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
My Lords, ladies and gentlemen:
A word of grateful thanks first to MCC for asking me to give this talk in memory of a great batsman and charming, gentle, generous man of whom, like anyone who came to know him through cricket, I was very fond. Colin Cowdrey loved the game and cared deeply for the spirit in which it should be played: always to win, always fairly, always with a sense of enjoyment.
Colin knew and understood the famous letter to The Times written in his old age by another great cricketing Kentish Peer. In a cynical and Icon-busting age like ours it is easy to dismiss Lord Harris's idealism as sentimental but it contains great truths. No other game so tests all the human faculties: hand/eye co-ordination that has to be trained and disciplined; athleticism that has to be sharpened and strengthened; intelligence that has to be developed by experience; physical courage; and character: to hang on when the going is tough- and to play with a team and for a team.
Leaning on a half volley and stroking it through a gap at extra cover for four; diving to catch a ball or simply hanging onto it when it falls your way from a great height; or beating a bat and hearing that gentle click of falling bails: these are all moments of mini-ecstasy, but doing it in a team cause doubles the pleasure.
I am acutely aware that the teams I played for were rather less exalted than those of the previous Cowdrey lecturers- wonderful cricketers all of them- but I consider this switch down market to be, without being pompous about it, a small tribute to my profession. There is nothing quite like playing cricket but the game is served and enjoyed also by a lot of other people - spectators, sponsors, coaches, the essential umpires and scorers- and those who, like myself are lucky enough to be able to talk or write about the game for a living.
It happens that I have been doing that for exactly 40 years now. The fact remains that I am a mere commentator - and some Clever Dick once referred to the term "gross ignorance" as being 144 sports commentators.
Actually I am looking forward to semi-retirement in order to be able to play a bit more cricket- just as one very distinguished MCC cricketer and great all-round sportsman did many years ago now. I refer to R.M. Poore or, to give him his full title, Brigadier General R.M.Poore, who famously scored a triple hundred for Hampshire in 1899 when a mere Major, played cricket for South Africa against England although he was an Englishman (the reverse of what happens these days) and in his old age made up for lost time after his Army career by playing as much wandering cricket as he could. He was doing so one afternoon in an MCC match in the West Country, fielding at extra cover as a little-known Middlesex leg-spinner, Jim Powell, was spinning his way rapidly through the opposition batting...
When the No. ten came in and misread the first googly he received, Fenner called across from extra cover to George Fenner, the former Kent cricketer fielding at cover: "Depend upon it, Fenner: we shall have a catch directly".
Seldom was military prophesy more swiftly fulfilled. The very next ball the batsman took a tremendous flail at a leg-break and the ball rose into the blue sky in the general direction of the Brigadier. After years in the tropics he was wearing a solar topee, giving him excellent protection from the sun but an imperfect view of a descending cricket ball. After several revolutions on the sport he called across to Fenner again: "It's no good Fenner, I've lost the ball. "To which Fenner replied: "Hardly surprising Sir. Mid-off caught it five seconds ago."
That story was told in print by Ian Peebles, one of the few writers with the gift of conveying successfully the many funny things that do occur in cricket. He was not just a talented leg-spin and googly bowler but a fine writer too. Or, to use a current buzz word, a good communicator.
Bad communications have always tended to plague professional cricket and they have not improved when it comes to the relationship between the media and the professional game. In three respects it has changed in recent years. The first is the abundance of player-pundits and player-writers, the latter all too often ghosted; the second is television technology; the third is the attempt by national administrations with public affairs departments, especially the ECB, to manage news and give it a bit of spin. This sometimes unfortunately seems to make players afraid to be natural when confronted by cricket journalists who are invariably on their side.
The debate between the Guardian newspaper and the England captain Michael Vaughan earlier this season over an interview during which the newspaper headlined his reference to the late night revels of Andrew Flintoff during the World Cup was a case in point.
The Guardian's interview was fair and interesting. The headline, suggesting that Vaughan had blamed Flintoff personally, rather than the SIX bibulous members of the World Cup team in St Lucia of whom Flintoff was merely the most high-profile (and also the one with a recent history of similar late-night drinking) was deceptive. When headlines are deceptive rather than reflective they are, to my mind, both irresponsible and immoral.
