HENRY BLOFELD: Banning batsmen and wickets is just not cricket!
Banning batsmen and wiping out wickets? It’s just not cricket! The inimitable HENRY BLOFELD’s wickedly funny riposte to plans to dumb down the game
- Cricket’s newest format The Hundred is the latest shortened version of the sport
- It hopes to attract new and younger fans and has changed its lexicon
- Wickets will be known as ‘outs’ and batsman will be referred to as ‘batters’
HENRY BLOFELD: The lovely, elongated rhythms of cricket have given way to ever more frenetic versions
Part of the wonderful appeal of cricket has always been its unhurried nature. Of all the major sports, its purest format is the most leisurely. It is the only game that two teams can play for five days and still not achieve a result.
In fact, one international match in South Africa in 1939 had to be abandoned as a draw after nine days, because otherwise the England team would have missed their ship home.
As Lord Mancroft, the Tory politician of the 1950s put it: ‘The English, not being a spiritual people, invented cricket to give themselves some conception of eternity.’
But in recent years that tradition has been eroded. The lovely, elongated rhythms of the sport have given way to ever more frenetic versions. On top of one-day cricket, there is the increasingly dominant genre of T20, where each side bats for a maximum of just 20 overs, the equivalent of 120 balls.
For many enthusiasts like myself, who cherish cricket’s subtleties and variety, T20 matches are often nothing more than brutal slogathons.
Now the marketing gurus in charge of English cricket have decided to go even further. Even the crash-bang-wallop of 20 overs a side is too long for them.
So this summer sees the launch of yet another new shortened model which will comprise just 100 balls per side, hence its name ‘The Hundred’.
According to its advocates, the loss of another 20 balls per innings will somehow attract newcomers and expand cricket’s reach.
What sins are committed in the name of modernisation! The apostles of so-called progress never know when to stop.
Cricket is the only game that two teams can play for five days and still not achieve a result
Not content with diminishing the length of each match, they want to mangle cricket’s beloved lexicon. It was revealed this week that, in the coverage of The Hundred, the term ‘wickets’ is to be replaced by the ugly word ‘outs’, while batsmen are to be called ‘batters’ and the fielding position ‘third man’ is to be shrunk to just ‘third.’
These alterations are both insulting and pointless. Was there ever anyone who was put off following cricket by the words ‘wicket’ or ‘batsman’?
Like the introduction of The Hundred itself, it is change for change’s sake, a branding exercise designed to give the illusion of novelty, which will only succeed in alienating the sport’s real supporters.
There are a number of other forces at work. One is the triumph of the woke agenda, with its insistence on gender-neutral, non-judgmental language.
Where will it end? Will the position ‘silly mid off’ have to be renamed because it might offend the intellectually challenged? In the age of #MeToo, is ‘Fine Leg’ the equivalent of the wolf whistle? Is a ‘straight bat’ homophobic?
I can’t see the phrase ‘bowled a maiden’ lasting long, and if ‘wicket’ is now taboo, isn’t the term ‘leg before wicket’ doomed?
Another malign influence is increasing prevalence of short concentration spans, driven by mobile technology and the cult of instant gratification.
It was revealed this week that, in the coverage of The Hundred, the term ‘wickets’ is to be replaced by the ugly word ‘outs’
This is cricket for a public addicted to shouted messages on their Twitter feeds and revolving images on their screens.
There is also the desperate impulse among cricket administrators to Americanise the game, in the fond belief that baseball is more exciting than cricket, as reflected in the famous jibe of the late comedian Robin Williams that ‘cricket is baseball on Valium’.
This is in fact a myth. I once went with a stopwatch to a Major League baseball match at Houston in Texas, and discovered that, behind all the razzmatazz, the actual moments of action lasted no longer than in cricket. But it is profoundly wrong to mess about with the terminology of cricket, whose richness is woven into the fabric of our culture.
Phrases such as ‘on the back foot’, ‘sticky wicket’ and ‘not cricket’ are part of our heritage.
It is no coincidence that the greatest comic writer in the English language, P.G. Wodehouse, was a cricket fan, and named the valet Jeeves after the popular Warwickshire bowler Percy Jeeves, who was killed at the Battle of the Somme.
It could be argued that cricket has produced a wider vocabulary than any other physical activity, except perhaps sex. Talking of which, one of the hilarious aspects of the game is how the vast scope of its language lends itself to innuendo, sometimes on a par with a Carry On film.
My dear old pal Jonathan Agnew, universally known as Aggers, once filled the commentary box with barely suppressed guffaws when he described how an England batsman was struggling to change the rubber grip on his bat handle. ‘It’s not easy putting a rubber on, is it?’ he asked with apparent innocence.
My dear old pal Jonathan Agnew, universally known as Aggers, once filled the commentary box with barely suppressed guffaws
It was Aggers who was also responsible for one of the funniest moments in broadcast history, when he reduced Brian Johnston to hysterical giggles by explaining in 1991 how Ian Botham was dismissed by hitting his own wicket. ‘He just didn’t quite get his leg over,’ said Aggers, as Johnners dissolved beside him. But Johnners was the prince of the unintended double entendre.
During one Ashes Test, he commented on how the Australian Neil Harvey was standing ‘with his legs wide apart, waiting for a tickle’. Reporting on a county game, he said, ‘Welcome to Leicester, where Ray Illingworth has just relieved himself at the Pavilion End.’
On another occasion, when New Zealander Glenn Turner was badly hit in a very delicate part of his anatomy by the fifth delivery of an over, he announced after a delay for medical treatment, ‘Turner ready to resume, one ball left.’
As well as threatening the language of the game in all its varied glory, The Hundred risks undermining the very essence of cricket in this fashionable obsession with speed and immediacy.
One of the keys to the attractions of the traditional sport is that it unfolds gradually, building to a climax like a great drama or book. It is a slow-burning approach that can be mocked.
The U.S. comic star Groucho Marx, after attending a Test at Lord’s in the 1950s, said that cricket was ‘a wonderful cure for insomnia. If you can’t sleep there you really need an analyst.’
One enterprising firm has even used cricket’s soporific reputation as an aid to sleep, through a phone app called Calm where a voice reads out a 35-minute long essay on the history of cricket and its complex laws.
‘Before there were sleeping pills, there were Test matches,’ goes one of Calm’s advertising slogans. And guess who is doing the narration? Yes, none other than yours truly. My voice has been so effective in sending listeners to sleep I have been asked to make a second app.
Yet, for all the satire, traditional cricket can be tremendously exciting, precisely because of the ebb and flow of the plot. Requiring unique intelligence and a range of skills, it is a sport like no other.
Contrary to what the marketing people think, the longer format can still capture the imagination of the public, as was proved by the national fervour over the 2005 Ashes series. Indeed, tickets for Tests against Australia continue to be gold dust.
I was reminded of the drama cricket can create as I researched my forthcoming book due out this autumn: Ten Runs Needed And Last Man In, which looks at some of the game’s closest finishes. I don’t think it would have the same resonance if it had been called Ten To Win And Last Batter In.
The Hundred is a desperate gimmick, a so-called solution that could end up damaging the game I adore.
Proper cricket needs to be nurtured and it won’t be if this farcical format, with its absurd terminology, is allowed to gain ascendancy.
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