I write at the end of a week in which Mike Gatting overslept in his hotel room and pleaded jet lag, in which England finally managed to overcome an Australian state side but there was nobody there to see it, when the Palmer Report on Cricket was discussed at the full winter meeting of the Test and County Cricket Board, and when Ian Botham’s rib injury failed to respond to treatment in time for the third Test in Adelaide. Never let it be said that cricket writers are short of topics.
The merest smidgeon of a smile twitched my lips when I read of the Gatting incident. His team so far have crisscrossed the Australian continent so many times that it is doubtful if their body clocks will ever catch up. What Gatting failed to do was arrive at the ground in time for the start of the match against Victoria. This is not the sort of thing we expect from our touring captain, is it? Apart from anything else, it implies a scant regard for the importance of the match. Would he have overslept during a Test match, you’d be entitled to ask – and you’d be right. The answer is no, of course he wouldn’t.
By all accounts, the match in question was such a comatose affair that everyone else wished they’d stayed tucked up as well. But I am still at a loss to understand why they were unable to wake him up. The captain would not be sharing a room: but did they assume he had preceded them to the ground, so did not dwell too long outside his door? Might not he have been ill? In fact, the non-appearance of Gatting at breakfast should have set the alarm bells jangling, and the fact that he would have missed the meal is, I suspect, his biggest regret. For the sake of being seen to wield a stick, the management issued a public reprimand: but privately it was a bit of a giggle, I shouldn’t wonder.
I recall a similar incident, ten years back, at the end-of-season Scarborough Festival, when a T.N. Pearce XI was playing the West Indies. At the end of the second day, Roland Butcher, Middlesex’s West Indian-born batsman, was undefeated, but the next morning, as the umpires made their way to the middle, there was no sign of him. We had assumed that he had been spending time with the tourists in the other dressing-room. I phoned the hotel, and he sleepily answered. Wasn’t he the not-out batsman? I enquired. Yes. Would it, I wondered, interest him to know that the umpires were at that very moment placing the bails on the stumps. Don’t take the piss. Then panic. The upshot was that he arrived late and lathered, went in at the fall of the next wicket to resume his innings, and won the match with an unbeaten half-century. Wisden records that he had previously ‘retired with a stomach upset’. Now you all know better.
But back to Australia. It’s not the Gatting thing that I find disturbing: it’s the response of the public to the match and to others like it. Any one who has seen the vast concrete acres of the Melbourne Cricket Ground will understand what it must be like to perform when there is the opportunity to get on first-name terms with the spectators. It is the largest cricket ground in the world, holding 120,000. Now, however, its major function seems to be as an Aussie-rules football stadium.
The good folk of Melbourne are only reflecting an international malaise. The three-day (shortly to be four-day) game holds little spectator appeal, and even Test matches in Australia – Ashes games no less – which once resulted in international incidents, don’t get the response that they used to. The reasons for this are several. Television plays its part – it’s easier to sit at home and watch the games in comfort for nothing than to have to travel to the grounds. Even in the press box, maybe particularly in the press box, one gets inured to the action replay age. Cost, in some countries, is a factor. The admission to a Test match in India is way above the price range of the average earner. Indeed the game itself is beyond the means of the masses. In Sri Lanka, the average wage is about 800 rupees per month, and a new bat would cost 1200. India solves the attendance problem at some grounds, notably Calcutta, which regularly crams in 80,000, by selling only season tickets which cover all five days. Thus, on my last visit there as a player in 1976-77, the ground was packed on the final day of the Test, when three balls could have settled the match. In the event, about an hour’s cricket sufficed.
But the real enemy of cricket as she is known is the limited-overs stuff. From Delhi to Sydney, Lords to Colombo, the grounds will be packed for the one-day international. In Australia, the Clashes for the Ashes are being shovelled out of the way virtually by the New Year, so that the grind of limited overs can be started. If Gatting thinks he’s jetlagged now, by February he’ll be inert. For ringing in the New Year will be a schedule of up to 15 one-day internationals in two series. The first bout is a quadrangular tournament involving the West Indies and Pakistan as well and designed to fit around the America’s Cup Races in Perth. On completion of this, the triangular and grand World Series begins, with Pakistan removed from the fray and only the fifth Test to interrupt the monotony.
The whole caboodle, it is obvious, is a sop to television, and can be traced back to the Packer revolution following the Centenary Test in Melbourne in 1977, for which daily attendances hit the 80,000 mark. The TV ratings for this were so high that Kerry Packer, the Australian media magnate, reasoned that he must have cricket, any cricket, on his commercial Channel 9, in order to attract the advertisers. Failing to buy the traditional game, he invented his own, bought the players he needed, and changed not only the playing face of the game but the watching habits of the public as well.
And yet, aren’t the public being fed the diet they seem to crave? The fact that they don’t just stay at home and goggle implies that they want the game for its own sake rather than its television appeal. And here’s why. Limited overs is basic, easy to understand – unquestionably there is a different, less sophisticated audience for one-day cricket. It’s faster. And there is a result. Coloured clothing and flood-lights tart it up. That’s it essentially. And don’t they love it.
I am concerned, though. A great many people love ice-cream, but just one cornetto too many and they’d be sick. Not only that, it would be a rather more wary individual who scoffed his next. Yet in Australia this winter, more and more instant cricket is being peddled. Overkill, it’s called. I don’t see the people who market the game as genial Mr Whippies: more as dope-dealers seeking to hook the public on their wares. What they could soon find out is that cricket is not addictive.
