising fielding standards to exceptional levels.
What matters? Take the first Test between England and Sri Lanka. It was clear within a couple of overs on the last day that England had no inclination to try to win, although there was at least a small chance. Given the choice, they erred on the side of caution. There are those who say, “Well done, they saved the match. What mattered was to go to the second Test unbeaten.” Yet there was hardly anyone in the ground. Television viewers switched off in their droves. A match with a lot of good cricket in it became a non-event, remembered by no-one.
If you were a 16-year-old deciding what mattered this summer, the cricket series or the World Cup football, what would you have turned to after you had endured an hour or two of that Monday at Lord’s?
You may say, “It was ever thus”. But what may have been acceptable in the past won’t survive the demands and expectations of the 21st century. Today’s young don’t want a day of their time written off by a philosophy that says that all that matters is not losing. Nor, of course, is it necessary. England showed at Old Trafford, by scoring 50 runs in five overs to win, what can be done. And what do we learn from that game at The Oval when Surrey and Glamorgan exceeded 800 runs in one day. It’s said that this was partly due to the shorter boundaries. In that case, let’s have shorter boundaries in the one-day format - although I, of course, speak as a batsman …
Let’s remember, too, that today’s young have been bred on technology. They can’t understand why injustices should occur as a result of human error by the umpire when the technology is there to guarantee they need not. They see players sent back to the pavilion by a well-intentioned but fallible umpire while their TV picture shows he wasn’t out, and they think, “What kind of game is this?” In their black-and-white world, they think that’s not fair, and that has an effect on their feelings about the game.
Obviously we don’t want technology to slow the game down - but we must get the best out of it and I don’t think we yet have done so. (Incidentally, the football World Cup showed that in other sports serious injustice can be caused by fallible officials; they, too, need to make better use of the technology available.)
And the young can’t understand how in this day and age the fate of a major match can be decided by the unpredictable state of the pitch, as if in over 100 years of Test cricket we haven’t learned how to make one that encourages good attacking cricket from both bowler and batsman.
They must have been baffled when one recent Test match in the West Indies had to be abandoned altogether because the wicket was dangerous. They must wonder, and they would be right to wonder, how could that happen?
We have a select team of international umpires now; what about a select team of international groundsmen from those countries that are starting to get this right? And should we pause to think how much we spend on players and how much we spend on groundsmen? They are an integral part of the cricketing family. Because, be in no doubt, good cricket can only be played on a good surface.
We have to get these things right. Out of date practices and weaknesses contribute to the image of an anachronistic game.
Yes, let’s preserve the game’s delights and strengths, but not its debilitating eccentricities and weaknesses.
Before moving on, a word about relationships. Not all the traditions of this game have been good. The way players were treated as little better than peasants in the past is a tradition few would wish preserved. If the game is to change, it must reflect the changing relationships between management and worker in other ways of life.
The first step to strengthening our game is for everyone to get on the same side. Our game will not be helped by disunity, whether it’s between players, between players and administrators, or between cricketing countries and cultures. It needs everyone in the game working in partnership.
We’ve seen leading administrators at daggers drawn with other international administrators; I say to them that the standing and strength of our game is far too fragile for it to survive battles between its leaders. We need administrators who see their responsibility to unite, not divide. They should work to unite the countries and the continents in the cricketing world ... and unite the participants in it.
We’ve seen, too, poor communication between administrators and players who need to get together more to deal with contentious issues, especially those to do with employment and commercialisation. (Perhaps I should declare an interest here - as President of FICA.) The fact is that at the top level the players expect - and in my view have every right - to reap the rewards of their years of practice and training and of their special talent by controlling those commercial aspects of the game that relate directly to them. We need some kind of forum for sorting out these matters and achieving greater consistency, whether it be about relatively small matters like commercial logo’s on cricket bats - which are, after all, the players’ tools of trade - or burning questions such as the players’ share of income from events such as the World Cup.
If the administrators don’t get closer to the players, and if greater accord is not achieved, the sport will be an easy target for lawyers and others who come in to enhance the earnings of individual clients and their own commission but don’t care about the game. Like last year’s lecturer, Richie Benaud, I was part of the Packer affair. That would never have happened if there had not been a gulf between administrators and players … a gulf caused partly by lack of understanding and rapport between administrators from one generation and players from another.
One tradition of cricket we can do without is the squire and peasant relationship between administrators and players. Thank heavens, it has largely faded, relationships are much improved, but as long as players are treated as employees rather than partners they will act like employees.
