Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Test cricket can be boring, and England defeats depressing, but I’m always glad it exists - Wooley

The size of the crowds has been far more worthy of mention than the cricket on display at the Riverside this week. A mediocre England side faced a dispirited West Indies on a wicket sapped of any life, as the Durham board tried to guarantee five days of advertising revenue, and in the process ensured that whatever happened in between those ad breaks resembled cricket in only the loosest possible sense.

I won't test your patience by explaining at length why the ECB needs to ensure pitches conspire to provide some element of a contest, or why £30-£60 is too much to charge someone to sit in the open air and have the skin on their face eroded by fearsome gales. If the ECB loses money on this game, they only have themselves to blame - contempt for one‘s audience has rarely scaled to these heights since Lou Reed made his fans pay for ‘Metal Machine Music‘.

Anyone who attended the Riverside on Friday, only to sit through hours and hours of lashing rainfall (at least those of us watching in our local pub got to enjoy ‘highlights’ of an equally dull 2007 version of this fixture on Sky Sports) can console themselves with one thought - at least they weren’t at Lords. I say this having turned up for the season opener at the self-styled cradle of cricket a month or so ago, fully aware that sitting and watching the rain fall was a distinct possibility, and was told that no refunds would be offered for lost play. The MCC believe, even when you watch no cricket at all, that the mere use of their plastic seats for an afternoon merits a £15 charge.

And yet I love test cricket. Its sad to think that through mismanagement, arrogance and over-indulgence, the five-day game may genuinely be under-threat. Was it really only five years ago that England won seven consecutive home tests in front of packed houses? Was it only ten years ago when sell out crowds were a given, even to watch England (about to be ranked the worst team in the world) lose to New Zealand (the team relieved of that dubious honour)?

When the music paper Melody Maker closed earlier in the decade, John Peel observed that it was something he felt an enlightened Government should preserve, if only for the good it had done in the past. I feel the same about test matches.

It has actually been a while since I last watched test match cricket in the flesh. I have always meant to take this activity up again, but for various reasons not unrelated to the size of my student debt, I haven’t cheered England on in person since 2001. In fact by splitting the cost of a ‘member and friend’ two-person season ticket for the St Lawrence Ground, I have spent less to watch the entire 2009 season of country cricket than some spent watching Alastair Cook nudge his way to three figures on Thursday.

Frankly, Andrew Strauss might be quite glad of that as in the past I’ve hardly been a good luck charm. Although England had already lost the 2001 Ashes by the time I decided to go to the Oval test, some pride had been rescued as Mark Butcher’s impish 173 not out inspired a fourth-innings run chase at Headingley . And besides, this was the venue where Phil Tufnell had shuffled in to take eleven Australian wickets four years earlier.

This time, alas, he was playing in what was to be his final test and was tonked for 174 runs out of an Australian total of over 600. On the final day, however, I was still confident that England (who had made over 400 themselves on first innings) would bat out for the draw. Ramprakash was in form having scored a hundred in the first innings, and he would surely see us through. He didn’t, of course. As Aristotle once wrote, when Ramprakash be top scorer, defeat shall surely follow. McGrath and Warne saw to it that the wise old owl wasn’t wrong, and we were in the car and on the way home by mid-afternoon.

Why was I so optimistic? Madness is the only possible answer. After all, two years earlier, in 1999, I turned up to the Oval expecting England to salvage their reputations and chase down a challenging (but not that challenging) total on the final day of the summer’s last test. Instead, as soon as Atherton and Thorpe were out, England meekly rolled over.

Some of you will remember this game as the one which ended with a baying mob of angry England fans booing Nasser Hussain as he was interviewed by Channel 4 on the balcony. I’d like to say that I was part of that mob (bit of history and all that), but the truth is that we were so let down that we’d already packed the thermos and sandwich-cooler into the car boot and were negotiating the Kennington traffic.

