Life Imitates Art; Sport Imitates Life

In one of my alternate universes I watch rom-coms with my wife and daughters and I particularly enjoy movies starring Hugh Grant. While Mickey Blue Eyes is not in my top five it does have a line that captures my fancy. Towards the end of the movie a strange scene from a painting actually occurs. Someone (not Hugh) comments that, “life imitates art”. As I contemplate my disinterest in cricket’s current affairs, I wonder how much of that is because cricket imitates life, or at least culture.

I am interested in many things (alternate universes again) and they all compete for my time and attention but cricket has been a constant over four decades. The amount of time spent playing, watching and writing has varied but it has always been there. So it troubles me that for the past few months that it has taken a back seat to other pursuits. I have hardly written on the blog in the past three months and it has been cricket season. I didn’t even bother to go to the Sydney Test this year – the first time I have missed it for more than 25 years. Is it me or is it cricket?

I have come to the conclusion that it is cricket more than anything. Test cricket suffers from falling standards and a game that favours the batsmen more than ever. While I understand its necessity, the West Indies tour of Australia was hardly inspiring. And then there is T20. Too much T20. I have said before that I don’t mind watching T20 – it can be exciting – high octane, as they say but after a while it becomes like gorging yourself on cheap takeaway. I watched some of Khawaja’s innings last night and it was beautiful but I went to bed when he was about 70 because I just didn’t care, even though it was a Big Bash semi-final.

Sport imitates life and we live in a generation when instant gratification is very important. We hear that cricket needs to reach “new markets”. What that really means is that administrators want to make more money. We hear that cricket needs to “remain relevant” or it will die. Relevant to whom? The new markets or the existing supporters? I understand the need to move with the times. We do courses at work on change – Who Moved my Cheese? and My Iceberg is Melting and we read books like Watership Down which are about leadership and change.

T20 is reshaping cricket. Should I accept that is inevitable? What are the new markets that cricket is seeking? Expanding to new countries is one with the Holy Grail being the USA. But I think even the most optimistic ICC executive recognizes that as a fantasy. The most significant target is the non-cricket watching population of cricket playing nations. Importantly, this includes the younger generation. As with any market, clients are lost through attrition and need to be replaced. In this case, I am talking about aging and dying supporters. Nobody lives forever and younger generations must be captured. My daughter, Maddie, loves cricket including Test cricket just as much as I do but perhaps she is not typical. In addition, she is a fan of the Big Bash. She pays far more attention to it than I do.

All organised activities will be a reflection of culture and beliefs at any given time and cricket is no exception. For example, I read a book recently about birds. It discussed conservation and looked at some of the nature conservation and preservation societies from the early 20th century. Many of the activities of those groups focused on killing and collecting (eggs and museum specimen etc)! On one expedition of a bird protection society, one member went on record as saying he would shoot at least a dozen birds of prey each morning at the local water hole. It’s eye popping stuff.

And how’s this for another? In Shackleton’s famous journey from Antarctica back to civilization, the leg from Elephant Island to Georgia (not in the USA) is recorded by one of the party, Captain Frank Worsley in his book, Shackleton’s Boat Journey. The whole journey is astonishing but there was one anecdote that made me think. When three freezing, starving men reached Georgia, they found nesting albatross. Those enormous, fluffy chicks made magnificent meals when roasted. I have no issue with that and would have tucked into the unfortunate birds myself, God rest their souls. The interesting part to relate was the intimation of the group’s conversation about how when they got themselves out of this whole mess and back to normal life, they simply must start a restaurant in London, serving albatross chicks! That idea would seem a bit dated today.

What I find interesting about cricket is that more than most sports and activities, it is a game of tradition. Not only is it “more than a game”, it has very deep roots that reach down into a world that simply does not exist anymore. Furthermore, it is a game that has strongholds based on Colonial dispersion and those strongholds no longer wish to be associated with those origins.

For me, Test cricket is the most important thing. I understand that limited overs cricket (20 and 50 over formats) is how the game remains relevant, reaches new markets and in reality, pays for Test cricket. I have two major concerns: 1) Getting the balance right and not playing too much limited overs and 2) That Test cricket currently is not as testing as it should be. The players themselves say that Test cricket is the pinnacle so it needs to test skill and character. With batsman friendly pitches, partly due to drop in pitches and bats that give way to much value of edges and badly timed shots, there is not enough testing. Of the batsmen, at least.

I am not against changes in Test cricket. Over time, the rules have changed. The length of overs has changed, the maximum length of matches has changed, and the colour of the ball is even starting to change. These changes can happen without detriment to the character of Test cricket. And cultural changes have occurred as cricket does move, with glacial majesty, with the times. There was a time when the captain of England had to be a gentleman, not a professional. That eventually changed after WWII and was broadly accepted by about 1990. Rest days are no longer offered, we have neutral umpires and technology plays a large part in umpiring. Moving with the times (except for India in the case of the last point).

The game of cricket overall is healthy and has a great following. The part of cricket that I love, Test cricket is on shaky ground. While the players support it, I believe it will remain. But how much of that support is lip service?  It’s all well and good to say that Test cricket is the main thing but it needs to be backed up by preferring Test cricket and First Class cricket* over T20. And that means giving up some cash. That’s easy for me say because it’s not my income to forego but that is the truth of it. Cricket is imitating life in so many ways and I’m not sure I like it.

* For those of you who have forgotten, First Class cricket is the next level down from Test cricket. They play in whites and use a red ball, except when the pink ball is being trialled. Games last for three or four days. First Class cricket used to be regarded by administrators as important in preparing players for Test cricket.

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