Occasional bad communications between players and the media stem from a lack of trust. Newspapers do their reporters no favours when they blow up one aspect of a story or an interview in that way. So soccer obsessed are all the media branches- not least newspapers and Radio Five- that one sometimes gets the impression that it is only controversial cricket stories that interest them. Not who scored what for whom, why and how, which is what I call real news.
But the players too fail to do themselves or the game any favours, usually because of a poorly rounded education and a lowering of basic standards. Cricket can do something about it by giving professional cricketers better training in dealing with the media, one based on trust not on suspicion. I don't remember Tony Greig- or more recently Nasser Hussain having trouble with the media, because both of them were rather good at playing the media game and using it for the benefit of themselves and their teams. Vaughan was right to say that the drinking incident in St.Lucia damaged his team's morale and right to add that it would not have mattered for long if they had played much better- himself included. I don't believe he deliberately lied when he claimed, falsely, that he hadn't used the word Fredalo. I think he was badly advised, perhaps too idle to look at the article properly, and in this case not savvy enough to realize the implications of using the words he did. He also showed quite uncharacteristic, but nonetheless in this instance shameful contempt for a conscientious journalist by claiming that he had been misquoted when he had not been. Michael's subsequent public apology was much more in character.
Drunken players, incidentally, are far rarer beings than they used to be in days when misdemeanours off the field were generally ignored by the press but drunken crowds, unfortunately, are rather more common. It is no longer possible on many days at many Test matches and one-day internationals in England, let alone Twenty20 matches, to watch without chanting beer-swillers yelling themselves hoarse. If that dissuades older spectators in an era when, because of the post-war bulge, they are potentially the biggest spenders in the leisure business, and if it puts parents off from taking their children to international matches, it is a serious problem for the game.
Naturally the more young spectators at cricket matches, the better, just as the more young players there are the better. Equally, from a commercial viewpoint, the wider the mix of ages and social types the better.
Yobbish behaviour by crowds, chucking litter about and making a racket without really taking much interest in the cricket, is part of the same problem with education, but the last thing we want is too heavy an administrative hand or too much big-brotherhood of the kind that put a dampener on World Cup crowds in the recent tournament in the Caribbean.
In England crowds at the moment are healthily large- even, relative to other domestic cricket round the world, in county cricket. The ECB deserves great credit for successful marketing, especially for pioneering Twenty20 and the sale of tickets in advance of major matches; also for encouraging investment to make grounds more comfortable; but administrators have to realize that the more they build up what I have called Big Event Syndrome the harder it is going to be for counties to make ends meet. Newspaper, radio and television editors are in danger of concluding that stories about England are the only ones people are interested in, which is gravely to underestimate the wide interest in the county game.
Cricinfo recorded 21 million page hits for the county championship alone between April and August last year, obviously because a great many people want to find out the latest scores. Sadly, if they are on the move in their cars they can listen for them in vain; and when they are given it often seems to be as a breathless afterthought following the big story that Scunthorpe's millionaire chairman has denied rumours that their controversial manager Bruno Boscovic is going to be sacked. Or, more to the point, some utterly mundane comment by Jose Murinho such as he thinks that Chelsea have the players to win the Premiership. What a surprise. The media has been conned to a dangerous extent - if you value the variety of life - into becoming a sort of spin machine for the all pervading, all powerful Premiership. Also into the belief that it can't be of interest if it's not on television.
The consequence is that young people are getting an increasingly contracted, one-tracked view of sporting life and also that those who want a decently written report on a county match, or, even in the small print, to know the scores in - say- The Cricketer Cup, the Walker Cup, the President's Putter or the Queen Elizabeth Cup at Henley, are increasingly in danger of not being able to get them. I know that newspapers are expanding rapidly on line - but radio and television don't offer anything other than the big events so until everyone is computer savvy a large chunk of the population - including the post-war bulge generation- is becoming, as it were, disenfranchised.