And yet, on both occasions I enjoyed the test match experience. Mexican waves were embraced, overpriced burgers were consumed and fawning, uncritical programme notes were read. There was even good natured banter with opposition fans (something you’re not likely to enjoy watching England at Wembley or Twickenham), and an Australian couple even passed round a selection of cheeses to console our spirits.

Of course, despite the prospect of pass-the-cheeseboard, the rowdy test match crowd is not a place for those of a more delicate disposition. A couple in front of me sipped Champagne throughout the day’s play, placated their very, very bored offspring and, after lunch, announced to the friends they’d bought a Surrey membership simply so that ‘we can sit in the Pavilion when we come to the Test next year’. I suppose, for some people, even a cheeseboard does not console one from having to sit near a fat man sunbathing with his top off.

A test match ground is also not the place to be if you want to watch the cricket. The best place for that, obviously, is at home, where you see the day’s play in intricate detail on television. So why do we come? Sometimes, its impossible to say. Yet, if someone now offered me the chance to attend a test this summer, I would probably go . Although, having said that, in my ticket-less state, I’m glad that the £60 I don’t really have, I still don’t have, rather than having even less than that.

You may have noticed that I’ve yet to mention the obvious elephant in the room - Twenty 20 and, specifically, the Indian Premier League. Surely, these don’t need to be a threat to test cricket. The presumption that cricket fans are going to choose to watch the Indian domestic league ahead of their own teams is not grounded in fact. Given that there has been room for six home tests and ten one-day internationals each summer since 1998, there is room for both tests and shorter games now.

India loves cricket, probably more even than England loves football, and has been crying out for a genuinely competitive domestic format, which they now finally have (although hosting the event in South Africa every time they hold a general election is surely unsustainable). The Indian board want to earn as much as they can, and clearly have an eye on football Premier League television revenues. The players, too, are eager to earn as much as they can, and clearly have their eye on Premier League salaries.

But will the IPL organisers be stupid enough to pay future Kevin Pietersens so much before they know for certain they will help their teams win? I doubt it. Chris Gayle may wish he was still in South Africa, but I’m sure Owais Shah (whose stint as a non-player on the IPL bench cost him his England place) hopes he will never have to go back.

I haven’t been watching the IPL, for two reasons. First, its on Setanta, which I don’t have . And second, it’s the Indian league - I’m from Kent. To enjoy sport, I need to care who wins. I want to have my mood lifted when my team wins and to be able to act like a spoilt primary school pupil when it doesn’t (that’s part of the fun). I’m sure the IPL is high quality, and I’m sure that the players are taking it seriously, but (much as was the case when I watched Real Madrid v Barcelona or Inter v AC Milan), the obvious talent on display didn’t mean that the results of the games actually mattered to me. But, I’m glad for the Indian fans, who will care, and deserve a reward like the IPL for decades of rampant enthusiasm.

Back in England I’m hoping (just like like Premier League season ticket holders pray that Scudamore doesn’t move the key fixture deciding their season to Bahrain) that clear heads prevail within the ECB. Cricket fans want test cricket to survive, cricket boards want test cricket to survive, cricket journalists want test cricket to survive and (give or take the odd big-hitting all-rounder) players want test cricket to survive.

To finish, I’ll quote Gideon Haigh (just as I did in my last article, but then he remains the finest of all writers on the game, and he has a new book out, which you should buy) - “the same boneheads who insist that they must ‘give the people what they want’ are seldom if ever around when the people actually want something”.

We all want test cricket to survive. If it doesn’t, Giles Clark and Latit Modi will have a lot to answer for.


bluedaddy said...

Nice piece wooley. I am not in the same cricket nut ball park(?) as the likes of mimitig, zeph and mouthofthemersey, and of course our esteemed Wisden addict M. Offsideintahiti, but there is just something so right about Test cricket, although in recent years there has been a worrying trend of athleticism and excitement creeping into the game.

Give me Derek Underwood gently looping them in to Knotty's plasticine palms any day of the week.

mimi said...

"Some people take cricket too seriously, others not quite seriously enough."

