Skip to content

Neither a business nor a cause

Red Pepper, August-September 2009

Cricket emerges as the world’s first, modern organised team sport in the late 18th century, and is indelibly marked by that early origin. Its fate was intertwined with the political and economic revolutions of the era, and was shaped from the outset by a paradoxical mixture of backward- and forward-looking, democratic and feudal, individual and collective. It was driven by money (gambling) but claimed adherence to a higher ethos.

By the beginning of the 19th century cricket had acquired a recognised set of laws and a national governing body (the Marylebone Cricket Club), pre-dating football and rugby by more than half a century. Crucially, for the first time, the elite joined the plebeians on the playing field – under strictly controlled conditions. Inside the boundary, in theory at least, equality reigned; outside, hierarchy encased the sport like an ill-fitting armoured suit.

It’s often noted that because England’s democratic revolution was among the earliest in Europe it remained incomplete, burdened with feudal survivals. Cricket in England suffered a similar and related fate. For more than a hundred years its dominant elite represented the most conservative elements of the British ruling class – who burdened it with a culture and a link to an imperial “Englishness” that in time made the game seem anachronistic and exclusionary.

The modern era (which dates, in cricket terms, from about the 1970s) has witnessed repeated efforts to squeeze the sprawling pre-industrial game into the space available for it in a modern capitalist society. Twenty20 is the latest of these. Initially the format was contrived by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) market-men with the aid of focus groups. What they came up with was a blunt solution to the old problem: they truncated the game. The idea was to appeal to the public’s supposedly limitless appetite for instant gratification.

But cricket is a refractory pastime and it hasn’t quite worked out as anyone foresaw – either the boosters or the nay-sayers (and I’ve mainly been among the latter). The T20 World Cup played in June was a punchy fortnight of intense competition and a rousing display of remarkable skills. (The Indian Premiere League is a more ambiguous matter). It had been feared T20 would be a crude slugfest and decidedly a batter’s game; but the bowlers refused to accept this. T20 is now highly technical and tactical, thanks to the ingenuity and engagement of the cricketers – who have made it more interesting than the entertainment originally envisioned by the marketers.

The danger is that in the headlong rush to a narrowly conceived corporate modernity the cricket authorities will over-schedule T20, knocking the life out of it, while leaving less time for the longer form.

Cricket authorities harp on about the heritage of the game, the need to preserve its “values” and especially the need to preserve Test cricket. Yet they have been poor guardians of the game’s best traditions. In 1999, they successfully lobbied the New Labour government to take international cricket off the list of prestigious sports occasions (Wimbledon, the FA Cup final, England football internationals) which must be broadcast on free-to-air terrestrial channels. They happily downgraded the national status of the game in order to sell it to the highest bidder. The upshot ten years later is that it is impossible to watch any live international cricket without paying a a fee (amounting to some £240 a year) to the Murdoch-owned Sky Sports. Access to the game is further restricted by ticket prices. For an ordinary seat at a single day of this year’s Lord’s Test the face price was £95.00.

The over-crowdedness of the cricket calender, leading to injured players and jaded spectators, is widely considered one of the game’s major problems. But the authorities continue to exacerbate it. Imprisoned by neo-liberal ideology, addicted to speculative expansion, they do not have it in them to say ‘no’ to any potential revenue source (including Alan Stanford, the Texas billionaire fraudster). They contour the schedule to meet the demands of broadcasters and sponsors. Television rights owners want a full five days cricket for their money, so pitches have to be prepared to last at least that long. The result, worldwide, is too many flat pitches and too little reward for fast bowlers. Thus one of the game’s most compelling features – full-tilt pace bowling – is endangered by the dictates of the market.

Cricket’s governors speak of the game as both a cause and a business. It is neither. It is a trivial but demanding pastime that expresses and elicits a wide range of human emotions – and gives much harmless delight. As such, its provision should be a public service. Not surprisingly, the public service model is never considered by the game’s rulers nor advocated anywhere in the cricket media. Adopting it would require a type of accountability as alien to today’s market-worshipping cricket elite as it was to their aristocratic forebears. It would be the completion of that stalled revolution of the late 18th century.

The ECB and the English cricket media place huge stress on the Ashes as a barometer of the nation’s cricketing health. Yet only rarely in modern times has it been a contest between the world’s two best teams. This year is no exception. As a sporting rivalry, it arouses nothing like the scale of interest or the depth of emotion (for better or worse) of the India-Pakistan face-offs.

Nonetheless, there’s no doubting the distinctive place of the Ashes in England’s popular culture. As the world’s longest established international sporting fixture (the first England v Australia Test was played in 1877), the Ashes are soaked in tradition and memory. For many, an imperial tradition and memory. The link between the Ashes and Englishness was evoked by Sky TV in its Ashes promotional broadcasts, which featured the hymn “Jerusalem”. The ironies abound. For a start, the jingoist interpretation of William Blake’s lines would have appalled the radical republican author. Beyond that, Sky TV is a multi-national business owned by an Australian with US citizenship, a man adept at exploiting national chauvinism through sport, regardless of the nation and regardless of the sport.

The common language, culture and political alignment of the two countries make the Ashes relatively free of the kind of edge that devils other international sporting rivalries. Of course it wasn’t always so: the 1932-33 “bodyline” series led to a minor diplomatic crisis and reflected major social antagonisms. Yet for all the hype about the Ashes’ ‘no quarter given’ macho ethos, in many ways it’s a relatively relaxed sporting encounter.

For me, the big appeal of the Ashes is that it’s a full blown five Test series, a rarity these days. This is the most satisfying, most searching form of the game, as full of plots and sub-plots, major and minor characters and reversals off fortune as a great 19th century novel. But England’s success or failure in the Ashes will not seal English cricket’s fate, one way or the other. The ECB’s endless tinkering with formats and chasing after corporate partners fails to address the root problem, an inheritance of history: the game’s narrow social base.

Seven out of the original 16 named in this year’s England’s Ashes squad attended private secondary schools. This number is obviously way out of proportion to the 8% of the school age population that attends these schools. It’s not about bias in selection; it reflects accurately the skewing of access to the game at the base. English cricket commentators customarily blame state schools and their allegedly anti-competitive ethos for this social lop-sidedness. The fact is that cricket, like music and art, has been shunted aside in state schools as a result of the national curriculum and the overall shortage of funds for extra-curricular activities. Cricket has also suffered from the selling-off of school playing fields to private developers.

I’ll risk being dubbed a snob by confessing that T20 is, for me, a meagre substitute for the majesty of Test cricket. It lacks the varying rhythms and moods of the longer game; the influence of shifting weather and evolving pitches; the unfolding expression of diverse personalities. It lacks the second innings, a feature of the game from its earliest days which permits redemption for batters and bowlers and more intricate drama. Crucially, it lacks the draw. Far from being “boring”, as is often claimed, the possibility of the draw enriches the game’s drama, the contracting triangle of runs, wickets and time. Except when it’s forced by bad weather or a hopelessly dead pitch, the draw is most definitely a result – a complicated one. Within the draw lie shades of victory and defeat, depending on the state of the series, and on who has saved the draw (and staved off defeat) and who has conceded the draw (and forfeited victory). The battle around the draw echoes the dynamics of real-life human struggles, individual and collective. Its nuance is particularly welcome in the context of the stark winner v. loser polarity which, in the era of globalisation, has come to dominate sport and indeed much of popular culture.