There is another much debated aspect to all this. Test cricket still enjoys a great peripheral following. A survey of what the readership wants on the sports pages of their newspapers – the heavies at least – would show that cricket is very high on the list, if not top. In addition, a summer in England will see millions, yes millions, of phone-calls to the Telecom score service. It’s only five years since Botham’s deeds against Australia brought the Stock Exchange to a standstill. People still want to see a good product at this level. The snag is that the game can’t be played to the highest standards on a surfeit of one-day cricket. The techniques are different, and the disciplines. Nor am I convinced that if we had no cricket other than limited overs, the standard there would not fall. Both games require a firm grounding, and that is the reason we play our county cricket – not to satisfy the few who have the time and inclination to watch, although they are not to be ignored. The County Championship is a loss leader, but essential to the overall marketing of the game: for whether it is one-day or five-day matters not – the public want to see or read about the best, and they want a winning side. In England, we still fill our Test grounds (although perhaps not for the final day, where pre-sale involves some risk for the purchaser), and when we hammer Australia – as happened only two years ago, remember – they come in droves. At county level, we had the news that Essex are considering a waiting list for their membership – such is the interest. They play marvellously entertaining stuff at all levels, but most importantly, they win.
It is the job of cricket’s ruling bodies to try to maximise all aspects of the game, and the Test and County Cricket Board set up an investigative sub-committee consisting of, with a singular exception, former players (the great majority, it must be said, from a generation ago), and under the chairmanship of Charles Palmer, in order to look into the state of English cricket. The Palmer Report was presented in February of last year, and it has, as I have said, been discussed recently at a full Board meeting. Broadly, its recommendations were that County Cricket should continue in its present format of 24 matches, but that eight of them should be played over four days, with a consequent reduction in the number of one-day matches – chiefly by altering the structure of the Sunday League, that bane of good technique, to include two regional leagues – and for the top two sides in each to contest a knock-out semi-final and final.
The response from the Counties has been predictable, for while the Palmer Report is utopian in concept, they have to consider what is best in the interests of their survival – in a world, possibly, without Test cricket. Financing the domestic game is their business. So, prior to the meeting, it was announced that, so far from reducing the amount of limited-overs cricket, the Sunday League, with its new sponsor Refuge Assurance, would continue in its present form. A novelty was to be added in 1988, however, when the top four finishers in the league would contest a semi-final and final – similar to the Palmer Report but with only the one league. Then from the meeting itself came further changes: one minor one to the Benson and Hedges Cup, which would lose its quarter-final stage, but also, more important than that, the introduction of some four-day cricket to the Championship for an experimental three-year period beginning in 1988.
This change has drawn a mixed reaction. On the one hand, it is argued, the extra day will bring the domestic game more in line with Test matches, thus making the leap to international level less of a trauma. Batsmen would have longer to build innings, spinners would play a greater part, and there would be less cause for the contrived finishes that have become so frequent. This, it is thought, is an experiment that had to be tried. Some even argue that it doesn’t go far enough, that all the matches should be four-day rather than six out of 22, which was what was settled for, and that the competition should be reduced to 16 matches, one against each of the other counties. Against this, comes the traditional view that the system as it is has produced plenty of good players in the past, that it is suited to this country, with its unpredictable weather. This weather could have more of an overall effect on a shorter championship – although this would be offset by the extra day. And it is also held that it’s difficult enough attracting sponsors to the third day of a game, let alone a fourth.
This masks what I believe to be a fundamental fault in the four-day theory, and that is the surfaces on which the game is played. For any experiment of this nature to succeed, it is axiomatic that pitches have to be up to the test as well. Ideally, a pitch should start off dry, hard, have little grass on it, and should have enough pace and bounce to help the batsman time his shots while still encouraging bowlers of all types – a good cricket wicket, in other words. But here we are back in Utopia. At present, very few pitches bear any resemblance to this prescription. Few groundsmen have the skills or resources to produce such surfaces. There is a lack of decent covers, adequate staff, friendly climate, and, above all, time. All too often, pitches are under-prepared, damped down, and, as a result of constant use over many years, knackered. Many groundsmen will want to protect their reputation, and a four-day wicket will be produced which lacks character. It worries me that on such as these, the four-day will merely become a Parkinsonian expansion of the three-day game.
But there is another side to this. With the exception of Middlesex in recent years – who, because of their odd landlord-tenant relationship with MCC, which owns their home ground of Lord’s, are denied control of their destiny – all the successful championship teams have played on many pitches at home which were specifically produced to help their own attack. Some of these have been unreasonable; some merely appear so because of the quality of the players who exploit them. Nottingham, for example, have produced grassy pitches for Richard Hadlee, who is the best in the world in those conditions. Essex have done similar things on some of their grounds, while if anyone doubts that it is common practice, they should attend the Cheltenham Festival next year and see how where once there was desert, now there is verdant grassland: a fact not unconnected with the advent of a nifty three-pronged pace attack, led by the formidable West Indian Courtney Walsh.
I mention these things, not in criticism of the clubs concerned – they’d be daft if they didn’t make the most of their playing assets – but in order to question why this attitude should change because there is one more day to play. At the moment, by such means, the top sides win half their games well inside the distance. If they know that they can continue to beat sides in two and a half days, they will be unlikely, and would even be unwise, to change their tactics just because the playing conditions change. I shall wait with less than bated breath for the result of my prognosis, in any case: 1988 is some way off and there is a lot of cricket to be played before then. The original Palmer Report was conceived at a gloomy time for English cricket, just after the hammering by the West Indies. If Mike Gatting can stay conscious long enough to bring home the Ashes, and then take England through a successful summer, by 1988 no one will remember there ever was a problem.