And, above all, as long as players - who can, after all, only enjoy the fruits of their talents for a comparatively short time - have no sense of security, or feel themselves to be vulnerable to poor employment practices, they will avoid risk on the field and, in doing so, take the fun out of the game.
My final question concerns the huge gap in performance between countries, and in particular Australia and almost everywhere else.
There are those who say that the whole history of cricket is of each country having its day. And of course there’s truth in that. But is it the truth today? How is it that Australia could probably have three teams in the top five? That one-time world-beaters like the West Indies, even with one or two outstanding stars, have fallen so far? Why can most other countries just about put together 11 or 12 names for a Test team and then have nowhere to turn?
Here we come to an issue that concerns me greatly: the gap between rich and poor.
I said earlier that we cannot look at our game in isolation from the society that it’s played in. It is affected by nearly every environmental and social factor that affects the world around it. Australia is an affluent, relatively class-less, self-confident country with a healthy climate - and its sport reflects that. In most other countries only the rich can afford to play and only the rich have access to the game. Those countries cannot afford the academies, the coaching, the youth programmes, the facilities and the grounds. Their game is losing its edge because there is too small a player base and too little competitive pressure for places in first-class and Test teams.
If we want all the Test countries to compete on an equal footing we need to see the money that goes into cricket being used to strengthen the game in poorer countries.
And we need to find ways of developing their skills within fairly-balanced competitive conditions. Why not an A team event for the sub-continent so that countries like Bangladesh and Kenya can compete with teams like India A and Pakistan A? Why not have North and South Island teams from New Zealand playing in the Australian one-day competitions?
Mr President, the real decision the game’s leaders, its administrators and top players have to take is to decide whether cricket is to be about a small number of quality players engaged in international games, no longer available for counties or state sides, cut off from most of the game by a quality of life and star status, often playing before small crowds - in other words, being in effect TV performers - or whether it is to be a popular sport, available to and played by as many as possible, with a player base that guarantees competition at the top and rewards for those who are not only skilled cricketers but entertainers as well.
I hope we will continue to try to make it a widely participatory sport, inspired by entertaining cricket at the top, and to some extent the responsibility for achieving this lies in the committee rooms of the ICC - an organisation much-respected that should be given more authority - and also in the committee rooms of the MCC and the ECB, and all the other national cricket organisations.
But it lies too with others … with the kid playing on the beach in Jamaica, the kid playing in the dusty shanty town back streets of Lahore, the kid playing on the road between terraced houses in Leeds or Nottingham, the kids who once dreamed of playing cricket for their country and who now …
… have at their feet instead a football.
The challenge is to reach out to them and to capture their attention. If I have put so much emphasis on the entertainment aspect of the game tonight it is because it’s the only way we can hope to do it. If we don’t find a way of making the game attractive to them, Test selectors will one day have virtually no-one to choose from.
And it won’t matter because no-one will be coming to watch anyway.
Mr President …
I know this is challenging stuff. But let me end by reminding you of my starting point.
I love this game. You love this game. It’s love of the game that demands that we keep it alive and help it to thrive.
I am only too aware that almost every year and every decade there have been letters to The Times or grumblings in members’ enclosures that cricket is not what it was … that the game is doomed. And yet it has always survived. And changed. Hence the one-day game today. And the faster pace of the game at the highest level.
It is a game that can still excite great passions and produce great players.
We can make it a 21st century game.
But we can only do this by honestly confronting the challenges of 21st century lifestyles and expectations.
If we want to win the hearts and minds of the 21st century generation we have to bequeath them a game they can respond to, not the one that worked for you and I in our day.
That does not mean turning our back on skill - the basic skills of batting and bowling and fielding. It does not mean abandoning the respect between players, and between players and umpires, and the high standards of behaviour we promote throughout the game and that make up the Spirit of Cricket. It does not mean reducing the importance of Test cricket.
What it means is giving youngsters easy access to a game they can enjoy on their own terms so that we can capture them for the game and then attract them to it in its more serious forms.
It means using every bit of modern technology and every bit of experience to achieve the highest standards of umpiring and the best possible wickets so that those playing for their livelihood don’t feel cheated and those watching don’t feel this is a game that can’t get its act together.
It means everyone in the game uniting with a common purpose - to tackle its problems, end its controversies, and inspire the young.
I am aware I have offered only a few positive ideas tonight.
But, as I said, my aim was to provoke thought.
The whole concept of this lecture - in memory of Colin Cowdrey, always an entertainer, who was passionate about the need for us all to work together to develop our game - demands that we give it that thought. Let’s face these questions honestly and together.
I thank you for the privilege of adding my voice to the debate.
Cricket is a great game. In some respects unique.
Let’s fight to save it.