Wooley: you strike the perfect balance and I'm sure you'll know where the above quote comes from.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your piece, informed and full of great anecdotes – love the cheese – and while I have no idea what John Peel thought about cricket, I have a feeling that he would have loved being referenced in an article like this.

Like you I haven’t watched Test cricket in the flesh for many years. Not only are the tickets pricey, but I also have to factor in the cost of travelling from Scotland. When I lived in Kennington it was somewhat different - a stroll down the round and comps from one or other of the printing companies I bought from made Tests accessible. Now I am dependent on TMS and the Guardian OBO – both fine institutions – and Highlights on Five with Markie Mark. I did, however, attend an India v Aus ODI at the MCG last year, and while it was a great day out, it wasn’t Test cricket and it reminded me how important the five day game is.

While it has been depressing to see so many empty seats both at Lord’s and the Riverside, and early May Test cricket is weird, I think the ECB were in a bind this year. England had to have some Test cricket before the Ashes and this was the only slot in the calendar and the Windies were the only team prepared to come. I don’t think we should rush to judgment about anything – the players, the pitches, the groundsmen.

All we can say is that at least England got the best part of, well 8 and a half days, of Test cricket. Better that than none before the Ashes. And of course they won, which is very good for the mind no matter the opposition. After all, you can only play the team on the field.

We will know more after the ODIs.

You mention the elephant in the room – perhaps readers would like this then?

MotM said...

I'm afraid I go to the cricket for the booze and the company. It's great if there's compelling cricket too, but it's hardly necessary!

Zephirine said...

Excellent piece, Wooley.

I don't like to say that Test cricket can be boring, more that because of the nature of the format, there are times when you don't need to watch play very, very closely.

These are times when nothing appears to be happening, so that one may safely have a short nap or drink or converse cheerily with friends (or eat cheese). But of course there may be more happening than is obvious, and a sudden wicket, or a refusal by the umpire to award a wicket, or a simmering dislike between players erupting into some kind of incident, or a dog on the pitch, can grab your attention back at any moment. So you never know. Sort of like life, really.

Allout said...

Nice read Wooley.

As regards the empty seats in the last couple of matches (those who read my contribution on GU last week can skip over now) I see that as more of an indication that Test cricket in the first half of May just doesn't work. The experience is just so much less enjoyable generally than when it's July and (hopefully) 25 degrees.

There has never been Test cricket as early as this season so we can't really compare it accurately to anything. The last two later home series (against India and SA) proved very popular and the Ashes will be more or less sold out so for the time being I'm happy to put the small crowds down to a one off scheduling issue.

Pinkerbell said...

Used to live a few streets away from Old Trafford, so were regulars in the crowd there and have seen good and dire England performances (the most noticeable being a painful struggle to reach 50 in a limited overs match, against South Africa I think). The thing is that the atmosphere is fantastic and the spectacle is enjoyable win or lose, because cricket is not that much about the winning as it is about the game and the skill. That's because it can take five days to end in a draw, there's got to be more to it otherwise that seems like a huge waste of time and effort. It's also about the beer tent, the picnic and being part of the crowd.

My problem these days is the over-inflated price of tickets and the beer, which seems to be the problem with gigs, festivals, the theatre and most live events, not just cricket. I hope events companies/organisers start to realise this before people give up going to matches.

Ben Howarth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wooley said...

Thanks for all the comments, glad you all seems to like the article!

bluedaddy - i suppose fitness and athleticism have taken over from natural skill to an extent, my biggest worry is that in the old days fat players could also be graceful (Sir Colin Cowdrey) but now they all seem to be biffers like Jeese Ryder or Fred Flintoff. Hopefully, Samit Patel's love for a pie will be forgiven by the England selectors and we will see his louche strokeplay on the test stage... luckily he also bowls loopy left arm spin.

Mimi - Thanks for the very kind comments!

