The uglification of cricket

Robert Henderson

I started watching English  first class  cricket in the mid-1950s. At the time  limited overs  games did not exist. There were three day matches for   teams below Test level and five day matches for Tests.  Players wore white (or cream) clothing with no numbers on their backs to identify them.  For  spectators unfamiliar with them, the players were identified from the scorecard number  shown on the scoreboards for both batsmen and fielders when they fielded the ball.  The combination of white-clad players and green cricket field gave a natural and elegant  look to the game recalling its origins in country fields.

Batsmen  wore a minimum of protective equipment. They had  pads , rudimentary gloves, a box and possibly a single thigh pad for the leading leg, the last often consisting of  no more than a towel thrust  down the trousers.  Despite  this meagre protection players were rarely hit seriously because they were not so encumbered  that their mobility was seriously restricted and the automatically developed skill in moving out of the way of balls which constituted a threat.   They batted bareheaded or with a cap. Batsmen were recognisable human beings

Today batsmen come to the crease looking like Michelin men  with their bumper bras, arm guards, massive thigh pads which go round each thigh plus helmets caging their faces with unsightly bars  which are worn regardless of the threat a bowler carries.   All  this gear makes batsmen look ugly at best and ridiculous at worst.  They are much less mobile and  because of the supposed safety provided by helmets  are frequently tempted to  play hooks and pulls recklessly and inexpertly.   This often ends up with them being hit on the head.  I also suspect that helmets restrict a batsman’s vision at worst and at best have a deleterious psychological effect. Generally, the considerable extra protective equipment worn today must make batsmen feel uncomfortable and be  liable to be a distraction.  The same objection applies to the growing fashion for wicket keepers to wear  helmets when standing up.

50 or 60 years ago pitches were prepared as individual counties  and other authorities such as Oxford and Cambridge  clubs wanted. There were no pitch inspectors. If a county side went to play Derbyshire away they knew they  would be playing on a pitch favourable to seam bowling; a visit to Gloucestershire would mean a spinning pitch. Batsmen had to master very varied and often demanding conditions.  In addition to whatever human design went into an individual pitch,  Nature was given her way by refusing to cover pitches and runups.  This meant that  anyone playing county cricket  regularly  could expect to encounter rain damaged pitches several times a season at least. This further improved the skills of serious batsmen. Bowlers also had to learn to bowl at their most effective in helpful conditions.

The consequence  of demanding pitches meant that batsmen had to develop a seriously good technique to survive.  This meant  having an orthodox  stance  with the bat not waving about (bar perhaps a thump or two of the bat as the bowler ran in)  and most importantly, keeping the head still. A good example of this stillness and neatness can be seen in this extended video of the 1963 Lords Test against the West Indies.  There  were few oddities like Jim Yardley of Worcestershire with awkward stances but they were very much the exception.

Demanding pitches also gave the bowler a much greater incentive to bowl straight and to bowl consistently, something bowlers of today routinely fail to do.   It is a common mistake to imagine that having pitches doing something means a bowler has to do little more than pitch a ball up and let the pitch do the rest. In fact, bowlers need to learn how to bowl in helpful conditions top make the most of them.   Taking 5-60 on a pitch where 5-20  could reasonably be expected is poor not good bowling.

Today batsmen  are increasingly at sea whenever they encounter conditions which allow the bowlers to swing, seam or spin the ball. This is partly because of the covering of pitches, the existence of pitch inspectors who take fright at pitches which help the bowler resulting in points being deducted  and the fact that much less first class cricket  (where good technique is developed)  is played today., But it is  also because batsmen are increasingly adjusting their techniques  to  play  T20 cricket where the real money is to be made.

Batsmen, almost universally amongst the young players,  are  adopting one a  stance which has the bat raised , either  locked in an awkward  stillness or waving about with the head moving as well as the body. Some add to this ungainly position by leaning forward with their weight on the front foot and the bat slanted forward. This cannot be the optimum method of waiting for the bowler because the batsman will be concentrating on holding the bat up or moving about the  crease. In the case of the bat slanted forward that virtually commits the batsman to a front foot shot and at best means the batsman has to waste precious microseconds if he has to play off the back foot.

The  growing eminence of T20 is resulting in the taking into first class cricket these  defective techniques  together with the T20 mentality of needing to score quickly regardless of the conditions and situation of the game.  To these batting sins must be added the toleration of switch hits such as the reverse sweep, shots which are the batsman’s equivalent of a bowler being able to go over or round the wicket at will without advising the batsman in advance and consequently should be banned. They are also very ugly shots.