Technology continues to be a matter for careful deliberation by well-qualified experts on the MCC and ICC cricket committees. The important points of principle here are:
That the vast majority of cricket matches are NOT televised
That umpires, like players, are doing their best and will inevitably make mistakes
That players who over react when they get a decision with which they disagree set a terrible example and therefore have to be punished
That the umpires in the middle should always have control of the game
That at the professional level players' livelihoods are at stake;
That, in major matches, modern communications enable umpires in the middle to keep in touch with a trusted colleague watching television coverage who can certainly help by drawing attention privately to something that might be overlooked, front-foot no-balls for example..
That when millions of television viewers can see camera evidence beyond doubt that a decision has been wrongly made - I stress so long as that camera evidence is foolproof and can be made available with reasonable haste - it makes sense for the umpires in the middle to be able to call for it.
If that, once the technology has truly proved foolproof, means a bit more time lost while the Snickometer or the Hot Spot are used to decide whether a batsman has hit the ball, so be it. But they should be needed far less often if only anyone will listen to the most important point that I want to make.
Most of these moments of controversy would be quite unnecessary, and the life of the umpires at every level of the game would be immeasurably easier, if it were to become once more the inviolable custom of every cricketer to walk to the pavilion the moment that he knows beyond doubt that he is out.
That is the way I was taught to play cricket. I believe it to be in the true spirit of the game and that what one might call the Southern Hemisphere view- that the umpire is there to decide if a batsman is out or not- is rubbish and has been responsible for a demeaning of that spirit. I give you simple evidence. When a batsman is bowled; he walks; when a batsman hits the ball in the air to mid-off and is caught; he walks. When a batsman snicks Monty Panesar to slip via the wicket-keeper's glove and is caught by slip; he walks. But when a batsman snicks it into the keeper's gloves only- and not into a fielder's hands- he doesn't walk- in the hope that the umpire might not be certain. Again, when he snicks it off the inside edge via his pad to short-leg and is caught, generally speaking these days, he doesn't walk either, for the same reason. Where is the logic, or the honour in that?
Umpires need the help of players because there can be no organized game without umpires. Walking helps them. It used to be the convention in England, still is for most county players and it should be again, here and everywhere, because is the honest and decent thing to do. Not walking when you know you are out is dishonest. I did it only once- for a good reason it seemed at the time, but still the wrong one. I felt so guilty that I got out immediately afterwards.
Cricket would instantly become a better game if young cricketers in every country were to be taught from now onwards that walking is the right thing to do when they know they are genuinely out. Most wickets fall, after all, to catches. Essentially it would reduce the umpires' contentious decision-making to lbws, run-outs, stumpings and those rare occasions when it is not clear whether or not a fair catch has been made.
Television technology, we know, has more or less settled stumpings and run-outs in international cricket but I have one small suggestion to save a bit of time on boundary-line decisions. Unnecessary time is wasted in televised matches in determining whether or not part of a fielder's body has crossed the boundary at the moment when he is in contact with the ball. All the law should say is that if the ball has been kept inside the boundary it is not a four or a six, regardless of where the fielder's body may be. Equally, if a catch is fairly completed with the ball inside the boundary it should be a legitimate catch, whether or not any part of the body is over the boundary line.
Talking of time lost to television, something more effective has to be done about the over-rate in Test cricket. Session after session, all round the world, the overs have dropped to about 13 an hour. 15 overs an hour; 30 a session; 90 in a six-hour day HAS to become a minimum for a game that once thought that 20 overs an hour was getting a bit slow. Everything else in life gets faster; why for heaven's sake should cricket get 25 percent slower?
Monetary fines have not worked, so penalty runs are the only answer, provided one guiding principle applies, namely that except when there is a genuine reason such as an injury, or genuine distraction behind the bowler's arm, it is every batsman's duty to be ready to face the ball whenever the bowler is ready to bowl it. In other words runs can only be added to a batting side's total if the fielding side has been responsible for its own failure to bowl overs at a reasonable rate. It should be the same principle as the quick free-kick or the quick throw-in in rugby.
I would go further and have four-day, not five-day, Test matches, with 100 overs a day, everywhere other than in hot countries at certain times of the year when there are not enough daylight hours. They would be long days certainly, for players and incidentally also for media, but it would give everyone a bit more breathing space between games in a programme that everyone knows is overcrowded, except, perhaps television schedulers and at least some administrators.
By scheduling four-day games it would be possible to have a reserve fifth day in order to make up for time lost to the weather or any artificial interruptions during the four scheduled days.