I don't Peel was much of a cricket fan, though I'm prepared to forgive him as he did, after all, make a point of reading out the football scores at Reading festival, and he also introduced me to the band Hefner!
I also think perhaps that I was a tad harsh on the quality of the second test - james anderson in particular made the final days very watchable, and i especially enjoyed tim bresnan's unbridled joy when got amongst em on day 5.
But, if we must have may tests, the ECB will have to price them fairly - Stephen Brenkley in the Guardian suggested that we play them in smaller grounds, and I think that's a great idea. I think it would be ideal for both the obsessive and for fans such as mouth of the mersey, going for a pint and a chat!
Fundamentally, I think its unfair that the IPL clashes with our home season and not India's and I think someone has to stand up to the BCCI. But, the ECB have to realise that their ludicrous bidding system for test matches has to go. May tests have to be played in the south, sadly. Durham - the reigning county champions after all - should probably have an Ashes test.

Zephirine - I absolutely agree!

Allout - fair points, but the ECB should have seen it coming. You have to set the price to the product, and £30-£60 was just too much!

Pinkerbell - I think the 'day out' aspect of cricket is very much different to, say, an FA cup final, even if these are international games. I think you've hit the nail on the head, its an occasion where something great may happen, but tests are also something of a routine. The £60 price tag puts it in the same price-zone as a bruce springsteen concert (he comes once a year, if that, to the UK. We host up to 35 days of test cricket each summer, plus ODIs etc).

I think, fundamentally, the ECB have become arrogant and have overestimated how patient the public are prepared to be.

Somewhat strangely, we need both a large rethink and to a conservative approach that protects the tradition of what already have, all at once!

Pinkerbell said...

I'm glad you explained my point, probably better than I did. I was thinking afterwards that the answer to the question of why people go to cricket matches when you get a better view watching it on the telly is that it's that chance of being there when something really magical happens. It's an amazing buzz when you see your team win, but also with cricket there is the chance of seeing an outstanding individual performance whilst the team still ultimately loses. I had great fun watching Beefy in his senior moments at Durham (well Darlington actually, which seemed to feature heavily in the commentary for the last test mostly because it was where the rain was coming from - deep apologies from the family who just couldn't perfect their rain dance in time to stop its progress)

You're totally right - cheaper tickets in English rainy season would be a good idea, but then again when exactly is that??

Pinkerbell said...

So I was stupidly h=just trying to get tickets for the Ashes test at Headingley, which has gone to ballot, except tickets for day 5, which you can buy right now for £20. Good show thought I. However these are totally non-refundable even if there is no play. So you basically pay a 100% non-refundable deposit. That's an unfair contract if ever there was one. B&%^**ds!

Wooley said...

That says it all! Surely the £20 could count as a deposit for a day of your choice at the following year's test, even if they won't give cash refunds. its absurd, especially as i'm sure there are many people who will end up taking up the ECB on their offer and possibly paying £20 for nothing at all.

Having said that, I spent £20 today on a 20/20 game that ended in a thunderstorm after 23 overs (thus, no result). It was still worth it for a very interesting innings by Alistair Cook - deemed unworthy of England ODI selection - who gradually worked out a way of playing this type of the game, chipping the ball in the air between the infield and the boundary fielders to make an excellent 80 and also for masterful death bowling by Kemp and Mahmood.

Never had the joy of seeing Beefy in the flesh, but his final season at Durham is hilariously detailed in Simon Hughes' A Lot of Hard Yakka. what a man!

mimi said...

Someone else has read a Lot of hard yakka?


Simon Hughes has a new book coming out shortly about the history of cricket. Interview in the lunch break today.

Wooley: do you fancy doing a review?

[shit maybe that's Ebren's role to ask - sorry]

Wooley said...

I could well be tempted!

I've read my copy of A Lot of Hard Yakka, bought at least a decade ago now, so many times its beginning to fall apart.

One of the best things about the forthcoming ashes is a long list of 'must read' cricket books - marcus berkmann's ashes to ashes (can't wait), david fulton on captaincy (definately buying this - he used to play for kent), now simon hughes, which i didn't know about until now and one by alec stewart, which i probably won't be bothering with.

that's almost as exciting as the cricket!

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