A year or two ago I watched the film ‘Death of a Gentleman’, about the parlous state of modern international cricket. At the time, I thought its case was overstated. Despite the creation of a wonderful pantomime villain in Giles Clarke, the film wasn’t the dramatic exposé it promised to be. The game needs to evolve, and T20 cricket, pink-ball day/night tests, four-day test matches, DRS and the overt dominance of the ‘big three’ test playing nations were an inevitability of the development of the sport and the market forces at work within. Or so I thought at the time.
I love test cricket because it is more than just a sport. It is a game with Laws rather than rules. The spirit of the game is as important as the result, and history and tradition transcend what is occurring on the field of play. Words and phrases like Bodyline and The Golden Age are woven into the fabric of cricket, and giants of the game like Bradman, Hobbs, Richards and Imran Khan straddle eras in which the brand of cricket played reflects the times. The dour austerity of 1950s or the carefree abandon of the early part of the Twentieth Century were each epitomised by the nature of the cricket being played.
Test cricket is a novel, and T20 is a pamphlet. T20 has no history and no culture to fall back on. The colours, mascots and walk-on music were designed in a meeting room by faceless executives. As a sport, you get exactly what it says on the tin. Bowlers possess more varieties than Heinz’s famed ‘57’ and batsmen try to plonk every ball into the crowd. There is no significant pressure associated with the format: bowlers accept they may be flogged on any given day, and a batsman might squirt a catch to cover point in the first over, but there’s always another chance tomorrow. In test cricket, pressure is what makes the game. There is pressure on the opening batsman who goes out on a pair in fading light, or the spin bowler tasked with skittling the opposition on a final day ‘bunsen’.
T20 mirrors modern living – quicker, louder, faster, with partial attention paid until something shinier comes along. T20 is disposable. Multiple players move between franchises in the off-season. The concepts of loyalty, building a career or genuine team spirit are anathema to T20, being less important than brash musical interludes, cheerleaders and placing KFC buckets on our heads. Kieron Pollard becomes a star only in this form of the game. We are no longer content to play the role of spectators, watching on the edge of our seats as the drama unfolds. We are now part of the action, actively involved from our armchairs or the stands. This is cricket as reality TV, where players are mic’d up on the field of play, cameramen on Segways chase incoming batsmen for close-up shots and members of the crowd don orange tabards for the chance to win thousands with a crowd catch.
The role and authority of the umpires has been eroded over time. If players don’t agree with decisions, they can have them overturned on replay, with garish neon screens proclaiming to everyone that the custodian of the game is wrong, undermined by the available technology. Where catches used to be claimed and the word of an opponent trusted, we now rely on endless and probably unreliable replays to tell us that the player is lying and the ball really did touch the turf. Umpires have had their horns sanded down, though thankfully not by a mixture of yellow tape and pitch-side dirt.
There are obvious parallels to be drawn with education, where teacher authority and the delivery of a communal academic curriculum plays second fiddle to student choice, engaging activities and personalised learning. We champion the quick and easy route to success (revision booklets and pre-test tests, drafted assignments and the Khan (though not Imran) Academy). We want immediate success and demonstration of ‘progress’ on a lesson by lesson basis rather than the slow and steady build-up of knowledge, skills and expertise. Raucous external stimuli have bred limited patience and if one thing doesn’t pique our interest, something else will be along in a moment. Two of the subjects that have been marginalised most in the curriculum (music and languages) are distinctly hierarchical rather than cumulative, and require dedication over years, perhaps decades, to master. We should relish this learning challenge, where the more we know, the more we realise lies unknown, where embracing both depth and breadth leads to complete immersion. Education is about means as well as ends, just as test cricket is about more than winning or losing.
CLR James, in his seminal text Beyond a Boundary, wrote ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know’. Today, we might ask what The KFC Buckethead Army care for the future of test cricket, but we probably already know the answer.