With very few exceptions matches that are not decided within 400 overs are destined to be draws anyway. For example, England's win over the West Indies after lunch on the fifth day at Old Trafford this year took 376 overs and one ball. The Old Trafford Test against Pakistan the previous year took only 238 overs to decide. But the five-day draw in hot weather at Lord's 10 days earlier occupied 436 overs.
Let me lighten things a little here with a novel suggestions from a keen follower of cricket with a knowledge of the game's evolution, David Harris, a qualified cricket coach from Herefordshire, whose idea bears serious consideration and may well be worth an experiment, initially in one-day cricket.
Based on the premise that the toss too often gives too great an advantage to one team, he proposes that, instead of calling heads or tails, the captain who has the choice of electing to bat first or to bowl first should be the one who bids the most runs. It sounds complicated but it honestly is not.
The idea is that whenever the other team bats they begin their innings at 'the bid' score, for no wicket. All else stays the same.
For example: it is the final game of a close series between two well-matched international sides. It has been raining, has cleared up but the clouds are low and the pitch is expected to be lively after being under the covers in a humid atmosphere. The home team wins the toss and inserts the other side, with predictable results. Everyone knew the batsmen had to play out of their skins to score a competitive total.
Under Bidding rules the home captain believes batting second today is probably worth about 40 to 50 runs. He starts with a bid of 20 runs. The other captain estimates it's worth about 40 to 50 runs to the home captain, but not quite so much to him - but he raises the bid to 25 runs.
At the end of this, the home captain has bid 40 runs and the other captain concedes. In this case, the pitch looking so helpful for bowlers, the touring team is inserted on a green pitch but the innings starts at 40 for no wicket.
Artificial, perhaps, but then so is much about limited-overs cricket including the very limit on overs, fielding restrictions etcetera.
Translated to the five-day game or the four-day game- there are definitely times when winning the toss is extremely advantageous and would attract significant bids. This auction between the captains at the start of a match would be just another of the game's subtleties, introducing a test of the skill and knowledge of captains and coaches in reading a pitch and estimating the opposition- while at the same time removing an element of pure luck- luck that so often seems to favour the stronger side. The upshot should be a closer game; and close matches are invariably exciting ones to play and to watch. What is more, in the television age, the bidding would be a nice piece of theatre at the start of each game- even if, as an alternative to public bidding, the bids were sealed inside envelopes with the names of the eleven players. The highest bidder would still have the choice of batting first or second.
Usually captains in Test cricket want to bat first. If it looks like a pitch that might break up the bidding could be for a suitable amount of runs at the start of either the first or the second innings of the game - to be chosen by the captain who conceded the auction. Say 30 for no wicket.
If neither captain wishes to bid, because both think that batting first would favour neither side, the toss would take place as usual. But I think the bidding idea would be an intriguing talking point for everyone.
One more point about laws and rules, if I may, since MCC remains the guardian of the laws. Might the cricket committee not respectfully ask their ICC counterparts whether, if four umpires and a referee could not correctly interpret the ICC's own competition rules at the end of the final of the World Cup, two umpires might have misinterpreted them just as well. Or even got them dead right as, on that occasion, the umpires in the middle actually did. Again, four umpires and a referee made an unholy mess of the 2006 Oval Test match between England and Pakistan. With both those broths there were too many cooks? Reluctantly I would concede that the real politics of cricket means that neutral referees have come to stay but two umpires and a third television umpire are surely sufficient? As with four-day Tests in relatively cool countries with long daylight hours, let's save some money for a change.
But there is a tremendous amount to be thankful for in the contemporary game - in many respects the standards are higher than ever. There are some magnificent batsmen in world cricket and some magical spinners too. The fielding is sensationally good. It is the fast bowlers who are in short supply in the current phase of a game that has always evolved. In the eternal struggle to find that essential balance between bat and ball what we need is a determined effort to lengthen boundaries - happily both the MCC World Cricket committee and the new ICC Cricket committee are agreed on that but there is no evidence yet of boundaries being stretched to the furthest practical limits on all grounds as they should be.