The emphasis on limited overs cricket generally and T20 in particular is also having a malign effect on bowlers who strive to contain rather than take wickets.  Ironically this often results in bowlers being slogged unmercifully because their bowling ends up as  both inconsistent and poorly executed  as they strive for ever greater variation,  with frequent and radical changes of pace which are generally poorly disguised, slow bouncers and attempted Yorkers which more often than not end up as low full tosses.  This species of bowling is also encouraged by the lack of close catchers in limited overs cricket and the frequent reduction of wicket keepers to little more than glorified longstops.  It is also probably no coincidence that today there is barely a fast bowler worthy of the name and spin bowling is  dying on its feet.  This can be plausibly attributed to bowlers adapting themselves to T20. Because the decline of pace bowlers and spinners has coincided with the advent of  the format.     Genuine pace can be expensive in terms of  runs scored off edges  and fast bowlers are rarely as accurate as fast medium ones, while spin bowlers in  bowl flat most of the time and are found out in  the first class game where more than  flat barely turning deliveries are  needed to dismiss batsmen with a great deal of time for to play themselves in.

In fact, T20  is a game barely recognisable as cricket.   The present T20 world cup has  batsmen displaying stances which must by their very nature leave a batsman unable to react in the most efficient fashion, batsmen dancing about the crease before the bowler bowls,  batsmen playing  strokes,  many of which are wild slogs, which they could never play safely in a first class match. As for bowlers, they have largely served as helpless cannon fodder, something they have  been complicit in by inconsistent bowling which has included  an embarrassing number of  full tosses , many of which have gone for six. Close catching has been rare if not  non-existent.  Add in the coloured clothing and numbers on a player’s back and it might almost be baseball.

The danger for professional  cricket is twofold: that the skills necessary to play first class cricket in general and Test cricket in particular will be lost and that T20 will prove to lack staying power because it has a decided one-dimensional quality, regardless of the many close finishes which occur.  The problem is that exiting cricket does not equal good cricket and that is true with knobs on when a match only lasts 40 overs.  Sooner or later boredom will set in and the lack of quality will matter.

T20 is terribly  vulnerable to  being a shortish term fad. Who honestly remembers the results of  international T20 games or even ODIs as the results of Test matches and series are commonly  remembered?  In my experience few  cricket followers could tell you the winners of  ODI series   or recall even the winners of  T20 World Cups.  The same applies to individual performances.  Bowlers restricted to ten overs in ODIs  or four in T20 cannot produce great feats.  A batsman scoring 50 in a T20 match will have done well,  but it is scarcely likely to be an innings which remains in the memory, not least because so much of the strokeplay is ugly to watch. Who can take pleasure in watching low full tosses hit for six with what are essentially baseball shots?.

If T20 does lose its current popularity in, say, twenty years time there will be a generation of professional cricketers who will have  developed their games to play  T20 and in all probability will have little first class experience. It is even possible that first class  cricket may have died completely.  If first class cricket has been seriously diminished  and  T20 falls out of fashion it is all too possible that cricket itself will die or at the least cease to be a serious international sport.

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3 Responses to The uglification of cricket

  1. Gerald Barker says:

    There are good points here but you overstate the case. The injuries to Ewen Chatfield, Dennis Amiss and others in the 1970s showed that the danger had become more serious – more bouncers were being bowled and the standard of athleticism was higher than ever before.

    Also, there’s only so much one can take of Ken Barrington, our Geoffrey, Chris Tavare, Bruce Edgar et al

  2. Danny Watson says:

    All sports move on whether you like it or not. Test and One Day cricket are far more exciting now than 20 years ago mainly due to T20 cricket.

  3. pompeypop says:

    I think both replies have a point but it’s equally an overstatement to suggest that Test cricket is simply “far more exciting” now – there will be more examples, but from my early years as a cricket lover, try the first Tied Test, the previously mentioned 1963 Lord’s Test and 1981 at Headingley. Which recent matches were more exciting than those? It depends partly on the kind of excitement you’re after or even whether excitement is always the essential ingredient. It is in funfairs I guess but maybe less so in art galleries or churches? In the film “The Final Test” (1953, Rattigan) a bemused Texan senator arrives at the Oval to ask a middle-class Englishman whether they can expect “excitement” to which comes the reply “I certainly hope not”. A caricature of course but in there too an insight into a vanishing view.

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