Also, with no more prevarication and procrastination, there has to be a binding agreement to limit the weight and the depth of bats. Youngsters watching international cricket now see impressive power of the Matthew Hayden/Kevin Pietersen kind but too little of the subtle cutting and glancing that made many of their predecessors more complete batsmen. Shivnarine Chanderpaul has proved in the past few weeks that there is more than one way to play.
Not everything the ICC do is wrong, by any means: it is greatly to their credit, for example, that they grasped the nettle of corruption in the game - a problem, obviously, that dwarfed all the rest- and that the Anti-Corruption and Security Unit (ACSU) decided last year to begin an education programme with all international players and officials, starting when they are playing in Under 19 tournaments. Last year the ICC reported a 'phenomenal' increase in the level of betting on cricket in both the legal and illegal markets over the previous 12 months. In the legal market this was attributable in part to the interest generated by the Ashes series and the growing popularity of internet betting exchanges. Good and bad, then, but there has to be a constant and careful watch.
The administrators have to take seriously too the widespread view that there is too much cricket now being played, both in the international game and in county cricket in England. In both cases the over indulgence is television driven. That has never been better demonstrated than it was in the recent World Cup. Because television companies, and advertisers, wanted a different match each day, the option of having two games on the same day from the Super Eight stage onwards was rejected. Because there might have been rain, a reserve day was agreed for each of the 51 matches. In retrospect that was a mistake because only one game went into a second day.
The tournament was a final major showpiece for several great cricketers in the evenings of outstanding careers- the likes of Lara, McGrath, Kumble, Inzamam-ul-Haq- but emerging stars, like Viv Richards in 1975, Wasim Akram and Steve Waugh in 1987 or Sanath Jayasuriya in 1996, are part of the attraction of any world competition. The sheer volume of international cricket makes the sudden bursting of a new star less likely. Ravi Bopara was one of the few to break through.
Everyone was disappointed by the World Cup but it did have some good points. It got the West Indies Cricket Board into credit and into a position, touch wood, from which they can genuinely start to rebuild the game from the bottom up- the talent and the latent interest are still there. Australia's cricket was majestic and Adam Gilchrist represents all that is best about the Australian game: wholesome, dedicated, brilliantly gifted. AND he believes in walking. Glenn McGrath has retired as one of the greatest fast bowlers of all time, John Buchanan as the most innovative and intelligent of modern coaches, barring only the late and profoundly missed Bob Woolmer.
The lessons from the tournament are that cricket must be the priority, not making money out of cricket; that future tournaments must be shorter- it is good news that the ICC has now decreed a five week maximum- and that the host countries should be allowed to run the competition their own way within certain specified limits, carrying their own risks if anything goes wrong
For several years now the subscript of all international cricket has been a series of skirmishes between the Asian countries, led and dominated by India, and the ICC, representing the whole 'family' of cricket and attempting with an ever-increasing staff to hold some sort of balance in the affairs of the world game.
In both cases- India and the ICC- commercial concerns have overridden cricketing integrity to a dangerous degree.
The Indians have a point about the bloated nature of the whole panoply of the ICC. There is too much commercial regulation in all the competitions they run. Spectators don’t like having their soft drink removed at the gate because it’s made by the unofficial manufacturer. But at least there is order and integrity on the part of the independent executive in Dubai. We have to accept that the ideal form of government, benevolent despotism, is impossible when it comes to making broad policies for international cricket. At least, too, the ICC spends a large proportion of its income on developing the game whereas India, with income of about £500 million over the next four years, still maintains an amateur administration and plays Test matches at its headquarters in Mumbai at a dilapidated stadium - very belatedly due to be replaced in time for the next World Cup.
The ECB is in no position to lecture anyone, overloading the season at home as it does. The recent West Indies touring team never had much chance in the Test series, having played only a single - almost inevitably rain affected- match before the first Test. After two sets of back-to-back Tests, England are now playing 22 days of international cricket against India in 52 days. Every one needs to slow down and rethink.
As things stand there can be no fundamental shifts in the nature of the ICC's regular one-day events- World Cups, Champions Trophies and, as from this Autumn, Twenty20 tournaments- because of legally binding contracts that have shackled the game to a continuation of its present course until 2015. The ten countries scandalously still include Zimbabwe, whose £10 million -pounds not dollars- from the 2007 World Cup will have been a major boost to the foreign exchange income of a corrupt dictatorship.
It is a salutary thought that Shane Warne, Sanath Jayasuriya and Brian Lara have all lived longer than the average Zimbabwean male now does. But the Asian bloc wants Zimbabwe's vote in order to retain control of ICC affairs.
This, again, is realpolitik, perhaps, but cricket needs a leader with cricket in his soul to set a different course through the buffeting cross-currents of commerce and politics and to ask some fundamental questions. Do we really need an ICC tournament every year? What is the point of making all this money? Would it not be better for cricket to have fewer international matches, a slightly smaller ICC and less money; but a cricket world in which every tournament and Test match was genuinely a special occasion?
I was struck by something that Wally Edwards, the former Western Australia and Australia batsman said to me recently - that it is all very well for some people to talk of too much international cricket but in Perth they get one game a year and that's it. He has a point and it is also true that cricket is utterly reliant on television exposure to oil the wheels. But there has to be a binding limit of matches set by the ICC. For every country there should be no more than six Tests and ten internationals- be they 50/50 or 20/20- each home season- and no more than six and ten in any season away.
What's true for the world is true for England. I do not believe that the game in Britain would suffer for long if the ECB were to sacrifice the income from one of its four major county competitions from 2009 in the interests of a little more time and space for everyone.
The NatWest Pro40 league was relaunched only last year- a league of 40 over games played in lieu of the old Benson and Hedges Cup. It should never have been started but the counties, now distilled for administrative purposes into the ECB's management board, could not resist the extra television money. Sky will televise no fewer than 31 Pro40 games this season.
There is good reason for the ECB to talk to both NatWest and to Sky to negotiate an early release from those parts of their contracts with both companies where they affect the Pro40. With good will on all sides, as there almost certainly would be, the retreat to a less onerous programme for everyone should be possible from next season without waiting two more years.
Officially the county programme is under review by the Domestic Structure Review Group. It seems to be permanently under review, anyway. It is clear enough what needs to be done:
(A) Scrap the Pro40,
(B) Fill that gap to a small extent with a quarter final round in the Friends Provident Trophy but leave genuine extra space for rest, analysis and preparation.
(C) Leave the Championship as it is because it works well, we don't live in Australia with Australian pitches and sunshine, and the Test teams produced by the county game recently have been stronger than any country's other than Australia;
(D) Make qualification for county cricket- and for international cricket by foreign-bred players much more difficult. The criterion should be that they have learned the game in Britain from the age of 14. It goes against the grain to see a South African and an Australian picked by the England selectors last month when there are just as talented players available who have learned the game here and are truly committed to their home country. You wish me to name names? O.K. That is only fair: Mark Ramprakash or Robert Key or Joe Denly or James Hildreth, or Ravi Bopara; or Samit Patel for Jonathan Trott, who played for South Africa's under 19s; and for Dimitri Mascerenhas, admittedly English born but who learned the game in Western Australia and returns to his home there every winter, take your pick from Rikki Clarke, Tim Bresnan and a couple of Sussex all-rounders!
To me international cricket, and Test cricket especially, loses much of its purpose if it is merely a sort of travelling circus played by mercenaries rather than by national teams representing cricket in their own countries.
Precedents set by the likes of Ranji or Duleep or Pataudi, or more recently D'Oliveira or Hick, were relevant to the time in which they were embraced by England. The world has become much more mobile. If there are genuine reasons- extreme poverty or political victimization for example- that is a different matter. But it demeans British cricket and discourages the decreasing pool of ambitious homegrown talent if our selectors promote mercenaries. One of the great strengths of Australia over the years has been their utter and unquestioned loyalty and commitment to the cause of their country. Can you imagine the Australian Cricket Board selling exact replicas of the baggy green cap, as our board sanctions the sale of replica England caps?
Finally: Avoid mixing one-day and four-day matches on successive days.
Good negotiating with the various television companies- next time, touch wood, reinforced by the BBC- should allow at least as much income from slightly fewer international matches and slightly fewer one-day county games. More exposure for the game on the all-important small screen should still be possible.
Shakespeare said it best, as usual:
"They are as sick that surfeit with too much, as they that starve with nothing" (The Merchant of Venice)